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Appellate Victory Before the Georgia Court of Appeals

Appellate Victory Before the Georgia Court of Appeals

On February 1, 2021, Johnson Kraeuter, LLC won yet another appeal in Brevik v. Bradley, A20A1780. The father appealed the case after it was dismissed from Chatham County Superior Court for lack of jurisdiction based on the trial court’s finding that the case had been improperly pled. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed that the attorneys at Johnson Kraeuter, LLC had indeed properly pled the case and that the Superior Court erred in dismissing it. Here’s the backstory:

The parties were never married but have two children together. Desiring to legally recognize the children’s status, the mother filed a petition for legitimation in Chatham County Superior Court, and the father counterclaimed for legitimation. The parties mediated their case and reached an agreement with regard to child custody, child support, and visitation, but when it came time to present the settlement to the court, the mother tried to renege the agreement and dismiss her original petition for legitimation.

Under Georgia law, a mediated settlement agreement can be enforced, so Johnson Kraeuter, on behalf of the father, proceeded on the father’s counter claim and filed a motion to enforce the mediated settlement agreement. The only problem was that the trial court believed it did not have jurisdiction over the case.

You see, mothers are not allowed to file petitions for legitimation in Georgia, only a father can petition to legitimate his child. This law dates back centuries and was a way to protect the estates of wealthy white men from inheritance claims made by their illegitimate children born out of wedlock. To this day, mothers are limited to filing petitions to establish paternity; there is no legal basis for a mother to claim legitimation. A paternity petition permits the court to declare who the biological father is, establish custody and visitation, and calculate child support, but it does not establish a right to inherit from the father. Only a legitimation action initiated by the father can establish a child’s right to inherit when the child is born out of wedlock.

Since the mother in this case had filed a petition for legitimation and not paternity, the trial court believed that it had never gained jurisdiction over the case and that the father’s counterclaim did not confer jurisdiction because there was nothing for it to attach to. But that reasoning was erroneous. As the appellate court pointed out, the trial court’s ruling was “not supported by Georgia law”; longstanding Georgia “law is to the contrary.” The trial court erred when it refused to consider that counsel for the father had properly pleaded a complete counterclaim, and a properly pleaded counterclaim can in fact stand on its own. In other words, the father’s petition for legitimation unquestionably conferred jurisdiction over the claim on the trial court.

Victory in this case would not have been assured had the divorce lawyers at Johnson Kraeuter not been so meticulous in their representation of the father. Had they merely answered the mother’s petition for legitimation without including a counterclaim, there would have been no way for the trial court to maintain jurisdiction of the case after the mother’s case was dismissed. Had they not pleaded a complete claim for relief in the counterclaim, the trial court also would have been bound to dismiss the father’s case. Had they not quickly appealed the erroneous decision, the father would have been stuck starting from scratch and pursuing a case in another state. Victory was only assured because of the thorough and comprehensive representation by Johnson Kraeuter.

You may be wondering, “What’s the big deal? Couldn’t the father just file his own case after dismissal?” Not this time. While that would normally be an easy, albeit expensive, remedy, in this case the stakes were high because the mother had moved with the children out of state and beyond the reach of the trial court. After filing her original petition, she basically waited out the clock for six months and then backed out of her agreement thinking that Chatham County would no longer have jurisdiction over the case and that her agreement would not be enforceable. The true glory of this victory is that the Georgia Court of Appeals has now locked jurisdiction down in Georgia, meaning that the original agreement the parties’ reached during mediation is enforceable in a Georgia court. This father now has some assurances about his future with his children.

This opinion affirms long-standing Georgia law and confirms that the attorneys at Johnson Kraeuter bring a high level of knowledge and expertise to their cases. The appellate opinion tracks precisely the arguments Paul Johnson made to the trial court and then again later on appeal. Even though the trial court erred, a Savannah divorce attorney at Johnson Kraeuter persisted with confidence that they understood the legal nuances of this case. And the result was sweet victory for a loving father.