A judgment may be vacated or set aside if one can establish that there has been a a mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. To prevail on such a motion, however, one must be able to establish that a meritorious defense exists and that the decision initially reached would be different if a retrial is granted. The motion requesting such relief must be filed no later than one year from the date of the original judgment, or sooner if the court finds any delay was unreasonable.
The civil rule of procedure which provides for relief from judgment for the above stated reasons, is often relied upon when a party has failed to enter an appearance, file a response, or otherwise respond to a complaint for divorce. A default judgment which includes uncontested allegations, and orders relief requested by the filing party is the result of a failure to defend the action. Failure to respond to a complaint is not, in and of itself, sufficient grounds to set aside a judgment. There must be proof of lack of adequate notice, or excusable neglect. A misunderstanding of the process or failure to obtain an attorney has been held not to be excusable neglect.
A mutual mistake is generally adequate grounds for setting aside a judgment. A unilateral mistake may not be. If a mistake is made by a party's attorney, it may be sufficient grounds to vacate a judgment depending upon the nature of the mistake, and when it is called to the attention of the court. A unilateral mathematical mistake which greatly impacted an equitable division of marital property was sufficient to vacate a judgment.
Generally, the neglect of an attorney will be imputed to the client and, therefore, insufficient to vacate a judgment. At least one court has held that the negligence of an attorney cannot be excusable neglect. Failure of an attorney to adequately represent a client does not entitle a party to relief from judgment. Ineffective assistance of counsel is not a grounds for vacating a civil judgment.
The granting or denial of a motion to vacate judgment for any of the specific reasons contained in the civil rules of procedure is decided within the discretion of the original trial court. The rulings are heavily dependent on the facts of each case.