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Georgia Case Law Update – Wright v. Young

Saturday, December 12th, 2015


One of the most important aspects of any legal action, whether family law or otherwise is notice – namely, whether each part had proper notice of the court filings, including petitions, motions, orders and final judgments. It doesn’t matter whether you think a certain document is “important.” Lack of notice can result in your case being dismissed or a judgment being vacated. The Georgia Supreme Court recently did just that in Wright v. Young. Wright v. Young, S15A0896, Supreme Court of Georgia (2015).

In that case, the parties divorced in 2010, but the husband alleged he never received notice of the final divorce decree. He didn’t learn that the divorce had even been finalized until late 2014 after he inquired with the clerk’s office regarding the status of the divorce proceedings. Id. Once he learned it had been finalized, he filed a motion to set aside. Without making any findings as to whether the husband had received notice of the final decree, the trial court denied the motion, and the husband appealed. The Supreme Court of Georgia vacated the order, citing Georgia law that “[I]t shall be the duty of the judge to file his or her decision with the clerk of court in which the cases are pending and to notify the attorney or attorneys of the losing party of his or her decision.” O.C.G.A. §15-6-21(c). Interestingly, despite the entire case being about whether the husband received notice, the trial court “did not make any findings on the issue of notice” according to the Georgia Supreme Court. As such, the Court remanded the case to the trial court to determine this very issue.

According to the Court, “If on remand the trial court finds that notice was not given, then the trial court must grant the motion to set aside the final judgment, re-enter the final judgment, and allow the losing party 30 days from the re-entry date to seek appellate review.” It is likely that the husband filed the motion to set aside the final judgment because he was unhappy with the content of the final divorce decree. If he is successful in proving that he did not receive notice of the decree’s entry, he will then have 30 days from re-entry to appeal the order. This highlights the importance of proper notice – in this case, lack of notice could result in a four-year-old divorce decree being appealed and possibly vacated due to an error of the court.

Service by Publication in Georgia

Monday, May 21st, 2012

A problem sometimes faced by individuals in Georgia embroiled in either a divorce or a custody dispute with a spouse out of the state or country is how best to serve notice on the opposing party.The spouse’s whereabouts may be unknown, in which case simply hiring a process server won’t do the trick. However, in order to satisfy the due process clause of the United States Constitution, it is necessary for all parties to be given notice of a proceeding. For persons residing out of state, notice must be given in a manner calculated to give actual notice pursuant to either the laws of the state where service is to occur or the state where the proceeding is to occur.

One way of reaching those who either can’t or don’t want to be found is to make use of service by publication. According to O.C.G.A. § 9-11-4(f)(1)(A), personal service must be attempted before service by publication is proper. The Court in Gaddis v. Dyer Lumber Co., 168 Ga.App. 334, 335 (1983), stated “In order to justify service by publication where the address of the defendant is known, or believed to be known, generally it must be shown that service was attempted unsuccessfully at the defendant’s last known address and that personal service was proven impossible.”

The Court in Abba Gana v. Abba Gana, 251 Ga. 340, 343 (1983), noted that because notice by publication is a notoriously unreliable means of actually informing interested parties about pending suits, the constitutional prerequisite for allowing such service when the addresses of those parties are unknown is a showing that reasonable diligence has been exercised in attempting to ascertain their whereabouts.

However, if the address of an opposing party is known, then according to O.C.G.A. § 9-11-4(f)(1)(A), the Petitioner must supply the exact address of the nonresident to the Clerk. If the Petitioner knows the address of the defendant but does not furnish it to the Clerk of Court for purposes of mailing the notice, the judgment could then be set aside for fraud. Stiles v. Stiles, 183 Ga. 199, 205 (1936).

If you are facing similar issues involving service on an out-of-state spouse, please contact one of our skilled Atlanta Divorce attorneys.

By Connor Alexander, Law Clerk, Meriwether & Tharp, LLC

Can a Georgia divorce lawyer testify in murder case?

Monday, February 27th, 2012

A recent article on recently reported how one Georgia court is currently wrestling with a tough a question: can a divorce attorney representing a murder defendant’s wife be made to testify in the husband’s criminal trial?

Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams of DeKalb County Superior Court must now rule on the issue after hearing arguments regarding a motion to quash a witness subpoena for the wife’s attorney Esther Panitch. Though any information gathered by Panitch for the purpose of providing legal advice to her client will remain confidential due to attorney-client privilege, the defense counsel argues Panitch possesses material information separate from her representation of the wife.

Precisely what that information is has yet to be revealed by the defense. The defense counsel said that he anticipates “calling her as a witness… because we think she has independent facts that may be important in the case,” adding: “There is a legitimate basis for this subpoena, and I want to hold out the possibility that we may need to call her.”

