Most people assume that once a divorce decree - called in California the "Final Judgment of the Dissolution of Marriage" - has been filed, the terms of their divorce are set in stone. Generally, that is true, but it isn't always the case. It may be possible for one party to seek a modification of some or all of the terms of a divorce settlement agreement .
There are two distinct ways in which a divorce judgment can be changed:
- Appealing the judgment to a California District Court of Appeals
- Filing a motion to modify the terms of the decree with the court where the original judgment was filed
Appealing a California Divorce Judgment
Appeals of California divorce settlements are brought before one of the presiding state District Courts of Appeal serving the area in which the original judgment was filed (or where the parties reside, if the two are different). The party seeking a change to the divorce decree files a motion to appeal the judgment and then presents written or oral argument in support of his or her position.
Appeals of divorce decrees are possible, but they are usually only granted if one party can prove either that the superior (trial) court judge misapplied the governing laws or that the original judgment was somehow tainted by one party's bad faith. Examples of bad faith can include purposely hiding assets to prevent them from being divided by the court or misleading the court about one party's mental or physical well-being (or the physical, mental or educational needs of the party's children).
Even if there is bad faith present, sometimes appeals courts will not allow parties to introduce new evidence at the appeals stage. Most appellate decisions are based on an appeals court judge examining the record compiled by the trial court and ensuring that the lower court correctly applied the statutes and case law that were in effect at the time of the decision.
Appeals are also usually not granted if both parties agreed to the terms of the divorce settlement agreement, even if one party acted innocently by relying on false information purposely supplied by the other. This does not mean that a wronged party will have no means of recourse to escape from an unfair decree, though. Even if a decree cannot be voided on appeal, it might still be possible for a modification to be granted.
Modifying the Terms of a California Divorce Judgment
If a full appeal of a Final Judgment of the Dissolution of Marriage is not the best legal course of action, it might be possible for one party to seek a modification of some or all of the terms of the decree. This is done by the party seeking the change filing a motion with the judge who signed off on the order.
Modifications are not only easier to obtain than having the parameters of the decree changed by an appeals court, they are usually less expensive, faster, and can be more easily adapted to bring change to specific provisions without fully disregarding the remainder of the judgment.
Parties usually seek modifications of divorce judgments if new circumstances arise that could change child custody, child support or alimony arrangements in the original agreement. For example, if one party has been ordered to pay alimony, but then that same party lost his or her job, the terms of the agreement might be modified temporarily to account for the loss in income.
Modifications do not need to be temporary in nature, though, nor do they need to only address a small portion of the original decree. They can be permanent and make sweeping changes to the underlying structure of the divorce agreement. Modifications could reassign child custody, redefine the terms of child support, or establish spousal support payments where none had previously existed.
If you find yourself stuck with a now-unfair or unworkable divorce judgment, it may be possible to get relief by filing for an appeal or modification. Speaking with an experienced divorce attorney in your area is an excellent way to get more information about legal steps to take to change a divorce decree.