Does My Spouse Have to Pay My Attorney’s Fees in a California Divorce?

You probably don’t need this article to tell you that quality legal representation in a California divorce is not exactly cheap. When it comes to preserving your rights to obtaining property, child custody, spousal support, and child support (the latter two of which are often paid for many years), a knowledgeable and effective family law attorney on your side can be one of your best investments ever. Still, hiring an attorney can feel like a significant financial strain at a time when you are very concerned about finances.

In California, however, courts have a relatively liberal policy towards ordering a spouse with greater financial assets to pay attorney’s fees to the other spouse. Such attorney’s fees can be awarded at any point in the divorce process, including in a pre-trial “RFO” (Request for Order) hearing or at the trial itself. And because attorneys understand that courts will often award attorney’s fees, many attorney fee awards are made voluntarily from one party to the other as part of a settlement or a pre-trial stipulation.

California Family Code section 2030 states that:

“In a proceeding for dissolution of marriage…and in any proceeding subsequent to entry of a related judgment, the court shall ensure that each party has access to legal representation, including access early in the proceedings, to preserve each party’s rights by ordering, if necessary based on the income and needs assessments, one party…to pay to the other party, or to the other party’s attorney, whatever amount is reasonably necessary for attorney’s fees and for the cost of maintaining or defending the proceeding during the pendency of the proceeding.”

What this means, again, is that a California family law court can require one party to have to pay attorney’s fees to the other party or their attorney, and this award can happen at any point in the divorce process, even right after the petition for divorce is filed.

The California Family Code goes on to say that, in determining whether to make such an award, it will look at the “disparity” between the two parties in their ability to pay. This does not mean that one party has to be flat-broke to get an attorney’s fees award, but rather that party needs to show that the other party has a greater ability to pay for attorney’s fees and the ability to pay for legal representation for both parties. Courts have awarded attorney’s fees to parties that would be considered quite wealthy in most circles based on the fact that the other party was even wealthier.

Don’t expect, however, that a court will award you a blank check for attorney’s fees to “go to town” on the other party. Courts do want to promote amicable and swift resolution to cases and thus do not want to incentivize unnecessarily long or intense litigation by giving a large amount of attorney’s fees that are unneeded, thereby encouraging a lawyer to fight just because he has the money to do so. Instead, the court will want to see a clear explanation from your attorney of why the fees are needed and specifically what they intend to do with the funds to bring the case to a resolution.

If you are concerned about the cost of legal fees that may be involved in your divorce, you should make that clear at the outset with your family law attorney so that you can discuss options such as pursuing an attorney’s fees award and the best strategy for doing so. It’s important to strike the right balance between the need for you to get some control over your case against the important goal of preserving your hard earned money for your family.

Guidance on Your California Family Law Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney

If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on any California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.