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Can I Appeal a Ruling on a Family Law Case in Washington?

Posted on July 25, 2022 by Will Reingold

If a family law case proceeded to trial or ended in any way other than a settlement, then chances are one (or both) of the parties is unhappy with the result.  Perhaps one party feels like an important aspect of his or her case did not go their way; or perhaps the other party believes the judge gave them the short end of the stick without any good reason.  In such a situation, one option could be to appeal the decision to the Washington Court of Appeals.

There are some notable differences between appealing your case and making your case to the judge at trial.  For one thing, an appeal is not a do-over or a mulligan.  You do not get to simply ask the Court of Appeals to reach a different conclusion by presenting the same evidence.  Appeals are meant to address a legal error or a final decision made by the trial judge, and your goal on appeal is to convince the judge that the mistake was critical enough to remand or reverse the trial judge’s decision.

Here are some examples of successful and unsuccessful family law appeals, which are sampled to show the types of issues—and specifically the framing of issues—that parties will raise on appeal:

  • In re Parentage of S.F., No. 38073-4-III, 2022 WL 1316280 (Wash. Ct. App. 2022): This case involved a trial decision giving the father primary custody of the minor child, and the mother appealed the final parenting plan handed down by the trial judge. The mother argued that it was error to limit her parenting time because the trial judge did not make any findings under RCW 26.09.191, which places restrictions in parenting plans based on certain conduct such as willful abandonment, physical or substance abuse, etc.  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument because the trial judge never actually found that RCW 26.09.191 imposed restrictions, so the mother’s argument stumbled out of the gate.
  • In re Marriage of Kim, 317 P.3d 555 (Wash. Ct. App. 2014): This was a divorce in which the father appealed the trial judge’s order granting the mother’s petition to relocate their children from Washington to California. The father’s argument on appeal was that the trial judge “abused its discretion because it applied an incorrect legal standard in analyzing the relocation issue.” But the Court of Appeals overruled his argument for various reasons, including that the father was relying on law from before the current applicable Child Relocation Act was enacted by the Washington state legislature.
  • In re Marriage of Valente, 320 P.3d 115 (Wash. Ct. App. 2014): This case centered upon a trial judge’s order of maintenance after it awarded the wife, “$10,000 per month for seven years until [the wife] turns 62 years old; then $1,000 per month until she turns 72 years old; then $100 per month until his death, her death, or her remarriage, whichever occurs first.” The issue was the $100/month placeholder award, which was predicated on “possible future medical needs.”  Ultimately, the husband was successful in his appeal because the trial judge “did not make any findings as to the likelihood or degree to which [the wife’s] condition might worsen.”

Navigating the appeals process can feel labyrinthine—there are a bevy of rules that must be followed before ever making your argument to the Court of Appeals.  Be aware that you need to give notice to the Court that you plan to appeal very soon after an order from the trial judge is entered.  As one Seventh Circuit Judge put it:

Moreover, “[t]he purpose of an appeal is to evaluate the reasoning and result reached by the district court.” Jaworski v. Master Hand Contractors, Inc., 882 F.3d 686, 690 (7th Cir. 2018). The rules of appellate procedure are designed “to make appellate briefs as valuable an aid to the decisional process as they can be.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). Noncompliance with appellate rules wastes time and resources and frustrates the review process. Sanctions are appropriate when the rules are violated[.]

McCurry v. Kenco Logistics Servs., LLC, 942 F.3d 783, 790 (7th Cir. 2019).

And notably, you do not have to continue using your attorney that worked with you at the trial level.  There are attorneys who specialize in appellate law separate and apart from trial practice, and there are some attorneys that operate at both the trial and appellate level.  If you are considering an appeal, or if the other party has appealed and you need representation, contact a family law attorney at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson for a consultation to discuss the issues you are facing.