How to Reopen a Dissolution of Marriage

By Beverly Bird

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Reopening a dissolution of marriage, or divorce, can be one of the most uphill of all legal battles. It’s possible to do so, but only under some specific circumstances. A court won’t reopen your case simply because you’re unhappy with the outcome of your divorce.

The Filing Procedure

The first step in reopening your case involves filing a motion with the court, asking the judge to do so and then you must serve a copy of the motion on your ex. Some state courts require that you include a brief with your motion, explaining your reasons for wanting the court to take another look at the matter. A brief is a complex legal document, and your case could depend on the legal arguments you make in it, so you might want to enlist the help of an attorney. If the judge who reads your papers thinks you have a compelling reason -- called grounds -- to reopen your dissolution, he’ll schedule the matter for a hearing.

Grounds to Reopen

Acceptable grounds to reopen a dissolution typically include fraudulent conduct on the part of your ex or the fact that evidence came to light after your divorce that would have affected the outcome of the proceedings. These issues don’t have to be mutually exclusive -- if your ex hid evidence or assets, this constitutes fraud and you might not have realized what he did until after your divorce was final. Human error may also provide grounds for reopening your case if you and your ex reached a settlement agreement based on erroneous information or judge did so when making his ruling. This might happen if, in the course of your initial divorce proceedings, you subpoenaed a bank for your ex’s account records and the institution tells you he doesn’t have an account there when, in fact, he does.

Statutes of Limitations

You don’t have forever to ask the court to reopen your dissolution proceedings. If you’re alleging legal error or existence of new evidence that came to light after the proceedings, you might have as little as one year to file your motion. But some states give you considerably more time -- as long as 10 years -- if your ex fraudulently concealed information or assets. Talk to a local lawyer to find out exactly how much time you have based on the details of your case.

Possible Outcomes

If the judge schedules a hearing, it probably won’t be a brief motion hearing. This type of litigation typically requires a full hearing, called a plenary hearing in some states. This means that you and your ex aren’t limited to simply explaining your positions to the judge, a process called oral argument. You can present witnesses and testimony, arguing your case in a mini-trial. The judge might decide at this hearing whether you’ve proved grounds to reopen your case and, if so, order a whole new dissolution trial, in which case you’ll have to start the divorce process all over. Sometimes, however, a whole new trial isn’t necessary. If you can definitively prove at the plenary hearing that your ex committed fraud or hid assets, the judge may award you some or all those assets right away or grant you a money judgment for their value.