After a Decision is Issued
File an Appeal
Basic information and definitions
What is an appeal?
An appeal is the legal process to ask a higher court to review a decision by a judge in a lower court (trial court) because you believe the judge made a mistake. A litigant who files an appeal is called an appellant. A litigant against whom the appeal is filed is called an appellee. The higher court, which may be called a court of appeals, appellate court, or supreme court, looks at the “record,” which includes the transcript, evidence, and documents from the trial court, and decides if the judge made certain mistakes that must be corrected.
Keep in mind:
- You can only file an appeal after there has been a final ruling in your case, although there are some exceptions to this rule. In certain circumstances, you may file an “interlocutory appeal” to appeal the judge’s decision on an issue during an ongoing court case.
- Pursuing an appeal does not stop the court order that you are appealing from going into effect; the order goes into effect immediately and must be followed during the entire appeal process unless you file a Motion to Stay and a “stay” is granted. See What is a motion to stay? How does it affect the order I am appealing? for more information.
- You cannot introduce new evidence when you appeal your case to a higher court. The higher court only looks at what was said and done in the trial court.
What are some important words and phrases that I need to know as I start the appeals process?
Below we give the definitions to some key words and phrases that you will need to understand if you begin the appeals process. As you read the rest of this section, you may want to refer back to this question if you come across an unfamiliar word.
Appeal: The process of asking a higher court to review a trial court decision for possible mistakes.
Appellant: The party (litigant) who files an appeal seeking to reverse (overturn) the trial court’s decision.
Appellee: The party (litigant) who won in the trial court, also known as the lower court, and will be defending that decision in the appellate court.
Brief: Document filed in the appellate court that states the litigant’s legal reasons (arguments) for why the appeal should be granted or not granted. The appellant is allowed to file two briefs, the appellee only files one:
- First, the appellant files an opening brief arguing that the trial court made mistakes that the appeals court should correct;
- Second, the appellee files a brief responding to the appellant’s arguments and explaining why the trial court’s decision was correct and should be kept (“affirmed”) by the appeals court; and
- Third, the appellant can file a “reply” brief that responds to the counter-arguments in appellee’s brief.
Case law: Law formed by judges’ decisions in other court cases in your state. Generally, case law that comes from a court that is higher than your appellate court is called “precedent” and the judges in your appellate court are supposed to follow those rulings when making their decision related to similar facts. In larger states with multiple appellate courts, it’s possible that case law will come from other courts that are not above your court – in this case, it’s optional if the judges want to follow it or not but it could help to influence their decision.
Filing Fee: Fee an appellant must pay to the appeals court when filing an appeal, typically between $100-$250.
Notice of Appeal: The document filed by the appellant to start the appeals process.
Record: All the documents contained in the trial court’s file connected to the litigation plus the written transcripts and trial exhibits.
Remand: The most common outcome of an appeal. It’s when appeals court agrees that the trial court made an error and sends the case back to the trial court to re-try the case with guidance on what to do differently to avoid making a similar appealable error.
Stay: A pause that prevents the lower court’s order from going into effect until the appeal is decided.
Transcript: The written recording of the trial ,often prepared by the court reporter.
What should I consider when deciding whether or not to file an appeal?
When considering whether filing an appeal is the right option for you, you will want to consider the following things:
- Time: An appeal can take up to a year or more from start to finish.
- Expense: Appeals are very difficult to do without a lawyer and hiring an appellate attorney can be extremely expensive. (If you are a victim of domestic violence, you may be eligible for pro bono (free) appellate representation from DV LEAP). Aside from the cost of an attorney, there will be a filing fee that is often between $100-$250. Also, you will probably need to pay for the written transcripts from the final trial in the lower court, which can be quite costly. Some states will waive the filing fees and transcript fees if you are low income, but many states do not offer this.
- Outcome: Even if you “win” on appeal, which is very difficult, the most likely outcome will be another trial, called a “remand.” This is where the appellate court instructs the trial court judge to fix the mistakes that the appellate court decided the trial court judge made. You may have to re-litigate one part or all of the trial again in the lower court and it does not necessarily mean that you will win the case – the trial court judge could still rule in favor of the other party. There is also a good chance you will be back in front of the same trial judge whose order you appealed.
