Finally, the Judge's Decision

Your lawyer may call to tell you about the decision, or he may just mail it to you. Read the decision carefully, then read it again. Write down your questions and concerns, and then schedule a meeting with your lawyer. You should meet within a week of getting the decision because there are time limits on challenging it, often thirty days from receipt of the order. The judge's decision will usually be in three parts: the findings of fact, the conclusions of law, and the order.

Findings of Fact

In findings of fact, a judge makes decisions about facts contested at a trial. These findings reflect which party the judge found credible, which witnesses the judge believed and what evidence the judge relied on in making her decision. Sometimes when two competing experts present evidence, a judge will rely on the evidence she understands better. When witnesses present very different values for something, such as a business, a judge is likely to select a value somewhere in between. If you and your spouse do a lot of mudslinging and foster care isn't an option for your children, a judge will have to decide which of you is the lesser evil, and she will make findings to support that choice.

Conclusions of Law

From the findings, a judge will draw legal conclusions. A legal conclusion would be something like this: “From the findings about the parties as parents, I conclude that it would be in the best interests of the children to live with their father.” Or, like this: “From the facts presented at trial, I conclude the spouse has met her burden in proving the parties' home has a 30 percent nonmarital component.” When a judge talks about meeting the burden, she is saying a person has provided enough evidence to support a claim.

The All-Important Order

Judge's orders are derived from the findings of fact and the conclusions of law. For example, say the judge finds that Dad is the one who provides stability and nurturing for the children. From this finding, the judge concludes it would be in the best interests of the children to live with their father. Considering the best interests of the children, the judge issues an order saying something like this: “Dad is granted (or awarded) sole physical custody of the children.”

When the findings, conclusions, and order are stated separately, you can follow a judge's thinking pretty easily, even if you disagree with it. In some courts, a judge prepares a document called Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgment, and Judgment and Decree. In such a document, findings and conclusions are combined in one portion, and the order simply says “Let Judgment Be Entered Accordingly.” This means you and your lawyer have to go through the findings to make sure the judge got the facts right, then review those same findings to ascertain the legal conclusions. This is pretty confusing, and it's why you hired that good divorce lawyer.

In some courts, after a judge makes a decision, she directs one of the lawyers to prepare the judgment and decree based on the judge's findings and conclusions. Both lawyers sign off on the document saying it's consistent with the judge's order, but this doesn't mean they agree with the decision. If the lawyers have to prepare the judgment and decree, this lengthens the process.

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