Before answering that question, it’s best to jump back and define when these motions would be used. When a judge makes a decision, the decision gets written down into what is called an order. The order is the written document of the judge’s decision in a divorce case. The order can do any number of different things from forcing you to give your car to your wife to force your wife to submit to drug testing for substance abuse. Motions to vacate and motions for reconsideration come up after the judge signs the order. Lawyers say that once a judge signs an order, the judge enters the order. It means the same thing.
Now that we have that out of the way, a motion to vacate is like taking a big magic marker and writing the words “VOID” across it, as if the order never existed. A motion for reconsideration takes the same order and modifies it. At the Seattle Courthouse in King County, it is possible for a motion to vacate to modify an order just as it possible for a motion for reconsideration to void an order. It usually depends on the semantics of the requested relief. However, most good lawyers will use the right language for the right order. Motions for reconsideration are filed within a very short window of the original order. You have a lot more time with motions to vacate, up to a year and sometimes even longer in rare cases. Either motion could be filed after entered or even after final orders such as after the assets have been divided. The principal is the same whether you are appearing at the Kent Regional Justice Center, the Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett, WA or the Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, WA.
Example of the difference between a motion to vacate and a motion for reconsideration in action in King County
In a typical motion to vacate, I’d file that motion when the original case was never properly served on my client. Believe it or not, it happens a lot. On the other hand, I’d file a motion for reconsideration if the judge made a ruling based on erroneous facts. For example, many years ago one of my clients appeared pro se (that means without an attorney) to represent himself in a child support order hearing. He had an order of child support entered against him that forced him to pay almost $685 in child support. He earned less than $2,000 a month so this was obviously not possible for him to pay. The judge based her decision on the fact my client failed to file the right paperwork proving he was earning less than the court thought he had and hammered him for it. I thought and still think the court was completely unfairly, but it was obviously trying to prove a point, which it did. In this case, we filed a motion for reconsideration submitting the proper proof which was granted and saved my client over $400 a month in child support.