Long-established law in Georgia had provided that no final decree of divorce or other judgment in a civil action became effective until reduced to writing, signed by the judge, and filed with the clerk.(1) Some years ago though, this State added an administrative requirement to the mix: namely, an obligation to file a “civil case disposition form.”(2) This article explores that requirement and its impact on final judgments in domestic actions.
The governing statute provides in relevant part that “[t]he filing with the clerk of a judgment, signed by the judge, with the fully completed civil case disposition form constitutes the entry of the judgment, and, unless the court otherwise directs, no judgment shall be effective for any purpose until the entry of the same…”(3) The statute further specifies that “[t]he entry of the judgment shall not be made by the clerk of the court until the civil case disposition form is filed.”(4) Critically, the statute places the onus of filing the form on the prevailing party, or on the plaintiff “if the case is settled, dismissed or otherwise disposed of without a prevailing party.”(5)
The filing requirement for civil case disposition forms should apply to domestic actions in juvenile courts as well as those in superior court.(6)
In composition, the disposition form is a simple document – less than a full page in length – containing basic information about the parties and their attorneys, and the date and manner of the action’s outcome.(7) The designated party’s failure to file that simple form, however, can have dire implications.
In a divorce action, for instance, the case technically remains open (and the parties still married), until the fully completed civil case disposition form has been filed, even if the judge already has signed a final decree of divorce and filed the judgment with the clerk.(8) If the plaintiff failed to file the disposition form, neither spouse may legally rely on the divorce decree and remarry; and should a spouse attempt to do so, that person will have no right to petition for divorce and seek alimony after the purported remarriage.(9) Potentially too, the continuation of a divorce action, due to the absence of a filed disposition form, could extend a spouse’s right to file a motion to set aside the divorce decree – for fraud or other statutorily recognized bases – well beyond the three-year period which normally applies to such motions.(10)
Because a court cannot hold a party in contempt of a judgment modifying custody or visitation (or any other civil judgment) for conduct occurring before the judgment has been signed by the judge and filed with the clerk, a court logically should also lack authority to punish a party for contemptuous conduct taken prior to the filing of the civil case disposition form in domestic litigation.(11)
The filing of a civil case disposition form does not impact appellate and certain other deadlines which flow from the entry of a divorce decree or other judgment. In particular, the times to appeal a judgment and to move for an award of frivolous litigation attorney’s fees run from the filing with the clerk of a signed judgment and not from the date of filing of the disposition form (if later filed).(12) The same rule presumably applies to the deadline to move for a new trial too.(13)
(1) O.C.G.A. § 9-11-58. See also In re Tidwell, 279 Ga.App. 734, 739(1)(b), 632 S.E.2d 690 (2006). (2) O.C.G.A. § 9-11-58(b). (3) (Emphasis added.) O.C.G.A. § 9-11-58(b). (4) Id. (5) Id. (6) In re N.W., 309 Ga.App. 617, 619(1), 710 S.E.2d 832 (2011). (7) https://www.gasupreme.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Civil-Domestic_Filing_Disposition Form_Version_1.1.18_Fillable.pdf (8) Beard v. Beard, 285 Ga. 675, 681 S.E.2d 138, 139 (2009).; and Paul v. Paul, A20A0194 (2) (Ga. Ct. App., June 25, 2020) (physical precedent). (9) See Beard, supra, 681 S.E.2d at 139. (10) See Paul, supra, and O.C.G.A. § 9-11-60(d) and (f). (11) Shirley v. Abshire, 288 Ga.App. 819, 820, 655 S.E.2d 694 (2007); Huffman v. Armenia, 284 Ga.App. 822, 826(2), 645 S.E.2d 23 (2007); and Tidwell, supra, 279 Ga.App. at 739. (12) See Horesh v. Dekinder, 295 Ga.App. 826, 829-830, 673 S.E.2d 311 (2009); and O.C.G.A. § 5-6-31. (13) See generally Horesh, 295 Ga.App. at 827-830. See also O.C.G.A. § 5-5-40(a).