I’m Dissatisfied with the Trial Court’s Decision – What Can I Do?

The trial court judge issued a final judgment in your dissolution of marriage case disposing of all outstanding issues between you and your former spouse.  However, you are unhappy with the judgment for any number of reasons.  Perhaps you are disappointed that the court awarded you and your former spouse joint custody of your children rather than awarding you sole custody.  Perhaps you feel that the judge incorrectly adopted your former spouse’s position on the valuation of your business, residence, or piece of real estate.  Or perhaps the court awarded you maintenance (formerly known as alimony) for a shorter duration than you believe you were entitled to.  What can you do?

One option is to file an appeal with the reviewing court.  An attorney specializing in appellate law will be able to assist you.  An appeal is a formal request that a higher court review the lower court’s decision.  In Illinois, a party generally files an appeal first with the Illinois Appellate Court.  If you are the party bringing the appeal and challenging the court’s decision, you are referred to as the appellant.  If you are the party defending the appeal, you are referred to as the appellee.  However, if both parties are dissatisfied with the judgment, both parties may simultaneously appeal the judgment, which is called a cross-appeal.

What is the process of an appeal in an Illinois state court?

Generally, within 30 days of the final judgment, the appellant files a notice of appeal indicating his or her desire to appeal the decision.  The appellant then files a docketing statement, which generally informs the other side and the court what it is being appealed and the basis for the appeal.  Next, the appellant compiles the record, which consists of the common law record (i.e., all of the pleadings filed and orders entered in the case) and the report of proceedings (i.e., all of the relevant transcripts of court hearing and trial testimony).  Finally, the appellant drafts a brief, not to exceed 50 pages, outlining the reasons the trial court’s judgment was erroneous.  Occasionally, the reviewing court may grant a party’s request for oral arguments, in which case both parties’ attorneys appear before the reviewing court and set forth their respective positions.

Will I get a chance to testify?

No.  The appeal is limited to the record made in the trial court.  As a result, the reviewing court does not hear any testimony or receive any additional evidence.  Rather, the reviewing court bases its decision solely on the record, on appeal, the parties’ briefs, and oral argument by the attorneys, if the court decides to schedule one.

Will the reviewing court look at my case anew?

It depends.  The reviewing court gives deference to the trial court on issues of witness credibility, factual determinations, weight of the evidence, and the like.  However, the reviewing court reviews questions of law, such as the interpretation of a statute or a contract (such as a premarital agreement or marital settlement agreement), without any deference to the lower court’s findings.  In other words, the level of scrutiny the reviewing court will apply depends on the issues raised in the appeal.

When will the reviewing court make a decision?

It varies.  If the appeal involves an issue of child custody, it is placed on an accelerated schedule.  As a result, the briefs are completed and submitted to the court on a comparatively shorter timeline than appeals that do not address issues related to child custody.  Also, in custody cases, the appellate court is to issue its decision within 150 days after the filing of the notice of appeal.  However, if the appeal does not involve an issue of child custody, there is no set time by which the court will make its decision.  It could take a few months or longer than a year.

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