- Emotional toll and safety concerns: If the other party is your abusive partner, it’s important to know that the appeals process is very long, which will drag out the conflict between you and the abuser and will create an extended time of uncertainty in your life. In addition, filing an appeal may anger the abuser, which could lead to additional abuse.
The good news, however, is that an appeal is decided only based on the written evidence and exhibits filed in court. Therefore, you will not have to testify or go through another trial at the appellate court. In addition, there is the potential that the court’s ruling on your appeal will change or strengthen the law to help others in similar situations.
The process for filing an appeal
How do I know if I can appeal my case?
You cannot appeal a court’s decision simply because you are unhappy with the outcome; the trial judge must have made a mistake that serves as a “ground” for your appeal. (A “ground” is a legal term that means a cause or basis.) We explain the types of mistakes that might be grounds to file an appeal in the section called What are the typical “grounds for appeal” that judges will consider? Usually, you must also have pointed out that mistake to the trial judge at the time it was made by objecting in court during the trial. This is called “preserving your record.” You can read more about how objections can preserve the record for appeal in What steps do I need to take during the trial to set myself up for possibly being able to appeal if I lose?
What are the typical “grounds for appeal” that judges will consider?
Although it may vary by state or by the type of case that you are appealing, typically the grounds for an appeal are as follows:
The judge made an error of law
An “error of law” generally means that the judge in your case applied the wrong rule or “legal standard” to the facts of your case. This can occur if a trial court did not follow either the statute or case law in your state that is supposed to apply in your case’s circumstances. For example, in custody cases, a judge must determine what is in the child’s best interests. Most states have laws setting forth certain factors that must be considered, typically called “best interests factors.” If one of those factors is whether or not a parent committed domestic violence but the trial judge ignores domestic violence evidence in making the custody determination, you may have grounds to appeal based on an error of law.
An error of law is the strongest type of ground for appeal because the appellate court reviewing the case does not have to give any weight to what the trial court judge did. The appellate court will look at the law that was supposed to be applied and decide whether or not the trial court judge made a mistake.
The judge made an error regarding the facts
Generally, a judge’s ruling in the trial court must be based on the facts that are proven at trial. In most cases involving domestic violence and family law, there is no jury and the judge serves as the “fact finder.” As fact finder, the judge must consider the evidence and decide whether or not a certain fact has been proven. Because the trial judge has the opportunity to directly observe the evidence through witness testimony and documents, photos, etc., most appellate courts will very rarely second guess a judge’s factual findings. Therefore, a trial judge’s factual error is the most difficult to establish on appeal. Appellate courts will generally not overturn a factual finding unless it is clearly wrong (“erroneous”) and the record leaves absolutely no question that the judge was wrong.
The judge “abused his/her discretion”
A trial judge has a great deal of power to make decisions in a case, with the exception of decisions that are strictly about applying the law. Examples of this broad power, known as “judicial discretion,” include what evidence to admit during the trial, whether to grant a motion or request made by a party, and whether to grant a protection order or approve a proposed settlement agreement. Appellate courts respect the trial court judges’ discretionary power because they recognize that trial judges are in the best position to make these decisions. In general, an appeals court will go along with (“defer to”) a trial court judge’s decisions that are within the judge’s discretion.
Most types of errors will fall into this category of judicial discretion and they are very difficult to win on appeal, although not quite as difficult as in the case of factual errors. If a judge makes an error when using this discretion, it will not be a sufficient ground for appeal unless you can show that the judge “abused” this discretion. In “abuse of discretion” cases, the error is obvious because, for example, the evidence introduced at trial clearly does not support the judge’s decision or the judge’s decision was completely unreasonable. For example, let’s say in a custody case, when weighing the required factors to determine what is in the child’s best interests, the judge applies a lot of weight to the fact that the other party’s home has one more bedroom than yours, but applies very little weight to the fact that the other party has committed domestic violence and has a substance abuse problem.
