What Are "Statements of Decision" in California Marital Dissolutions?

Given the 2011 changes to the California Family Code brought about by the recommendations of the Elkins Task Force, you need to know about something called a "statement of decision". This is because many family law cases involving temporary or interim orders now require an evidentiary hearing - or a trial or 'mini-trial' - on matters that used to be decided as motions based only upon declarations and argument of the parties or counsel. California Code of Civil Procedure section 632 governs this device, and it is not available in straight law and motion proceedings. It is available only on matters where there has been a trial of factual issues.

Newly enacted Family Code section 217 directs family court judges and commissioners to hold hearings with live testimony unless the parties stipulate otherwise, or unless the trial court finds good cause to dispense with such hearings. I've written about the Elkins changes extensively elsewhere on this Blog, so please try the search engine at the top of each page for more information about them.

A statement of decision requires the family law trial court to state, on the record, or in a subsequent written opinion, why it ruled the way it did on any questioned fact. They often are integrated as part of the court's "tentative ruling" and often the party or the attorney for the party may be directed to prepare it for the Court, subject to objections and argument from the other side. It is essentially the same thing as a statement of the court's findings and its conclusions on any controverted issue. Judge's don't necessarily appreciate such requests, however, because they force the bench officer to expend additional time to explain at least some of the aspects of their reasoning, and some feel that it is provocative to ask them to explain their reasoning; the conventional wisdom for lawyers therefore is "don't ask unless you fear you are going to lose."

Statements of decision in family law cases, as with hearings on OSC requests and certainly bifurcated or full on trials, are most important as a tool for a potential appeal. Without them the record on appeal may be quite unclear since the appellate court will have a difficult time determining the fact basis for the trial court's reasoning. Effectively, absent a SOD, this means that the appellate court will only reverse the trial court ruling for errors at law - the reviewing court will presume that the trial court made every factual finding necessary to support its decision. This is one of the problems of asking for them - you are saying to the judge "I think you may rule against me and so I am doing this to protect the record on appeal."

There are important rules about when to request a statement of decision. Where a trial is completed in one calendar day or less (or less than eight total hours over several days), a request for a statement of decision must be made before the court issues its ruling (i.e., before the matter is submitted for decision). This means, before you hear the judge's ruling, not after! There are technical rules about how to add up these hours. This will be the typical family law OSC or Notice of Motion situation where testimony may last from 30 minutes to several hours under FC section 217. Until January 1, 2011, these situations typically included only domestic violence hearings since evidentiary hearings were already required in those cases.

The procedures for statements of decision are to be contrasted with certain statutory requirements that courts make and express their findings on the record in certain statutorily enumerated situations, whether or not these are specifically requested. I will identify those sections in the future.

Here is a link to sample forms of statements of decision along with tentative family law court rulings for child support, custody, move-away contests, and more.

Check back for further Blogs and pointers on these subjects. If you have a contested hearing with testimony, and you get the sense the judge views things differently then you do, ask for a statement of decision before you hear the decision!

By: Thurman W. Arnold III