New hearing not required following delinquent entry of dissolution decree: THOMAS V. THOMAS (SC 3/20/2008)

CRIMINAL:  Delinquent entry of decree; new hearing not required
DATE RENDERED: 3/20/2008

Ex-Wife raised 2 claims of error to SC: (1) that CA erred in affirming TC’s decision not to grant a hearing on evidence arising subsequent to DRC’s oral ruling ; and (2) that CA improperly applied the facts and holdings of Dubick v. Dubick, 653 S.W.2d 652 (Ky.App. 1983) to the case.

DRC took the parties’ dissolution action under consideration for final hearing on April 27, 2000. At the hearing’s close, DRC issued oral ruling from the bench and directed Ex-Wife’s attorney to draft an Order. That Order was never drafted by Ex-Wife’s attorney and neither party brought this fact to TC’s attention. No action was taken to finalize the divorce until, four years later, Ex-Wife’s new attorney entered an appearance and requested a new hearing due to the delay and the parties’ changed financial circumstances. DRC recommended that no further hearings be held, and TC affirmed this recommendation. After hearing Exceptions filed by Ex-Wife, TC rendered a decision stating that either party could have requested written findings at an earlier date, but failed to do so.

SC noted that KRS 454.350 mandates a specific duty that DRC shall submit findings and recommendations necessary for an order within 90 days of the hearing. Here, SC found that DRC delivered his ruling orally, but did not follow through to see that it was reduced to writing, the form in which it had to be in order to send it to TC for final adjudication. Ex-Wife argued that the mandatory language of the statute thus voided the oral ruling, and another hearing should have been held. Ex-Wife would then be able to introduce new equitable issues as to the circumstances of the parties, which could result in a different division of the marital property. However, in Dubick this SC stated that even if there is a violation of KRS 454.350, any resulting late judgment or report is not void because of tardiness. SC found that the main difference between this case and Dubick is the amount of time that lapsed between the decision and the entry of the order and that the four years that passed in this case is a substantially longer period of time. Nonetheless, SC held that if the KY legislature had intended the judgment to be void when rendered more than ninety days after the hearing of the cause, it would be contained in the statute. Ex-Wife suffered no actual damage as she will receive whatever assets under DRC’s findings she would have received four years ago, and she knew what those assets and debts would be due to the oral findings given at the original hearing in 2000. SC noted that allowing a new hearing in this case could encourage parties to purposely delay submitting orders, hoping they could force another hearing (and possibly a better result) at a later time.

SC noted that an attorney who is instructed by TC to draft and submit an order, and who fails to do so, may be charged with violating SCR 3 .130-1.3, requiring the attorney’s due diligence. Finally, SC stated that Ex-Wife also had another remedy for the delay that she did not uses—seeking a mandate of TC or else ask that the order of reference be set aside. TC’s order affirmed.

Digested by Michelle Eisenmenger Mapes, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates

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