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Objecting to Family Court Orders to Pay Legal Fees: When Your Spouse Want You to Cover Attorney Costs
Under some state laws, parties to family law cases, such as divorces or custody cases, are allowed to collect attorney fees. When a former spouse or partner wants you to pay his or her legal costs, they will first need the court's approval and state their reasons for asking you to cover their lawyer's fees. If you are unable to pay the fees outlined in the court order, you may be subject to additional legal penalties, including wage garnishment. In most instances, you will need to object to requests for attorney fees through a formal request to the court. In most cases, this will involve submitting a motion.
Document Your Financial Circumstances
The first step in challenging a proposed order or an order for attorney fees that the court has already considered is to show that you are unable to pay the court fees. In some circumstances, the judge approves payment of legal fees based on false or incomplete information. For example, in some instances, an ex-wife may exaggerate her husband's assets so that she can collect legal fees in a divorce cases. In other cases, a partner might not have a full picture of your financial situation. For example, your child's father might not realize you had a serious accident and are paying off medical bills, making it impossible for you to pay his legal fees.
Thus, prior to motioning the court to reconsider asking you to pay attorney costs, document all of your assets and liabilities. You may want to provide the court the following documents:
- Pay stubs for the past six months
- Last year's income tax return
- Documentation of any public assistance, such as TANF, food benefits (such as SNAP), or WIC.
- Documentation of any Social Security benefits you receive for you or your children.
- Applications for any pending Social Security benefits
- Application for public assitance
- A copy of your lease or mortgage, outlining your monthly payment
- Copies your last three months' utility bills (such as electric, water, and telephone service)
- Any private health insurance bills
- A list of all your debts you are currently paying off, including uninsured medical bills, credit cards, auto loans, and student loans
- Copies of tuition statement for you and/or your children
- Documentation of any disability for both you and your children
- Documentation of any unemployment benefits
- The amount of child support you receive, if any.
- The amount of spousal support you receive.
- The amount of any structured settlements you receive.
- A listing of any other legal matters you are involved in, with the exception of minor traffic violations (for example, a speeding ticket).
If you also have any exceptional financial circumstances, it may also be useful to write out a formal statement outlining them. For example, if you lost your job and took a lower-paying position, discuss this. Likewise, if you were forced to take a leave of absence from work because you were ill or needed to care for an ill family member and received no pay or reduced pay during this time, the court may consider this in determining whether you are able to pay the other party's legal fees.
Preparing a Motion or Petition
If you do not believe that you should have to pay your spouse's attorney fees, you may be required to file a specific petition with the court. This petition, or request for the court to take action, will need to list, specifically, the reasons why you do not believe you should be responsible for attorney fees. Although the legal grounds to dispute attorney fees vary from state to state, in some instances, financial hardship may be a valid argument. For example, if you are paying child support, making minimum wage and have little disposable income, the court may find that it would be an unnecessary hardship for you to pay your spouse's legal fees.
You motion will need to be formatted to your state's specific requirements. You can find a sample copy of a motion in your state's rules, which are available at any law library and some public libraries. In many cases, your local clerk of the court can also provide you with a sample motion. In general however, motions should state facts only, not opinions, and provide a legal basis for for your arguments. In other words, if possible, you should list specific laws that back you not being responsible for the attorney fees.
Because preparing a motion can be complex, particularly when it comes to reversing a court's judgment or challenging another party's legal opinion, it may be helpful to obtain legal assistance. Since many people challenging such motions have limited income, most areas have free or low-cost resources that can help you prepare and submit the petition. For example, many law schools have legal clinics that allow law students, under the supervision or an experienced attorney, to prepare your documents and help you research the laws that apply to your case. Most areas also have Legal Aid groups staffed by licensed lawyers. These organizations exist solely to help low-income persons obtain free or low-cost legal assistance.
Filing Your Petition
After you have prepared your petition objecting to your spouse's request for attorney fees, you will need to submit it to the clerk of the court. Even if you live in a different city or county, you will need to petition the court that entered the initial order for divorce or fees. At the top of your petition, be sure to reference the case or docket number of the divorce or case in which the court ordered you to pay your spouse's attorney fees.
Once you have filed your petition with the court, you will need to provide your spouse's attorney with a copy of the document. Generally, you can send this document by mail. You will also need to provide the court with a certificate of service, or a signed notice stating the date that you mailed a copy of your petition to your spouse's attorney.
Addressing Your Fee Objections in Court
After you have submitted your petition to the court, your spouse's attorney will likely file a response to your petition. This will outline any objections to your arguments. The court will also receive a copy of this document.
After you have served your spouse, in most cases, you will also receive a notice of a hearing date on your petition. At this hearing, both you and your spouse will have a chance to make arguments based on what you stated in the petition and what you spouse argued in the response. You and your spouse will both have the opportunity to present evidence and call witnesses to support your claims. If you are making a financial argument, you will need to bring documentation of your income and assets to your hearing.
At the end of the hearing, the judge will make a ruling on your petition and determine whether you will be responsible for your spouse's legal fees.
Requesting legal fees: How common is it?
Have you ever been asked or ordered to pay another person's legal fees?
Legal Help Resources
- Findlegalhelp.org - Consumers' Guide to Legal Help - Finding Free Help
The American Bar Association's guide to finding free legal help.
- Pro Bono Net - Volunteer lawyers and legal aid advocates increasing access to justice
This site provides resources for pro bono and legal services attorneys and others working to assist low income or disadvantaged clients.