Strother v. Strother
In Strother v. Strother, 2015 Ark. App. 196, the Arkansas Court of Appeals recently held that a decree that “does not contain a final award of custody” is not an appealable order. A review of Strother, along with several other cases on this topic, reveals that the line between a final custody order and a temporary custody order is not always clear, so attorneys should be cautious before choosing not to appeal from what might appear to be a temporary custody order.
In Strother, the dad and mom had married in 2001, and the mom had filed for divorce in 2013. In her complaint for divorce, the mom sought joint legal custody, with her having primary physical custody. The court appointed an attorney ad litem, and eventually held a hearing “on the divorce and custody issues.” The court then issued a letter opinion in which it granted the couple joint legal custody, and granted the mom primary physical custody.
With respect to custody issues, the circuit court’s order stated as follows:
[T]his court finds that the aforesaid orders of this court in regards [to] custody and other issues concerning the aforesaid two (2) minor children are temporary in nature; that an attorney ad litem will be appointed to represent the aforesaid two (2) minor children; that Defendant shall be solely responsible for payment of all attorney fees and expenses which will [be] owed to the attorney ad litem; and that issues concerning permanent orders in regard [to] custody and other issues concerning the aforesaid two (2) minor children will be determined in the future by agreement of the parties or by order of the court.
The Court of Appeals in this case examined whether this was an appealable order. Rule 2(d) of the Arkansas Rules of Appellate Procedure–Civil provides that “[a]ll final orders awarding custody are final appealable orders.” In other words, even if an order granting divorce isn’t otherwise considered a final order, if the order is final with respect to custody, then it will be final for purposes of appealing the custody determination.
In Strother, the Court of Appeals held that the order was not a “final order awarding custody.” The Court of Appeals noted that “the order specifically states that issues of custody ‘are temporary in nature’ and that ‘issues concerning permanent orders in regard [to] custody . . . will be determined in the future.'” Therefore, the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal until a final custody award is entered.
In its opinion in Strother, the Court of Appeals cited to an Arkansas Supreme Court case, Gilbert v. Moore, 364 Ark. 127, 216 S.W.3d 583 (2005). In that case, the trial court had entered an emergency ex parte order granting temporary custody of the couple’s child to the father. Four days later, the trial court held a short hearing and ordered the custody of the child remain with the father, and that the mother was to receive weekend visitation. The trial court stated from the bench:
I signed an Ex Parte Order a few days ago which placed the temporary custody in the Plaintiff, the father. I really don’t know where this child is better off long term. I guess that’s something that is going to have to be resolved at a later date. I presume both of these parties want long term custody of this child. I may or may not be right about that. In the meantime I’m going to leave the Ex Parte Order in effect; however, the child shall spend each weekend with his mother beginning 6:00 p.m. on Friday and ending on 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. And when counsel and the parties are ready for this case to be heard in its entirety on its merits thoroughly by myself or somebody, probably somebody else, and hopefully make the right decision on where this child should grow up, then that’s what will happen.
The trial court went on to state from the bench that the order would be “on a temporary basis the child should stay with the father during the week and the mother during the weekends until this case can be resolved on its merits.” The order itself was not quite as specific as to the temporary nature of the order, but did state that custody would remain with the father “at this time.”
In Gilbert, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that the custody order was a temporary order and therefore not appealable. This, however, is where the note of caution comes in. The Arkansas Supreme Court held that “[w]hether a custody order is final or temporary is not dependent upon the style of the order,” and that “custody orders styled as temporary may be nonetheless final for purposes of appeal if the issue of custody was decided on the merits and the parties have completed their proof.” In Gilbert, the basis of the holding appears to have been that “the issue of custody ha[d] yet to be determined on its merits and . . . the parties ha[d] not completed their proof on the issue.”
This seems to be consistent with previous cases cited by the Arkansas Supreme Court in Gilbert. Although those cases predate the addition of “final orders awarding custody” to the list of appealable orders (that amendment was adopted in 1999), the holdings are still informative. In those three cases, the key issue seems to whether there has been a final hearing on the merits. In Sandlin v. Sandlin, for example, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that the order in that case was not appealable because “the main issue, that of custody,” had not been decided. 290 Ark. 366, 719 S.W.2d 433 (1986). The Arkansas Supreme Court noted that it had previously held that “there can be no appeal . . . until the proof has been completed and the order entered.” Similarly, in Jones v. Jones, the Arkansas Court of Appeals held that a custody order “is final for purposes of appeal if the the issue of custody was decided on the merits and the parties have completed their proof.” 41 Ark. App. 146, 852 S.W.2d 325 (1993).
In Chancellor v. Chancellor, 282 Ark. 227, 667 S.W.2d 950 (1984), the Arkansas Supreme Court held, based on the following, that the custody order was not final:
The record reflects that appellant has not yet completed her proof. The order in the present case did not terminate any cause or right, dismiss any party from the action or conclude their rights. By its very terms it is a temporary order. The court ordered an investigation of the respective homes and ordered that a report be made to the court. It is obvious the court did not intend to take final action on this matter based solely upon the fact that the mother may be living in adultery.
This brings us back to Strother. In that case, it appears that there had, in fact, been a hearing on the merits. The order, however, appears to have left custody open until an attorney ad litem could be appointed and could report back to the court. In that sense, the issue of custody was still open.
Based on these cases, attorneys should never assume that a custody order is temporary based solely on the fact that the order is styled as a “temporary” order. These cases make clear that there’s more to the analysis than simply what the order is styled. Sometimes, it might not be entirely clear to counsel whether or not a custody order constitutes a “final order awarding custody.” In those situations, the best course of action is probably to file a notice of appeal as a precaution. Otherwise, the attorney risks allowing what appears to be a temporary order become a permanent, nonappealable order.