Articles Posted in Attorney Fees and Costs

17-year-divorce-caseMuch to our dismay, the couple once lovingly known by the public as “Bennifer,” a.k.a. Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, announced back in June of 2015 that they were going to get a divorce. This was just before the couple’s 10-year anniversary. They reportedly consulted with legal counsel, mediators, and business managers, and agreed that they wouldn’t file the actual divorce papers until after they mediated and resolved all of the issues surrounding custody and property division.

Now over a year since the divorce news broke, neither Jen nor Ben has actually taken the plunge and filed a divorce petition. While Ben has been fairly open about the fact that he never wanted to split from Jen, it finally sounds like the divorce is officially off the table. In their case, the couple is pretty lucky that they didn’t yet file their divorce paperwork. Although it is not difficult to have a divorce petition dismissed, they did not have to bother with the extra steps necessary in actually filing for divorce and then filing a request for a dismissal.

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pokerThe title of this blog – for our younger readers – comes from the Kenny Roger’s song, “The Gambler” which feels appropriate when discussing a family law case.  Parties gamble on the strength of their position, the strength of their legal theories and evidence, and the likelihood they can convince a judge to accept their story.  There is always the other side to that gamble; namely the other party.  They are also gambling.  Family law is not always a zero-sum game, but there are many issues that are either a “yes” or a “no.”  So when you litigate a case, you may spend a great deal of time and money only to come out on the other end empty handed.

Good gamblers know to always hedge their bet.  Hedging is the act of protecting yourself from loss by reducing the risk.  Hedging a bet comes at a cost though. You may reduce your risk of loss, but you also reduce your recovery.  In family law, you reduce risk by negotiating a settlement.  There are many ways parties can reach a settlement of their case, but the following three scenarios represent the most common avenues. Continue reading

attorney-fees-sanctions

Attorney fees can be a very important issue in many divorce cases. Most family law litigants in California, and certainly their attorneys, are familiar with Family Code section 2030, which awards attorney fees on a “need and ability” basis. This statute is designed to make sure that each party has equal access to legal representation. This makes perfect sense: as a matter of public policy, we don’t want people prevailing on issues as important as child support and child custody because the prevailing party had an attorney and the losing party did not.

There are, however, many other mechanisms that allow the Court to award attorney fees and/or sanctions, many of which are underutilized. They are discussed below.

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sanctions-bad-behavior

More so than in other areas of the law, attorney fees can be a critical part of a divorce case. In most civil cases, a party is awarded attorney fees only after they have prevailed in their case and only where attorney fees are specifically provided for by statute or by contract. In family law cases, the availability of attorney fees can make a huge difference during the case, as well as after it.

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123-steps-divorce

It’s no secret that divorces can get expensive. The divorce between Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt exceeded $20,000,000 in fees! There are three fairly simple steps that every single person can take before and during marriage to make any potential divorce less expensive.

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custody-evaluation

In earlier blogs I discussed what a parent can expect during child custody mediation, both private mediation and court connected mediation. Both scenarios, while nuanced, are quite straight forward. What happens if you are involved in a high-conflict child custody case and the court orders a custody evaluation? What does the evaluation cost? And how long do they take? I hope to answer these questions in this blog. In my next blog, I will discuss what to expect from a custody evaluation, how you can prepare and some of the reason a court will order a custody evaluation.

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attorney-fee-awards

It is no secret that hiring an attorney can be costly. A spouse may be hesitant to seek legal counsel in their divorce or related family law matter, thinking that they would be unable to afford it. However, it is extremely important to have legal representation in certain matters, and this is especially critical where the other party is represented by an attorney. In such a case, in order to ensure adequate representation, a spouse may be entitled to an attorney’s fees and costs award (hereinafter referred to as simply an “award”); or a court order that the other party is to pay attorney’s fees and costs for BOTH parties.

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spousal-support-modify-lottery.jpgSpousal support is a hot topic in divorce not only during the divorce process but also after the parties’ divorce judgment has been processed and finalized. We often meet with clients who are currently paying spousal support pursuant to court order and, based on a substantial change in circumstances, would like to request a downward modification of spousal support so they don’t have to fork out so much money each month to their ex-spouse. However, we sometimes also get requests from clients who are the recipients of a spousal support award and would like assistance with getting an upward modification of spousal support so that their ex-spouse actually pays them more each month.

A person currently receiving spousal support pursuant to the initial court order may be inclined to seek an upward spousal support modification if, for example, at the time of divorce the spouse receiving spousal support was making a decent living (and thus the need for spousal support was minimal) but post-judgment that spouse lost their job or has health issues that result in an increased need for spousal support to meet that person’s reasonable needs. Another potential reason that might pique a person’s interest for seeking an upward modification of spousal support includes situations (although quite rare) where the person paying spousal support hits the jackpot on the lottery and arguably now has a much higher ability to pay.

A request for a spousal support modification requires the party seeking the modification to show that there has been a material change of circumstances since the most recent order. The Court will consider whether there has been a significant change in any of the factors set forth in Family Code Section 4320 (the same criteria considered for initial order) when making the subsequent modification order, if any. These factors include, among others, the supporting party’s ability to pay, balance of hardships to each party, and the needs of each party based on the Marital Standard of Living (“MSOL”). The MSOL is the lifestyle enjoyed by the parties during marriage and is typically measured by the parties’ expenditures during marriage, including any funds put towards savings.

spousal-support-modify-arrows.jpgWhile the Court has broad discretion to modify spousal support so long as there has been a material change of circumstances, the Court does not always have jurisdiction to do so. In many cases, spousal support is subject to subsequent modification (or even termination) so long as the spousal support order has not already expired and the court still has jurisdiction over spousal support. However, in accordance with Family Code section 3591(c), if the parties’ judgment has a provision that expressly states that the parties agreed to make the spousal support award non-modifiable, then spousal support cannot be modified post-judgment. In the absence of such an agreement, the court retains jurisdiction to make a decision to increase, decrease or terminate support in a later proceeding (post-judgment) pursuant to a request by one of the parties.