How do I start the appeals process?
Usually, you only have a short amount of time to file an appeal after the judge issues the order or decision that you want to appeal. To start the appeals process, you must file a Notice of Appeal within the time limit required by your state. The time limit will depend on what state you live in and what type of case you want to appeal and may be extended if you file a post-trial motion, such as a Motion for Reconsideration. In many states, but not all states, a Notice of Appeal must be filed within 30 days from the date of the final trial order. After you file the Notice of Appeal, there are other documents and/or further steps that will be required, sometimes called “perfecting the appeal,” and often these further steps will have deadlines. Examples of those additional steps are explained in The typical steps in the appeals process. If at all possible, you should consult with an attorney in your state about what these steps and deadlines are. If you are not able to talk to an attorney, many states have excellent appellate guides for unrepresented litigants on their judiciary websites that provide this information.
Do I need a lawyer to appeal my case?
It is possible to file an appeal on your own, but it is generally a complicated procedure that involves written arguments (briefs) and technical rules of law. It is very hard to do without a lawyer. If you do decide to file an appeal on your own, you may want to talk to a lawyer for advice as you plan your strategy. You should also check your state’s judiciary website to see if there are resources for unrepresented (pro se) litigants. Often these websites will have pro se guides for the appeals process. For legal help, you can go to our Finding a Lawyer page, although you may have to call many places to find one that does appeals.
There is also an organization called DV LEAP, which takes civil appeal cases involving domestic violence or child abuse. This generally includes restraining orders, custody, divorce, or other civil cases. You can see their application form on the DV LEAP website. For other appeals organizations, please see our National Organizations - Appeals page.
What is a motion to stay? How does it affect the order I am appealing?
When you file to appeal a judge’s order, the act of filing the appeal does not stop the court order that you are appealing from going into effect. The only way that the order would not go into effect immediately is to file a post-trial motion called a Motion to Stay and for the judge to grant a “stay,” which prevents the original order from taking effect while the appeal is going on.
States may each have their own standards for when a stay will be granted but, generally, it is difficult to obtain a stay. For example, in Washington, D.C., a Motion to Stay must show: 1. that your appeal is likely to succeed; 2. that you will suffer irreparable harm if the stay is not granted and the order is allowed to go into effect; 3. that the other party will not suffer undue harm or prejudice if the stay is granted; and 4. that the public interest weighs in favor of granting the stay.1
In many states, you must file this Motion to Stay first with the trial court and, if it is denied, then you would re-file it in the appellate court. It is important to speak with an attorney from your state to find out the specific process, timeline, and criteria for filing a Motion to Stay the trial court’s order.
1Barry v. Washington Post Co., 529 A.2d 319 (D.C.App. 1987)
The typical steps in the appeals process
Step 1: File the Notice of Appeal.
The Notice of Appeal is usually a simple form that can often be found on the state’s judiciary website. It typically requires basic information, such as the name of the parties to the appeal, the court and case number of the order being appealed, and in some cases, a summary of the grounds for appeal. (Here is an example from Wisconsin.) Here are some key points to remember related to the Notice of Appeal:
- When: Make sure to file within your state’s deadline. If you aren’t sure of the deadline, call your local legal services or consult with a private attorney to ask.
- Where: Often, the Notice of Appeal must be filed in both the trial court that issued the decision you are appealing and in the appeals court. Sometimes the form itself will state where it must be filed.
- Who: Before you file the Notice of Appeal, you must be sure to give (“serve”) your opposing party or his/her lawyer a copy of the Notice of Appeal. Many states will require that you “certify” that you have served the opposing party, for example, by signing a statement at the bottom of the Notice of Appeal.
Step 2: Pay the filing fee.
Typically, there is a fee for filing an appeal that must be paid to the clerk’s office in the appeals court. These fees can range from $100-$250. If you are unable to afford the filing fee, you may be eligible for a waiver based on your income. Check with the appeals court clerk’s office or the court’s website to see whether you can apply for a fee waiver.
