Most divorce cases, even those involving complex property issues and hotly contested custody matters resolve at mediation. Those that do not often wind up in final hearings that may go over several non-consecutive days over the expanse of weeks or months. After numerous witnesses, arguments over the admission of exhibits, and cross-examination, most litigants cannot wait to get their divorce decree and order so they can start moving on in life. The question is when should you expect it? This answer to this question is, “it depends”. However, in almost all cases, the court will take the matter “under advisement” and will not rule from the bench and set out its ruling on the last day of trial (but the court may divorce the parties that day on the close of evidence if requested). The relevant considerations to the time it takes to receive your divorce order are covered in this blog.
In many divorce cases that go to trial, one or both trial attorneys will ask for special findings.1 This motion must be granted so long as it is filed with the Court before the receipt of evidence at the final hearing (a/k/a divorce trial). This probably makes you ask two questions: “What are special findings?” and “Why would I want them?” After hearing all of the evidence, the trial court judge can decide your case by issuing a general judgment or special findings, if they were requested.2
A general judgment is nothing more than a few pages explaining who gets what assets and liabilities and what the court orders for the custody arrangement, parenting time, and child support. This type of decision—a general judgment–is often unsettling to the parties because the judge provides no theory for his or her decision. And as long as there is any evidence in the record to support the general judgment, if you take an appeal, it will most likely be affirmed because the Court of Appeals provides a great deal of discretion to trial courts to assess the credibility of witnesses unless there is an error in the application of the law.3 Again, with a general judgment, the Court of Appeals affirms if there is any evidence in the record to support the ruling. Typically, these ruling come out fairly quickly after a final divorce hearing.
Where special findings have timely been requested, the court will ordinarily allow both sides an opportunity to submit to the court proposed special findings. This allows each attorney to work through the he-said, she-said with the exhibits under the relevant law, and lay out for the court who was credible and how it should rule and why. This is a good way to pull together evidence received by the court over several days and provide the court with a reasoned approach to decide the case in your favor. In essence, it gives you another chance to argue your case to the court.
That said, the court ordinarily provides the attorneys thirty (30) days to submit the proposed findings. In a long trial, the court might even allow a longer period of time to submit the proposed findings. The court then considers both sides’ proposed findings and issues its own Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment. In some cases, a party’s proposed findings are so complete and accurate a court makes no changes and signs one side’s proposed findings. With special findings, the court has to make findings supported by the record (the testimony and exhibits) and provide its rationale for its decision. If not, it is easier to obtain a reversal on appeal.
As might be expected, if the court does not get proposed findings from the trial attorneys for a month or more, it is going to take much longer to get a divorce order because of this delay and the time it will take for the trial court to properly consider the proposed findings. Therefore, most courts advise parties it will be several months before they get an order. Ultimately, with a general judgment or special findings, the trial court has to rule within ninety (90) days of the close of evidence.4 It is understood where special findings are requested, the court’s time to rule begins when it receives the proposed findings. If the court fails to rule, on a motion of a party, commonly referred to as the Lazy Judge rule, the case may be withdrawn from the trial court judge and transferred to the Supreme Court for assignment to a Special Judge to decide.
In most cases, it is not prudent or wise to file a lazy judge motion. First, checking in with the court about the status of the ruling is always a better course. Second, if the case is withdrawn and a new judge assigned, he/she could require the case to be re-tried. However, this rule exists to provide a mechanism in a rare case where a court does not or will not rule, all to afford due process. These are the complex answers to the question of when you should expect your divorce decree. This blog was written by counsel at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle all facets of domestic cases across the State. It is written for general educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice, nor is it a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.