It is also important to note that a post-judgment increase in spousal support being granted by the Court is highly unlikely. While there is nothing that prevents the Court from increasing support, it is simply not very common in California Family Law Courts. And even if the Court is willing to entertain the idea of an upward modification of spousal support, the spousal support award would still be capped at an amount that meets the MSOL. Even if you have an experienced attorney on your side it’s important to have realistic expectations and understand that getting a significant increase in spousal support, or any increase for that matter, is not very common.
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saving-money.jpgAs a family law litigator, I see on a first-hand basis how much clients are shelling out just to get a divorce. The entire process can very quickly take a dramatic toll on someone both financially and emotionally. In today’s economy, most of us don’t have unlimited funds set aside to spend on a divorce. Instead, we would rather save our pennies for our children’s college education, our retirement, our mortgage, paying off student loans, etc. If you are in this situation, consider the little-known secrets below from an attorney’s perspective to help you save money on your divorce case.

Organize Your Documents for Your Attorney:
Often times, clients will just drop off a pile of documents that we have to sort through and try to make sense of. Keep in mind that your lawyer will never know your life as well as you do. So make it easier on your lawyer by providing him/her will a three ring binder with tab dividers and make a tab for each of your assets and their supporting documents. This will allow your lawyer to draft your declarations of disclosure much quicker and will reduce the amount of times your lawyer has to call you to get additional documents and information.

Don’t Use Your Lawyer as a Therapist:
Sending lengthy emails to your lawyer about non-relevant legal matters or talking on the phone with your lawyer for hours about your situation will only serve to rack up your attorney fees. Unless it’s truly relevant to your case, don’t copy your lawyer on emails between you and your spouse. And think about getting a therapist to talk to instead of your lawyer. Chances are your therapist’s hourly rate will cost much less than your lawyer’s.

Email Your Lawyer Instead of Calling or Meeting in Person:
Most divorce lawyers charge an hourly rate. If you call your lawyer, he/she likely won’t be available immediately and will instead need to schedule a phone call for a later time. Chances are that preparing for and taking the phone call will take more time than simply responding to an email. Same thing goes for meeting in person. If you just have a few simple questions that need to be answered, a quick email will likely take less time for your lawyer to review and respond rather than meeting with you in person.

Talk to Your Spouse:
It may seem impossible to talk to your spouse if you are amidst a heart-wrenching divorce. But if you can figure out a way to amicably talk to your spouse you will have a chance to settle smaller issues, like the division of household furniture or your frequent flyer miles, without accruing more attorney fees.

Separate Panic from a True Emergency:
Think about whether your situation truly warrants a phone call to your attorney. Perhaps a phone call to the police would better serve your interests. Or if it’s 4:00 pm on a Friday and you know that your attorney won’t be able to go to court or get ahold of opposing counsel, perhaps you should wait it out.

Choose Your Lawyer Wisely:
Choosing the right lawyer can make all the difference in your divorce case. You want to choose a lawyer who will see you as a valuable and important client at the firm. Hiring the biggest firm in town might cause you to get your case ignored if you don’t fit or exceed their client profile. Also, keep in mind that a lawyer who practices exclusively in family law and is a certified family law specialist will likely have more knowledge about the divorce process than a lawyer who just does family law on the side.

Unless Truly Necessary, Avoid Changing Lawyers Mid-Divorce:
If you change lawyers mid-divorce, your new lawyer will have to charge you to review your file and try to catch up, which will likely cost you a considerable amount of money that could have been avoided by just sticking with your original lawyer.
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changing-attorneys.jpgThere are so many experienced family law attorneys in San Diego that it might be difficult to decide which one you trust to handle your family law matter. In addition, your idea of how your family law matter should be handled can evolve as your case progresses. Especially in complicated divorce cases, litigation can drag out for months or even years. Due to the nature of family law, family law litigants work very closely with their attorneys during the pendency of their actions.

Over time, the attorney and client may reach disagreements about how the case is handled and either party may wish to end the professional relationship. In addition to strategy disagreements, litigants may also change counsel as a result of personality conflicts or other practical impediments to communication. Both the client and attorney may agree to terminate the attorney-client relationship in order to further the client’s interest. For instance, the attorney may not have an efficient working relationship with opposing counsel. If the relationship between attorneys becomes too adversarial during the pendency of a case, the entire case could lose focus and become more expensive for both parties. In this type of situation, a change of counsel can give a family law case new direction and focus.

changing-attorneys-butterfly.jpgIf you are a family law litigant and are considering making a change of counsel, it is important to consider how this change may affect your case. First, hiring a new attorney will undoubtedly result in additional attorney fees and delay in your matter. Although your first attorney should not continue to charge you following formal withdraw as your attorney of record, your second attorney will need to “catch up” on your case. The time required for a new attorney to get up to speed on your case will depend on the size of your file, the level of litigation and how long your case has progressed for. The time spent by your new attorney getting up to speed will have a direct impact on the cost of your change of counsel. The longer the new attorney spends reviewing the case file prepared by your former attorney, the more expensive the transition will be.

Family law litigants should not change attorneys as a tactic to delay litigation. If an attorney feels the other side has changed counsel in order to stall the proceedings, he or she can file a motion for sanctions. If the judge determines that the litigant has interfered with the policy of fair dealing and settlement in family law proceedings, he or she will sanction (fine) the offending party.
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