Attorneys Fees in Family Law

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In a divorce or family law matter it is important to factor in the cost of attorney fees and Court costs in an action when deciding how you wish to proceed. It is foolhardy to not seek legal advice in divorce or family law matters. It is wise to understand it often may be difficult and expensive to obtain a Court order directing your spouse to pay your attorneys fees in the matter.

Under the law a Court can award fees to enable a party to carry on or contest the proceedings, provided it finds:

(1) that the fees are necessary for the good faith assertion of the party’s rights in the action and will not contribute unnecessarily to the length or and expense of the proceedings;

(2) that the party from whom fees, costs, and disbursements are sought has the means to pay them; and

(3) that the party to whom fees, costs, and disbursements are awarded does not have the means to pay them. Minn. Stat.518.14.

A Court can also award fees against a party who unreasonably contributes to the length or expense of the action, or if a party commits fraud, or takes what a Court determines are bad faith actions in a case. Fees and costs can be awarded at any point in the proceeding.

Attorney fees can be obtained when there is a gross disparity in incomes or financial situations in a case, but it often can be expensive and a lengthy process to obtain an award of fees. Sometimes Courts wait until trial after they hear and consider all evidence before deciding an issue involving fees, or make a small temporary award to allow a party to contest the case, but the award often falls far short of the attorney fees required to take the matter through a time-consuming litigation process or trial. It is folly to assume you are going to be awarded every dollar of fees you are incurring, even if there is a disparity in incomes because, in general, Courts are conservative in awarding fees and do not wish to risk encouraging potentially unnecessary litigation. By granting a large temporary award of fees Courts realize this may lead to more litigation rather than a settlement. Generally Courts want matters to settle and not be litigated.  They have very busy Court calendars already and often times ugly divorce litigation is not their favorite way to spend their time.

Instead of counting on or assuming you will be awarded attorney fees the best strategy is to attempt to minimize your own fees because 90% of cases settle short of a trial and it is never easy to negotiate or convince your spouse to voluntarily pay both sides attorney fees.

First carefully review and read your Retainer Agreement with your attorney to understand how you will be billed. Generally numerous phone calls or e-mails to your attorney will lead to a large attorney fee bill quickly. Do not use your attorney as a therapist or as a way to soothe your hurt feelings as it can be very expensive. Find a good friend, or family member, or therapist to talk about your emotional feelings and disappointment. Try to streamline communications to address multiple issues in a single call or e-mail and try not to constantly barrage your attorney with piecemeal information. If possible try to amicably resolve personal property disputes with your spouse without involving your attorney as fees can escalate fast over battles about old TVs or computers or used furniture that have small real current market value.

As hurt as you may be, try to be civil and respectful to your spouse. Personal or verbal attacks may give you temporary satisfaction, but may lead to a barrage of payback attempts to get even or other strategies to punish you in a revengeful manner that will lead to much larger attorney fees for both sides. It can also lead to expensive collateral actions such as Orders for Protection, or Harassment actions, which lead to more fees.  Do not let your emotions drive your actions. Treat your divorce as a business transaction and negotiations, as hard and as cold as that sounds.

Be honest with your attorney and do not hide information or assets. The more your attorney knows the better they can quickly plan how to settle your case. Trying to hide information or assets is unwise and can be deemed fraudulent and that can lead to an attorney fee award and also discredits your credibility with the Court. This can lead to very bad results no matter how good your attorney may be. It can also lead to length discovery requests, or information requests, from your spouse’s attorney, or depositions that lead to much higher attorney fees.

When your attorney requests information or documents, timely get the documents and provide them in an organized fashion. Do not procrastinate in getting information or documents as this leads to follow-up e-mails, letters, or phone calls and more fees and expense. You can save a great deal of expense by carefully organizing the statements, by file folder or clips in order. There are far too many cases where clients bring in a grocery bag of documents accumulated over years that are a mess and take hours to organize and often are incomplete, which again leads to higher fees for a paralegal or staff to try to organize and additional frustration for you.

Keep your children out of the middle of your divorce. Do not attempt to alienate your children against the other parent. If a party feels a parent is undermining a relationship with their children this will lead to anger and hard feelings and more litigation or efforts to get even. It also will cause great emotional harm to your children.

Lastly follow your attorney’s advice. Do not believe you know better or assume you can take shortcuts without seeking the attorney’s input, in particular in negotiating important settlement details, because there may be legal reasons for negotiating a certain way. When in doubt, talk to your attorney, and always before you commit orally, or in writing to any settlement seek your attorney’s input. After you verbally agree to a settlement with your spouse it often can be very difficult to backtrack and negotiate important other matters that may have been forgotten or neglected and this leads to litigation as people get entrenched in verbal promises made along the way.

I know everyone tries to keep their costs down in a Family Law matter, but usually it is more cost effective to discuss your case and the actions that you are considering before you take action, rather than trying to undo it after the fact. It should always be the attorney’s goal to settle your case short of going to trial, which will minimize your own attorney fees because it can be very difficult, time-consuming and cost prohibitive to go through a trial and to attempt to make your spouse pay your attorney fees. Even if the Court does decide to award you attorney fees the Court may only award a small portion of the fees you incurred.