The Domestic Relations Division has the responsibility to hear and determine issues presented in a proper manner relating to marriage, to wit: divorce; dissolution; legal separation; annulment; civil protection orders; review of Administrative Orders from the Child Support Enforcement Agency; and other actions such as civil contempt stemming from domestic issues. A marriage between a husband and wife is a legal contract, and the termination of the marital relationship can be somewhat complicated and involved, depending upon the circumstances. All circumstances in domestic relations matters are different and unique unto themselves. Generally speaking, however, married individuals, as a couple, acquire assets, and children are usually the desired by-product of marital relationships. If the parties to a marriage are unable or unwilling to resolve and work through their differences (that is either to stay married or to find another amicable way to terminate the marriage, such as dissolution, which will be explained later in this article), a divorce complaint is the action filed in court to terminate the marital relationship.
A divorce is a contested legal action (or lawsuit) by one partner in the marriage against the other partner in the marriage. The issues involved are normally: 1) what legal grounds for a divorce exist? (the most often used ground being incompatibility); 2) what assets of the parties are marital assets?; 3) how are the marital assets to be divided?; and 4) if there are children for whom the parents have a legal responsibility (being age 18 or to graduation from high school, whichever is later), the Court must consider the parental rights and responsibilities. Although the legislature has repeatedly changed the terminology over the years, most people are still accustomed to using the terms custody, support, and visitation when referring to marital rights and responsibilities. Frequently, parties to divorce actions are so bitter and emotionally involved that logic, common sense and reasonableness go out the window. Some people in our society have even suggested that matters or issues involved in marriage should be handled elsewhere than the court system because of their delicate nature, especially when minor children are involved. However, in Ohio, the Common Pleas Court is charged with the responsibility to handle these matters.
Currently, the Morrow County Common Pleas Court has two Magistrates who assist in resolving issues raised in divorce actions by hearing all of the contested matters and by making Findings of Fact and recommendations to the Judge for proposed decisions dealing with all aspects of the marriage, to wit: temporary orders during the pendency of the case; grounds; child support, parental rights and parenting time, if there are children; and division of assets, along with possible spousal support and special retirement benefit issues.
Until September of 2003, the Court had only one Magistrate hearing all of the contested divorce actions, including what are called post-decree actions, as well as: Dissolutions with children; and non-contested Divorce actions. Since the Court has continuing jurisdiction on issues of child support, parental rights/responsibilities, and parenting time, as well as spousal support issues (if the Court retains jurisdiction on that matter), the parties may return to the Court requesting changes or modifications of the divorce decree orders. The hearings before the Domestic Relations Magistrate have steadily increased from 240 in 1999 to 602 in 2002. Therefore, in September of 2003, because of the tremendous increase in hearings and the difficulty for the sole Magistrate to hear and render proposed decisions in a timely manner, the Court created a second fulltime Magistrate position. That Magistrate had been handling only Juvenile Delinquency and Unruly matters on a part-time basis since the Juvenile docket has also been mushrooming.
It should be noted that many Juvenile Division cases also come before the Judge or a Magistrate with the same issues of parental rights, child support and parenting time when persons who have never been married, but who have had children out of wedlock, file paternity or custody complaints. These are also actions whereby the Court retains continuing jurisdiction with regard to the issues of parental rights, child support and parenting time after the initial determination of parentage has been made. Now, both Magistrates handle Domestic Relations and Juvenile matters.
Once the Magistrate's Decision is filed, the Judge must review the Decision for errors of law. If none are found, the Decision is confirmed and becomes a final Court Order. By law, the parties may file objections to the Magistrate's Decision within fourteen (14) days if they object to the Findings of Fact or the Magistrate's Conclusions of Law. If Objections are filed, the opposing party has an additional 10 days to respond, and then the Common Pleas Court Judge must review all that the Magistrate has considered, including a transcript of the proceedings, if presented to the Judge. This is a time consuming and involved process. The Judge must act somewhat as a one-man Court of Appeals to determine if the Magistrate ruled properly based on the evidence and if the Magistrate followed the law properly. The Magistrate system is beneficial since it frees the Judge to preside over jury trials and other cases which have statutory time limits and which only Judges can hear and since Magistrates can be assigned divorce matters, thus allowing these cases to be brought more quickly to hearing. However, the Magistrate system can also result in delays when objections are filed. As long as the issues are not too complex and there is ample time for the Magistrate to decipher the facts, the decisions will flow in a reasonable and timely manner. However, due to the crowded docket, it was often difficult to find sufficient time to render a decision on complicated issues. We are attempting to rectify that with a two Magistrate system and with a self imposed time limit for rendering decisions, but first the back-log must be cleared up. All of this is further made difficult because of the cuts in the Court's budget both last year and so far this year which limit the necessary support staff.
Another Domestic Relations proceeding is the Dissolution of Marriage, which involves individuals married to one another who have agreed on all matters of division of assets and, if there are children, on support and parental rights by entering into a Separation Agreement which is filed with a Petition for Dissolution. Those cases are by law required to be handled between thirty (30) and ninety (90) days after the filing of the Petition for Dissolution. When there are minor children involved, Dissolution of Marriage actions can be complicated and involved, and serious consequences can result requiring post decree hearings. Therefore, it is best to have these cases thoroughly reviewed up front by the Judge or Magistrate so as to minimize problems later.
Finally, there are the proceedings of Annulment and Legal Separation which are rarely used, but which are available to people when certain circumstances exist to either terminate a marital relationship which was entered into by the parties as though it never occurred (as in the case of Annulment) or to decide all issues in a marriage, but allow the parties to remain as husband and wife living separate and apart (as in the case of Legal Separation).