As longtime Monmouth County divorce lawyers, we are sometimes approached by individuals who are not happy with the ruling issued by a New Jersey family court and have questions about the appellate process.
An appeal, for those who may be unfamiliar, is a request to a higher court asking them to reverse or modify the decision of a lower court.
Our responses on the wisdom of this must be tailored on a case-by-case basis, but one thing we try to stress is that an appeal is not a “do-over” in a case simply because you disagree with the outcome. Rather, judges in the appellate division are going to look carefully at whether the trial court judge abused his/her discretion in reaching the conclusions they did. That said, please recognize that family court judges have a substantial amount of discretionary power in these cases.
The Appellate Division recognizes that the lower court had firsthand access to all the evidence and witness testimony. The dissatisfaction of one party or the other – or both – is not reason enough to overturn a lower court’s ruling. Instead, you must prove abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion occurs when a ruling is erroneous, clearly unreasonable, arbitrary and not justified.
Even then, you need to consider whether righting the injustice is going to be financially worth it. If you are looking at economic losses of less than $5,000 or so, you may want to tread carefully because an appeal might not make good financial sense. Where you might be willing to proceed is when the stakes are high and/or when the issue involved is one very personal to you, such as a ruling in a child custody case.
How long would an appeal of a family court order take?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this, but prior to the pandemic, we would have said most appealing clients will be waiting roughly one year for a resolution in their case. Now, we may be looking at even more time because there are fewer cases being heard in-person and a bottleneck of cases on the docket. Once you file an appeal, both sides are required to submit briefs to the appellate panel, which must be read carefully. Then both sides appear for an oral argument. After that, it is usually several more months before the appeals court issues a written decision.
Several factors could influence the timeline. Complicated legal matters or cases that could have a broad impact for a lot of other people may take longer. Cases that are fairly straightforward may be decided more quickly and without much discussion (not always a good thing for the appealing party).
What are the risks of appealing an order?
Even if you are well within your rights to pursue an appeal in your New Jersey family law case, you would be wise to carefully weigh the possible risks.
The first, as we mentioned before, is how much it is going to cost, especially if you’ve already spent a great deal of money. There is also the fact that an appeal is going to delay the final outcome. Although some appeals cases are resolved in the appellate court, others are remanded to the lower court for reconsideration on certain issues. That means that even once the appellate court has issued its ruling, you could still wind up in court continuing to litigate this matter.
You will want to be careful to stay on top of deadlines because you don’t have an unlimited time to appeal. Notice of appeal must be filed within 45 days of any final order or judgment. If you are seeking to appeal an executory order while the case is still pending, you must obtain permission within 20 days of that order being issued.
Keep in mind that while all court orders theoretically can be appealed, those that are issued by consent are going to be very difficult to overturn. As we explained in a previous blog, consent orders are based on issues you and the other party agreed upon freely and voluntarily to resolve your own matter. Unless you can prove you did not enter that agreement freely and voluntarily, that consent order is likely going to stand.
The question of success in appealing a New Jersey family court order or judgement depends on what you want to accomplish. Often, there are several issues raised on appeal. You may only prevail on a couple of them. In general, what you are hoping for is a reversal and/or a remand, meaning the appellate court has concluded that either the trial court got it wrong or there isn’t adequate information to make that call. Often, a “successful” appeal means a chance for the trial court to take a closer look at an issue.
It can absolutely be worth it to pursue an appeal, but you must go into the process with realistic expectations – and a family law attorney who is experienced and prepared to fight for you.
Call Rozin|Golinder Law, LLC today at (732) 810-0034 for a free and confidential consultation.