Step 3: Determine if/when additional information must be provided to the appeals court as part of opening your case.
In some states, appellants must file a separate document with administrative information at the same time, or shortly after, filing a Notice of Appeal. For example, in Maryland you must file a “Civil Appeal Information Report” within 10 days of filing your Notice of Appeal.
Step 4: Order the trial transcripts.
Typically, the appeals court will need to review the trial transcripts, which are the written record of the trial. It is the appellant’s responsibility to order and pay for the transcripts. Usually transcripts are ordered through the trial court reporter. Check with the trial court clerk’s office to determine the process for your state. Here are some key points to keep in mind:
- Transcripts are expensive. They are typically charged based on the number of pages, and therefore the cost is determined by the length of the trial. Check to see if your state offer’s transcript fee waivers based on income eligibility. If so, you will need to complete the required forms to request the waiver, which often includes a financial statement that proves your income.
- Check with the trial court and/or the appellate court clerk about any deadlines related to the transcripts. Often there is a deadline for when the transcripts must be requested (and paid for), usually based on the date the Notice of Appeal is filed. For example, you may have to request the transcripts within 14 days of filing the Notice of Appeal. If your state has a deadline for when the transcripts must be prepared and they will not be ready in time, you will need to file a motion in the appeals court asking for an extension of the deadline and stating why you will not have the transcripts on time – for example, if the court reporter can’t complete the transcripts by the deadline.
- Check with the appellate court as to whether you need to file any paperwork confirming that you have ordered the transcripts.
- Check with the appellate court to ask if you must provide a copy of the transcript to the appellee. Typically, the trial court reporter (“court stenographer”) or whoever is preparing the transcripts will send the original directly to the trial court to be included in the record. However, often the appellant will be responsible for sending a copy of the transcript to the appellee.
Step 5: Confirm that the record has been transferred to the appellate court.
The trial court clerk will typically put together the “record,” usually after the transcripts are completed, and send it to the appeals court. The record includes all of the documents connected to your case, including the transcripts. While it is usually the lower court’s responsibility to ensure that the record is transferred, it is a good idea for you to contact the appellate court clerk’s office to check on the status of the transfer. In many states, the transfer of the record from the lower court to the appellate court is what triggers the start of the “briefing schedule,” explained below in Step 7.
Step 6: Determine what must be filed with your brief.
In most states, the appellant’s brief must include select portions of the record that support your position to make it easier for the appeals court to determine whether or not it agrees with your arguments. It could be included as attachments (“exhibits”) to the brief itself or you may have to put it in a separate document that gets filed along with the brief. In Maryland, for example, the brief must be accompanied by a “record extract,” which includes photocopies of transcript excerpts and exhibits that support your arguments. In Massachusetts, this is called a “record appendix,” and the brief must also include an attachment (“addendum”) with copies of the order being appealed and other relevant documents. Most appellate court websites have guides that will help you identify the particular requirements in your state. For example, the website for Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals includes a guide for self-represented litigants in Maryland.
Step 7: Determine when your brief must be filed.
You should receive a written notice giving you the deadlines for your briefs and the other party’s briefs, often called a briefing schedule. If you did not, contact the appellate court clerk to ask for one. Different states have different timelines for when appellate briefs are due, as well as different events that would start (trigger) the timing. In many states, the transfer of the record to the appellate court starts the timing. Typically, once the timing is triggered, the appellate court will send the parties a briefing schedule laying out the deadlines for each brief.
Many states, although not all, use the following schedule:
- The appellant has 30 days from the triggering event to file the “opening brief.”
- The appellee has 30 days from the time the opening brief is filed to file his/her brief.
- The appellant has 15 days from the date the appellee’s brief is filed to file a reply brief.
The appellate court’s rules, which are usually available on the court’s website, should lay out the timing requirements of the briefing schedule for your state. Many appellate courts have helpful guides that will direct self-represented litigants to the correct rules.
Step 8: Check the length and formatting requirements for the brief.
