When Is My Family Law Case Over?

Individuals going through a family law case usually want their case to be completed as soon as possible. The emotional and financial burden of these cases can take a toll.

Family law cases (including but not limited to divorce, custody, child support, adoptions, paternity cases and other domestic relations matters) can typically only resolve one of four ways once they begin:

(1) The parties enter a settlement that is approved by the judge;

(2) The parties try the case before a judge who issues a judgment;

(3) The parties reconcile and/or the case is dismissed; or

(4) One party defaults because they didn't file the right pleadings with the court and/or attend pertinent court dates.

No matter what avenue a case ends, most parties assume that the case ends the day the one of the four items above happens.

In other words, if the parties settle and the judge signs the judgment, they assume the case ends at that moment. Or, if the parties try the case and the judge signs a judgment, they assume the case ends once a judgment is issued. Alternatively, if the parties reconcile and dismiss the case, parties think the case is done and over with the moment they dismiss the case. Finally, if a judge enters a default judgment, most think the case is done the day the default judgment is entered by the judge.

Thus, once of these four possibilities occur, most parties are ready to move on with their life and end the case. At that moment in time, many are in a rush to close their file, have any money left in the lawyer's trust account refunded and the case file closed forever with the courts and the law firm's office.  Obviously, this makes perfect sense to those going through a family law matter. This is not an enjoyable experience for most.

However, under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 75.01, a judgment is not final until thirty days after it has been entered by the Court:

"The trial court retains control over judgments during the thirty-day period after entry of judgment and may, after giving the parties an opportunity to be heard and for good cause, vacate, reopen, correct, amend, or modify its judgment within that time. Not later than thirty days after entry of judgment the court of its own initiative may order a new trial for any reason for which it might have granted a new trial on motion of a party, and every order granting a new trial shall specify the grounds therefor. After the filing of notice of appeal and before the filing of the record on appeal in the appellate court, the trial court, after the expiration of such thirty-day period, may still vacate, amend or modify its judgment upon stipulation of the parties accompanied by a withdrawal of the appeal. The thirty-day period after entry of judgment for granting a new trial of the court's own initiative is not shortened by the filing of a notice of appeal but is terminated when the record on appeal is filed in the appellate court."

The law in Illinois in 735 ILCS 5/2-1203 is very similar.  In other words, when a judgment is entered, this does not mean the case is done at that moment. Instead, the case is not done until this thirty day period passes.  The court could amend, modify, retry, or vacate the judgment if a motion was filed or upon the judge's own initiative.  These motions, including motions for new trial, generally are to be heard and ruled on within ninety days are else they are deemed denied.  In Kansas, there is a 28-deadline for these post-trial motions under KS Stat § 60-259.

To give some examples:

  • One party might not be happy with the trial result and may seek to file a motion to amend the judgment or for a new trial and then, ultimately, appeal the judgment if the motion is denied.  (Note that timelines on filing a notice of appeal are critical and any party should consult with an attorney immediately regarding the timeline in which to appeal.)
  • A party who defaults might decide to set aside the default judgment citing some kind of justifiable cause, which can take place after this thirty-day period.
  • A party who settles the case, might try to set aside the settlement agreement citing some kind of alleged good cause and meritorious defense.
  • A party who dismissed their divorce, might change their mind and try to re-open the case if the reconciliation efforts do not succeed.

Beyond motions filed with the trial court judge, one party might choose to appeal the family court decision to the appropriate court of appeals.  If that happens, the case continues through an appeals process.  This can take months, if not considerably longer, and require substantial work to complete.

Apart from the above, there can also be other matters that must be completed before a case is over.  Some examples (and this list is not all-inclusive) includes changing title on real and personal property, making sure Qualified Domestic Relations Orders and/or assignments are completed, wage withholding orders filed and other necessary matters.

In sum, while parties are often in a rush to have their case is over, the reality is that the case does not end the day the judge signs a judgment.  To hear more on this topic, you can listen to our podcast titled: When Is My Case Done?