All too often after a divorce trial, one or both parties is unhappy with the decision reached by the trial judge. It could be about property division issues, custody and parenting, support or other matters within the Judgment. Not all hope is lost, though! You have the right to appeal a final judgment of the Probate and Family Court, by filing a Notice of Appeal in the trial court within 30 days of entry of the judgment. Keep in mind that being disappointed with the terms of the judgment is not a legitimate basis for seeking an appeal.
An appeal isn’t a chance to have a different judge hear your case. The Appeals Court doesn’t conduct a trial, hear from witnesses or take evidence. What the Appeals Court does is review the transcript, pleadings and exhibits from the trial in the Probate and Family Court, as well as hear oral argument, to look for a legal error in the judgment of the trial court. There must be an actual error of the law, an abuse of the Judge’s discretion or evidentiary mistakes – such as improperly allowing in or excluding significant evidence.
If the trial judge could have made the decision that he did based upon the evidence properly admitted at trial and there was no error of law, the Appeals Court won’t overturn the decision. The Appeals Court won’t make their own decision on the merits of your case, they only decide if the trial judge abused his discretion or made an error. Factual determinations based upon the credibility of the witnesses as determined by the trial judge won’t be overturned. It’s important to have an attorney who understands the applicable standards of review to analyze whether an appeal has merit. If the appeals court determines that your appeal was frivolous, you can be ordered to pay the opposing party’s legal fees for the appeal.
There are a whole set of distinct rules of appellate procedure and deadlines that apply when you’re seeking an appeal. If you fail to follow the rules, the opposing party can seek to dismiss the appeal entirely. Additionally, the trial court can dismiss your appeal in the case of inexcusable neglect. Given how complex the appeals process is, this isn’t the time to represent yourself.
The Appeals Court maintains statistics on the number and type of cases filed each year as well as the disposition of those cases. In 2014, 25,316 new divorce cases and 31,788 modification cases were initiated in Massachusetts. That year there were 1,025 civil cases docketed in the Appeals Court in Massachusetts, 143 of which came from the Probate and Family Court. Out of the civil cases docketed in the Appeals Court, 778 were decided by the Appeals Court, and only 81 cases resulted in reversal of the trial court’s decision.
Don’t shy away from seeking an appeal if there are errors of law in your Judgment. However, don’t go it alone, seek advice from an attorney with experience in filing appeals.
Until next time,