Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in Domestic Cases
Two Georgia statutes address a party’s right to request issuance of specific findings of fact and conclusions of law supporting court rulings in domestic actions. One generally provides that “[i]n ruling on interlocutory injunctions and in all nonjury trials in courts of record, the court shall upon request of any party made prior to such ruling, find the facts specially and shall state separately its conclusions of law.”(1) The other applies only to child custody cases, and provides that “[i]f requested by any party on or before the close of evidence in a contested hearing, the permanent court order awarding child custody shall set forth specific findings of fact as to the basis for the judge’s decision in making an award of custody including any relevant factor relied upon by the judge…”(2)
The purposes of findings of fact and conclusions of law are to enable the parties, when appealing a court ruling, to specify the errors the trial court purportedly made, and to enable the appellate court to review the judgment adequately and promptly.”(3)
When setting forth the statutorily-required factual findings and conclusions, a trial judge must “ascertain the facts and … state not only the end result of that inquiry but the process by which it was reached. A mere recitation of the events that took place at the trial does not satisfy the [statutory requirements]. Furthermore, a bare statement of what the court considered in reaching its conclusions is not a recitation of how those facts give support to or what constitutes the separate conclusions.”(4)
A recent example of insufficient factual findings and conclusions occurred in a father’s modification action seeking equal parenting time. The father requested findings of fact and conclusions of law, yet the trial court’s final order merely stated in conclusory fashion that the minor child’s best interest favored a slight increase in father’s parenting time. The order also noted that father had used profanity in email, therefore meriting an adverse inference that father communicated even worse things orally. On appeal, those findings and conclusions were found inadequate, and the case was remanded so the trial court could make proper findings explaining why it had modified parenting but declined to give father equal parenting time as he requested, and to explain the relevance to its custody determination of its factual finding regarding father’s profane email.(5)
Another example of deficient findings appeared in an adoption and termination of parental rights action. In terminating a mother’s parental rights, the trial court conclusorily found that mother had abandoned her child, had failed to provide for the care and support of the child for more than a year, and that adoption was in the child’s best interests. The court made further conclusory findings that mother had a history of substance abuse, had demonstrated an inability to be present to care for the child, had not been paying child support for several years, and had not made efforts to obtain visitation with her child through the courts. On appeal, those findings failed to pass muster, because they did not address any of the statutory criteria for termination of parental rights, did not include specific findings of fact showing that mother had abandoned her child, and did not include specific findings of fact showing that mother failed to provide care and support for the child without justifiable cause. Likewise, the trial court’s conclusion that adoption was in the child’s best interest failed to suffice, because it lacked particularity.(6)
(1) O.C.G.A. § 9-11-52(a). (2) O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3(a)(8). (3) Warren v. Smith, 336 Ga.App. 342, 344, 785 S.E.2d 25 (2016), citing Grantham v. Grantham, 269 Ga. 413, 414(1), 499 S.E.2d 67 (1998) (4) Cockerham v. Cockerham, A21A0553, (2) (Ga. Ct. App., June 18, 2021); accord, In re: D.L.G., 212 Ga.App. 353, 353(1), 442 S.E.2d 11 (1994). (5) Cockerham, supra, at (2). (6) Dell v. Dell, 748 S.E.2d 703, 707(1) (Ga. Ct. App., 2013).