Judges are only human. As a result, they are prone to errors and mistakes just like anyone else. However, when a judge makes a mistake in a family law case, the ramifications can be disastrous for one party. Think of the pain and anguish of a man who is seeking to be declared the father of a child he believes is his hears the judge declare that the man is not the child’s father and he has no visitation rights to the child. Consider too the financial harm that can result if the court fails to classify properly and divide the appropriate property belonging to the couple during the marriage.
As is true in many other types of proceedings, litigants in family law cases have a right to appeal the decision of their family law judge in certain circumstances. It does not always make sense, however, to do so. So what you should do if the judge gets it wrong in your family law case?
When the Judge Makes a Mistake of Fact
One of the easiest ways to determine whether you should appeal your case is to decide whether the judge made a mistake of fact or a mistake of law. Mistakes of fact occur when the judge believes the factual circumstances of the parties to be something other than they are. This comes about typically because the judge will believe one witness over the other, or one party’s evidence more than the other parties.
In cases involving a mistake of fact, the appellate courts grant deference to the family law judge and will not reverse his or her decision absent evidence that the judge acted in a way that no reasonable person would have acted. Additionally, appellate courts routinely refuse to second-guess the family law judge’s credibility determinations since the family law judge was the one who saw and heard the witnesses testify first-hand. So while it may be worthwhile to appeal a court’s finding that the marital home is worth $600,000 when both parties presented evidence it was only worth $300,000, it may not be worth appealing a judge’s decision to believe the other party’s evidence over your own.
When the Judge Makes a Mistake of Law
Conversely, you should consider appealing the family law judge’s mistakes of law. A mistake of law occurs when the judge cites the wrong law or statute when making a ruling or improperly applies the law to your case. For example, a court that determines a particular piece of property is not community property when established law clearly says the item is, in fact, community property has made a mistake of law.
Unlike mistakes of fact, most appellate courts review mistakes of law de novo. This means the appellate court will look at the legal issue with “fresh eyes” and will give no deference or consideration to the family law judge’s determination. In the case of the improperly-classified property, for example, the appellate court will examine the relevant statute and make its determination as to how the item should have been classified. For more information see the article on Can You Appeal a Judge’s Decision in Family Court?
Of course, there are other considerations that should be made before deciding to appeal a particular decision in your family law case. In some cases, it may be more beneficial to you and your children to allow a bad decision to stand so as to “keep the peace.” In other cases, the time and expense necessary to file and pursue an appeal may be warranted given the seriousness of the issue and the stakes involved. If you do decide to appeal a decision, keep in mind that there are deadlines governing when your appeal must be filed.