Panitch originally served as divorce attorney and now acts as an advisor to the wife, Ariela Neuman, for the murder trial of her husband, Hemy Zvi Neuman.

Her attorney and business partner, James R. Hodes, argued that Panitch does not have any relevant evidence concerning the murder case of her client’s husband and argued that subpoenaing her as a witness interferes with her ability to counsel her client effectively.

The case, currently in the middle of trial, revolves around a murder allegedly committed by Henry Neuman, a father of three, who is accused of killing Rusty Sneiderman on November 18, 2011, after Sneiderman dropped off his 2-year-old at Dunwoody Prep Pre-School. Investigators believe Neuman and Sneiderman’s wife may have been having an affair.

By Connor Alexander, Law Clerk, Meriwether & Tharp, LLC

Residence requirements for divorce in Georgia

Friday, January 13th, 2012

In Georgia, when spouses live in different counties, or if one spouse lives in Georgia and one lives out of state, there are specific rules which govern where the divorce action must be filed. Georgia law states that: “No court shall grant a divorce to any person who has not been a resident of this state for six months before the filing of the petition for divorce.” OCGA§19-5-2. An exception to this rule is that “a nonresident of this state may file a petition for divorce, in the county of the residence of the respondent, against any person who has been a resident of this state and of the county in which the action is brought for a period of six months prior to the filing of the petition.” Id.

If both parties have resided in Georgia for more than six months, the Petitioner must file the divorce action in the county in which the Respondent resides, even if the Petitioner does not live in that county. So, if the Petitioner resides in Fulton County and the Respondent resides in Cobb County, the divorce action must be filed in Cobb County. If the Petitioner resides out of state and the Respondent has resided in Georgia for at least six months, the divorce action must be filed in the Georgia county in which the Respondent resides. If the Petitioner resides in Georgia and the Respondent resides out of state, the divorce action cannot be filed in Georgia but, rather, must be filed in the state in which the Respondent resides.

In Georgia, am I legally separated after I file my divorce action?

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Georgia divorce attorneys are often asked whether the filing of a divorce action means the parties are legally separated. This question often comes from people who are interested in starting to date other people during the pending divorce.

Please keep in mind that Georgia does not recognize legal separation. Therefore, nothing changes about your marital status until your final divorce decree has been signed by the Judge. Until you receive your final divorce decree, you are still married in the eyes of the law and sex with anyone who is not your spouse is considered adultery. Whether this adultery is considered to be the cause of your divorce is a different question. It is important to note, however, that the Judge can take your actions both before and during the pending divorce action into consideration in awarding alimony, custody, and equitable division of assets.

How long does a divorce take in Georgia?

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Georgia divorce lawyers are often asked how long an average divorce takes in this state. This is a difficult question to answer because there is not really an “average” divorce case. The length of time depends greatly on whether the parties are able to settle matters and, if not, what issues they are fighting about. Even cases with similar facts can be very different. For example,consider a case where both parties work, and have 2 children, a marital home, several joint accounts, and some separate property. Some parties with these facts are able to resolve everything fairly quickly and easily. Other parties with these same facts, however, may argue over every custody, child support, alimony and/or equitable division of assets. Even one contested issue can cause a divorce to drag on, especially if it is something about which both parties feel passionate.

The length of a divorce case can also depend on the County in which the divorce is filed because some courts are more back logged than others. Often, there is not much you can do about this issue.

In our experience, the average time range for a divorce in Georgia is 45 days for a completely uncontested divorce to about 3 years for a hotly contested divorce. However, as mentioned above,this time can vary greatly based upon the specific facts of your case.

Recent Georgia divorce case phases out supervised visitation through three month transition period

Friday, November 11th, 2011

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently heard a case dealing with supervised visitation that was to be phased out through a transition period. In Sigal v. Sigal, before filing for divorce, the mother first filed a petition for separate maintenance. Sigal v. Sigal, S11F0835 (2011). In the decree from that case, the mother was granted primary custody and the father’s visitation was required to be supervised as a result of his documented drug and alcohol abuse problems. Id. at 2. The mother subsequently filed for divorce and “asserted that all issues regarding custody, visitation and support of the children were fully adjudicated in the decree of separate maintenance.” Id. The father disagreed and sought “reasonable and fair unsupervised visitation” with the children. Id. After hearing testimony from both parties, the trial court orally announced its ruling, holding that the father could have unsupervised visitation provided that he took and passed a drug test within the next 45 days and provided that the unsupervised visitation be phased in over a three month transition period. Id. at 3-4.

For reasons unknown, the final divorce decree was not entered for several months, though the visitation provision was entered nunc pro tunc from the date of the hearing. (This means that the visitation provision went into effect as of the date of the hearing, rather than the date of the final divorce decree). Id. at 4-5. As a result, the three-month transition period had already expired by the time the final decree was entered. Id.