Most appellate courts have strict rules about how long each type of brief can be and will have either a page limit or word limit. You should also check if there are any specific formatting requirements, such as font type and size. If you are unable to find these rules on the appellate court’s website, call the clerk.
Step 9: Write your brief.
As explained in Step 7 and Step 8, every state has its own specific requirements for the appellate brief. It is extremely important to consult the appellate court’s website for the relevant rules, sample briefs, and any other guidance to make sure that your brief follows all of the requirements and won’t be rejected. In addition to the specific requirements set forth in the appellate court’s rules, here are some other tips to keep in mind:
- Generally, an appellant’s first brief (“opening brief”) will require:
- a description or list of the errors you believe the trial court made;
- a statement of the facts of the case that would be necessary for the appellate court judges to understand your arguments. The facts must have been presented during trial or at some point during the litigation; they cannot reference new information. If possible, there should be a reference to the specific parts of the record that establish the facts, which usually would be written in parenthesis after each fact. For example, “The Appellee admitted to placing a GPS on the Appellant’s car (transcript p. 74, lines 23-24);”
- your arguments explaining why and how the trial court made each error your appeal is based on, supported by citations to relevant case law;
- a concluding request that the appellate court overturn (“vacate”) the trial court’s order.
- An appellee’s brief generally will require:
- a counter-statement of facts that would be necessary for the court to understand the appellee’s arguments as to why the trial court’s decision was correct. The facts must be supported by references to the record as shown above;
- the appellee’s arguments explaining how each of the appellant’s arguments is incorrect and why the trial court’s decision is correct, supported by citations to the relevant case law;
- a concluding request that the appellate court agree with (“affirm”) the trial court’s order.
- An appellant’s reply brief, if the appellant chooses to file one, will require:
- any additional facts necessary to address the appellee’s arguments;
- your arguments responding to the appellee’s arguments but without repeating arguments from your opening brief, if possible.
Some appellate courts’ websites provide sample appellate briefs, which can be very helpful if you are attempting to write a brief on your own. If you are attempting to find case law on your own, there is a public site called Google Scholar, which allows someone to do case law by searching for phrases that might come up in other cases. There may be state-specific resources as well, such as The People’s Law Library of Maryland. (WomensLaw is not affiliated with either of these websites and cannot vouch for the information you may find on them.)
Other options instead of an appeal
What is a Motion to Amend or Motion to Modify?
Instead of appealing, in some cases, you may be able to request a change (modification) of the court order by filing a Motion to Amend or Motion to Modify. To request a modification of a court order, you will likely need to show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that has happened since the order was issued. You will need to go back to the court where your order was issued and file modification forms. There will probably be a new hearing on the issue. You may also want to consult with an attorney to see if filing for a modification is appropriate under the circumstances of your case. If you are trying to modify a custody order, you can see general information about modifying a custody order at Changing a final custody order, or find state-specific information by selecting your state from the dropdown menu at same link.
What is a Motion for Reconsideration?
After trial, there are several types of motions that can be filed to address possible trial errors. You may want to consult with an attorney to see if any of these options may work better in your situation than filing an appeal. Depending on the type of motion, there are often short filing deadlines for these motions. The most common type of post-trial motion is a Motion for Reconsideration in which you are asking the judge to reconsider his/her ruling and change one specific part of the court order or the court’s overall ruling. Depending on your state’s laws, a Motion for Reconsideration may be an option in the following situations:
- when you believe the judge did not consider or properly examine certain evidence or correctly apply the law; or
- when new evidence is available that you were not able to present before the judge made a decision.
One way that a Motion for Reconsideration may have a negative effect, however, is that if the judge rules against you, s/he may use it as an opportunity to make the ruling harder to appeal by strengthening his/her factual findings or legal analysis against your position. For more information, see our Motions for Reconsideration section.
Motions for Reconsideration
What is a Motion for Reconsideration?
