In California, the right to appeal is conferred exclusively by statute. Code of Civil Procedure section 904.1, the primary statute addressing appealability, allows for appeal from a final judgment, an order after judgment, or “an order made appealable by the provisions of the Probate Code or the Family Code….”
Generally, the one final judgment rule applies to civil cases and provides that unresolved issues prevent a judgment from being final for purposes of appealability. Family law cases often constitute an exception to the one final judgment rule because of the prevalent practice of bifurcating discrete issues for separate trials. For example, an initial judgment dissolving the marriage may reserve jurisdiction over additional issues such as property division, support obligations, custody, and visitation.
If a separate judgment conclusively resolves the bifurcated issues, the judgment is appealable. However, determining whether a ruling on child custody or visitation constitutes a final judgment is not so clear. This is because children mature, parents may wish to move domiciles, children’s and parents’ schedules often change, and so on. Nevertheless, the conclusive nature of a ruling can render it a “judgment” for purposes of appealability even though children’s needs and parental fitness may change.
Finality for purposes of appeal depends on the substantive effect of the family law court’s ruling. When the court has conducted a trial and makes a conclusive ruling intended to adjudicate all pending issues of custody and visitation, the ruling constitutes a final judgment. (See In re Marriage of LaMusga (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1072, 1088.) In family law cases, the question of appealability is often more fact-intensive and complex than in other civil cases. An attorney can help you determine whether an order or judgment in your family law case is appealable.