For this reason, the mother appealed, and the Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the trial court’s ruling. The Court held that “the nunc pro tunc action as to the gradual transition provision in the decree here did not serve to conform the decree to the truth or the justice of the situation as originally intended by the trial court.” Id. at 7. “Rather, it had the exact opposite effect by eliminating the truth and justice recognized by the trial court…regarding the need of these children for a gradual transition period from supervised to unsupervised visitation with their father.” Id. at 7-8. For this reason, the trial court abused its discretion in making the visitation provision nunc pro tunc.

What happens when a Georgia divorce decree is signed by the judge, but not timely filed with the clerk?

Monday, July 25th, 2011

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently addressed a divorce case, which highlights what can happen when the final divorce decree is signed by the judge, but not filed in the clerk’s office.Maples v. Maples, S11F0919 (2011). In that case, the trial court signed a final decree of divorce on June 1, 2000, but the divorce decree was not filed with the clerk until August 1,2002. Id. Meanwhile, the parties, believing they were already divorced, remarried each other on June 25, 2000. Id. Ten years later, the wife filed a complaint for divorce and the parties thereafter learned that their original divorce decree was not filed until two years after they had remarried. Id. Upon the wife’s motion, the trial court amended the judgment in the 2000 case “by entering an order nunc pro tunc to ensure that the order reflected the true judgment rendered by the court, i.e., that the parties were to be divorced on June 1, 2000.Id. (“Nunc pro tunc” basically means that the order is backdated.) The husband appealed the entry of the nunc pro tunc order, asserting that a nunc pro tunc order cannot be used to backdate the entry of a divorce decree. Id. at 2. (Presumably, he wanted the 2010 divorce case to just be dismissed.)

The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the trial court’s holding, “[e]very court has the inherent power – and it is the court’s duty – to correct its own records to make them speak the truth.[Cits.] Where based solely on the record, and without the necessity for the introduction of extrinsic evidence, the court may, on its own motion and without notice, enter such judgment and decree nunc pro tunc at a later date.” Id.; quoting Norman v. Ault, 287 Ga. 324, 330 (5) (695 SE2d 633) (2010), quoting Moore v. Moore, 229 Ga. 600, 601 (2) (193 SE2d 608)(1972), overruled on other grounds. Here, the judgment had already been rendered and the divorce decree signed by the judge. There was nothing else to be done other than file the decree. The Court ended its opinion by pointing out that “[e]ntry of the divorce decree nunc pro tunc to the date of the signing of the decree was advantageous to husband, as well as wife, because it accurately reflected his intention to re-enter the bond of marriage on June 25, 2000.” Maples, at 5-6.

Challenging your Georgia divorce decree? Don’t retain the benefits of that decree.

Friday, November 12th, 2010

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently reinstated a bright line rule regarding a party retaining the benefits of a Georgia divorce decree that that same party is challenging. In Thompson v.Thompson, the Husband challenged the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce, alleging that the trial court erred in its equitable division award by dividing funds and property that were his non-marital assets. Thompson v. Thompson, S10F1231 (2010). The trial court denied the husband’s motions for new trial, clarification, and reconsideration, holding that “he had availed himself of the benefits of the final order” and was, thereby, prohibited from challenging it. Id. The husband subsequently appealed the denial of his motions.

In affirming the trial court’s ruling, Supreme Court of Georgia followed long-standing principles of Georgia law. Specifically, the Court held that “one who has accepted benefits such as spousal support or equitable division of property under a divorce decree is stopped from seeking to set aside that decree without first returning the benefits.” Id. at 3. Thus, if you want to dispute a Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce in Georgia, you must either not accept any support or equitable division from that award, or you must return any portion of the award that you have accepted, before initiating any challenge.

The Court clarified that a party “may collect an award of child support and still repudiate a final judgment, as those benefits belong to the child.” Id. at 3-4.

What is a temporary hearing?

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Unfortunately, it can often take a long time to finalize a contested divorce in Georgia. Often, there are issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later and, in those cases, a temporary hearing is held while the divorce action is pending. Issues addressed at a temporary hearing may be custody, visitation, child support, who will live in the marital home and who will pay bills while the divorce action is pending. The temporary order issued after the temporary hearing will direct the parties how to address these issues.

It is important to remember that a temporary hearing is, by it’s very name, temporary. The order issued after a temporary hearing will be a temporary order that will last only until a new temporary order addressing the same issues, or a final order in the divorce action. Though the judge may consider the temporary order and how it has been working in issuing his/her final order in the case, all issues may be re-litigated at a final hearing.