After a trial, there are several types of motions that can be filed to address possible trial errors. The most common type of post-trial motion is a Motion for Reconsideration in which you are asking the judge to reconsider his/her ruling and change one specific part of the court order or the court’s overall ruling. Depending on your state’s laws, a Motion for Reconsideration may be an option in the following situations:
- when you believe the judge did not consider or properly examine certain evidence or correctly apply the law; or
- when new evidence is available that you were not able to present before the judge made a decision.
If you are considering also filing an appeal, however, talk to a lawyer about the pros and cons of filing a Motion for Reconsideration first. If the judge rules against you on your motion, s/he may use it as an opportunity to make the ruling harder to appeal by strengthening his/her factual findings or legal analysis against your position. For more information about appeals, see our File an Appeal section.
When do I file a Motion for Reconsideration?
The deadline to file a Motion for Reconsideration will be a certain period of time after the judge has issued the order that you would like to have reconsidered or after you are served with the order, often between 14 and 30 days. You may want to speak with a lawyer in your state about the time line to file a motion. Usually filing a Motion for Reconsideration will suspend the deadline for filing a Notice of Appeal, and the “clock” won’t start until the trial court judge decides the motion. It is important to confirm with a lawyer in your state whether this is true in your state.
What will a judge consider in a Motion for Reconsideration?
The exact factors a judge will consider when deciding whether to grant your Motion for Reconsideration will depend on your state’s laws. Generally, a judge will consider factors such as whether:
- there is new evidence that is significant to the legal issue and was not available when the case ended, despite your best efforts to get that evidence;
- the final decision was made after an incorrect interpretation of the law or the law has changed since the judge made his/her final decision; and
- denying the Motion for Reconsideration will result in an obvious injustice.
These are general examples of what a judge may consider and may not be the specific factors in your state. You will want to contact a lawyer to find out what state laws apply to your situation.
Collecting a Judgment
If I win my case and get a money judgment, when will the defendant pay me?
Depending on the defendant’s financial situation, it can be very difficult to collect a judgment. Some people do not work or have assets and are not able to pay judgments. Other defendants may have the money but refuse to pay it out of spite or for other reasons. A judgment is really just a piece of paper that serves as judicial recognition that this person owes you this amount of money. Unfortunately, just because the judge awarded you a money judgment does not mean that the defendant is immediately going to pay the amount owed. That might happen, but more often, the person with the money judgment will have to take steps to enforce that judgment to force the defendant to pay.
If the defendant has money or other assets, you may want to talk to a lawyer in your state or territory to see what the process is in your jurisdiction. Here are some steps you may be able to take to try and collect (enforce) your judgment:
- In some states, one of the first steps you could take is to file the judgment with the clerk in your jurisdiction. A judgment that is on file will show up on the defendant’s record if s/he tries to buy or sell a house, take out a loan, buy a car, etc. Having a judgment on their record will encourage some people to pay off the judgment. However, not every state allows a person to file the judgment with the clerk.
- If you do not know where the defendant works or what assets s/he might have, some states allow you to serve a set of questions onto the defendant regarding his/her finances. This might be called an information subpoena, a written interrogatory, or something else. Once served, a defendant must complete the questions and provide information about his/her financial status. If s/he does not complete the questions, it might be possible to ask the court to punish him/her for failing to respond.
- You might be able to take additional steps to collect on the judgment. If you know where the defendant works or has a bank account, then it might be possible to garnish the defendant’s wages or take (seize) his/her assets. This process can be complicated depending on the rules in your state. In some states, you may be able to contact the sheriff, marshal, or the constable in your area to see if s/he might be able to assist you with this process. In other states, a judge has to specifically order wage garnishments or asset recovery before that method of collecting a judgment can be used.
However, sometimes none of these are possible because of the defendant’s poor financial situation. A person who cannot pay a judgment is referred to as “judgment-proof” because s/he does not have wages that can be garnished, a bank account or tax refund that can be accessed, or other ways to pay off a judgment. If the person you are thinking about suing is judgment-proof, you may want to think about whether or not the cost and stress of bringing a lawsuit will be worth it when you may not be able to collect on any judgment you might receive.