In the past year, there is a good chance that you heard of at least one of the high-profile family law cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. To list a few, there was the decision upholding (most of) the Affordable Care Act, the decision invalidating the provision of the federal law that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and the decision involving the heart-wrenching struggle by a South Carolina couple to adopt a child of Native American descent.
Although family law matters such as adoptions, alimony, child custody and child support can be resolved out-of-court, sometimes litigation is unavoidable—as demonstrated above. And, while cases decided by the United States Supreme Court may seem far removed from the family law matters decided in our local courtrooms, North Carolina has its own appellate courts that offer our citizens the ability to seek relief from an unfavorable decision of a trial court.
To be clear, our state trial court judges are dedicated and intelligent public servants. But, like all human beings, they occasionally make mistakes that result in a decision which may be unfavorable to your interests. Fortunately, our legislature has given you the right to seek a review of their decisions for such errors in our state appellate courts: the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court.
For example, when a father in Raleigh decided to quit his job with a six-figure income to follow his calling and form a church, he claimed he could no longer afford to make his child support payments to his ex-wife. The trial court agreed and reduced the father’s child support obligation, but the mother appealed to the decision to her “higher power,” the Court of Appeals. The Court agreed with the mother and concluded that—despite the sincerity of the father’s religious calling—the trial court erred in ordering the reduction in child support payments where the father failed to consider how he would meet his financial obligations to his children before taking the voluntary reduction in income.
New laws enacted by our legislature in 2013 have made it easier for you to exercise your right to appeal a trial court’s decision in a family law matter. But, appeals do not happen automatically; you must exercise your right to do so within a limited window of time. This requirement stems from the set of rules that govern appeals, which are entirely different from those that govern procedures in trial court. Failure to follow these rules scrupulously could result in the dismissal of your appeal—no matter how valid your argument may be. So, it is important to retain an attorney experienced in appellate litigation to represent you in your appeal. In fact, retaining an attorney experienced in appellate litigation before your matter reaches the trial court can help ensure that you will be in the best position possible to defend your interests on appeal, should it become necessary to do so.