January 12, 2020

Legal Fees in Divorce, Who Pays?

What about MY Legal Fees?

            “He cheated!  He should pay my legal fees.”  “She wants the divorce, I don’t!  She should pay my legal fees.”  My response to those clients, in the first instance, is “No.”  Connecticut follows the “American Rule” – each spouse pays their own legal fees.  But there are exceptions.  

            The court has the power to order one spouse to pay some or all of the other’s attorney’s fees.  Legal fees aren’t awarded simply because one spouse can better afford it.  The law requires the judge to consider and balance the same factors as for determining alimony – the spouse’s age, health or occupation, among others, and the financial ability of each spouse to pay.  And other financial components of the judgment may affect whether a spouse must pay the other’s attorney’s fees.   

            Where a spouse is in contempt of court for intentionally disobeying a court order, the judge can order that spouse to pay the legal expense incurred by the other in the contempt proceeding.  As I explained in my March column, contempt isn’t easy to prove and the purpose is not to punish, but rather to correct a violation.  So, even if one spouse is in contempt, it is not automatic that the other will get attorney’s fees.

            Where a party acts in bad faith courts will sometimes order attorney’s fees to the other party.  For that to happen, the conduct must be extremely dishonest or egregious both to the other spouse and to the court.  Here is a real-life example.  The husband was to get a particular piece of art.  The former wife sold the piece for $200,000.  The judge found that she had testified falsely about the sale and had omitted both the painting and the $200,000 sale proceeds from a financial affidavit she filed with the court.  On those facts, the judge awarded the amount of the sales to the husband plus $71,000 to cover the attorney’s fees related to the art.     

            Of course, in a prenuptial agreement or divorce settlement agreement, parties can agree to pay legal fees of the other.  To support the award, the contract must be clear and meet all other requirements of a valid contract.  There are also instances at the beginning of a case and during a case where legal fees can be awarded, generally, where one party doesn’t have the liquid assets to pay them and the other party does.

To be successful on an attorney’s fee claim, the facts need to be right and they need to be presented to the Court in a convincing manner.  It makes sense to consult with an experienced attorney to evaluate the strength of your claim before expending time, money and effort pursuing it. 

Thanks to JRMedia Group for publishing this article in its January 2, 2020 edition of “The Cheshire Citizen”.

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