Divorce judgments are not much different than any other court judgment.
The judge making the initial decision has tremendous power, but that power is usually subject to review by appellate courts.
Winning an appeal is hard, though. In federal court, for example, about 9% of appeals are successful. Plus, that low rate of success is only among cases that somebody decides is worth appealing. The rate of court orders overturned on appeal is minuscule.
Divorce rulings can be appealed, but it is hard to win
In the American judicial system, cases are heard for the first time in trial courts.
These courts focus on applying the law to the facts of the case. So in a criminal case, for example, the judge will oversee the gathering and presentation of evidence. Then, the judge will instruct the jury on what the law is, and the jury will act as “finders of fact” to decide if the accused is guilty.
Divorce generally proceeds in a similar manner, except if the judge will usually make both legal and factual rulings.
If you are unhappy with the result you get in a trial court, you can almost always ask a higher court to review your case. These higher courts are called appellate courts.
Their review is limited, though. They usually do not redo the entire case. Instead, they generally just review the legal decisions made by the trial court.
Appellate courts will also often overturn a case if the judge makes a glaring error on the facts. If you lose in an appellate court, every state has a supreme court of some sort, but that court usually only decides complicated legal cases and rarely reviews divorces.
Ohio gives a good example of how this works. Counties in Ohio have trial courts called the “Common Pleas Court.” Many of those courts have special Domestic Relations Division that handles all issues related to divorce, annulment, domestic abuse, child custody, child support, and the like. Their decisions can be appealed to the Ohio Courts of Appeal.
Anyone that loses a case in an Ohio trial court has a right to appeal to the Courts of Appeal.
Anyone that loses in the appellate courts can then ask the Supreme Court of Ohio to review the case, but the Court only hears a small number of cases each year. The bottom line is the trial court usually makes the final decision in a divorce.
Ongoing commitments can be altered
Divorce often comes with ongoing commitment.
For example, you may be ordered in divorce to pay money to help support your spouse financially. This spousal support order can usually be modified if circumstances change.
More commonly, issues related to children are altered periodically while the child grows up. People sometimes think of these changes as appeals.
California provides a fairly standard procedure for child support changes that we can look at for an example. One or both parents can request modification of the child support order anytime there is a “change in circumstances.”
Examples of changes include a parent losing a job, being incarcerated, or getting married. The change can also be something to do with the child like he or she is spending more time with one parent than before, or the child has rising medical costs.