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Family Law Appeals

family law

In North Carolina, family law matters are litigated in District Court and the ultimate decision after litigation is made by a District Court Judge. This litigation process can take months and, despite you and your attorney having presented your best evidence and arguments, the Judge’s decision may not be the decision you were hoping for. What, if anything, can you do when the trial court’s decision does not go your way? Certain trial court orders are reviewable by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, so a loss at the trial court may not be the end of the story.

The Court of Appeals mainly concerns itself with legal errors committed in the trial court. The Court of Appeals does not reweigh evidence to determine issues of credibility or to decide whether the trial court should have believed one party over the other, so if the trial court’s decision is based upon the Judge’s decision that one party’s evidence was believable and the other party’s evidence was not, there is probably nothing to present to the Court of Appeals. If, however, the Judge incorrectly applied the law, an appeal may be a good option.

The appeals process is very different from the litigation process. When you are in court, evidence and testimony is presented in front of a Judge who makes a decision. For an appeal, nearly everything is presented in written form and the parties never appear in front of a Judge. The appeals process involves a separate set of rules and procedures than does the trial process and arguments on appeal almost always focus on interpretation of the law rather than presentation of facts.

A decision whether to appeal a trial court’s order usually begins with a weighing the financial pros and cons of the potential appeal. Sometimes, what has been ordered is something fairly small (like an order to pay a total of $500) and it will cost more to appeal than it will to do what you have been ordered to do. Sometimes, though, what you have been ordered to do involves large sums of money or involves something that has no price tag (such as custody), and the appeal is financially worthwhile. It’s also important to think about what result you hope to accomplish with an appeal and whether that is a result that is possible to achieve or is likely to happen.

Once you make the decision that you do want to appeal a trial court’s order, it is important to act quickly because there are many deadlines involved in the process and missing the deadlines can be fatal to the appeal. You have 30 days from the date the order you want to appeal was entered to file your notice of appeal. After that, a transcript of the hearing has to be ordered a transcriptionist has to prepare it. Once the transcripts are finished, the attorney for the party who is appealing the trial court’s order has to assemble a proposed record on appeal, which is a packet containing all of the relevant pleadings and exhibits from the trial court case. The attorney representing the other party will then get a chance to review this packet and ask for additional documents to be added. Once the contents of the record have been worked out, it is sent to the Court of Appeals for them to docket the case in their system. After that, the attorney for the party appealing the trial court’s order submits their brief, which is the written argument against the trial court’s order. Then, the party who is defending the trial court’s order submits their written brief. Finally, the party appealing the order has the opportunity to submit a second, shorter, brief in response to the defending party’s brief. After that, the Court of Appeals will assign the case to a panel of three Judges who will read all of the documents and will make a decision. After they make their decision, they prepare a written opinion, which sets out the decision and the reasons for that decision. The entire appeals process takes approximately 18 months.

Whether you are the party who wants to appeal the trial court’s decision, or are the party against whom an appeal has been filed, you should consult an appellate attorney. Because the appeals process is so specialized, it’s important to retain an attorney who has extensive knowledge and experience in this area. The North Carolina State recognizes several areas of law as ones for which an attorney may apply for specialization. Family law and appellate practice are two such areas. Rebecca Watts is one of only four attorneys in North Carolina who is double board certified as a specialist in both family law and appellate practice. She has handled more than 50 appeals to the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court and has the knowledge, experience, and expertise necessary to navigate a family law appeal.

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