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Top Divorce Questions: Who Pays The Legal Fees?

Posted by teamrbdg on September 13th, 2017

{2:40 minutes to read} Almost every new client that consults with our firm for a divorce proceeding asks one of two
questions:

Does my spouse have to pay for my lawyer? OR
Do I have to pay for my spouse’s lawyer?

The answer comes as a surprise to most. The Domestic Relations Law has a rebuttable presumption that the “monied” spouse will pay the “non-monied” spouse’s attorney’s fees. The idea behind the law is to try and level the playing field when there is a big discrepancy between the incomes of the divorcing parties. After all, the law doesn’t want the person with less money to be at a disadvantage.

That being said, this is not simply a windfall for the spouse with less financial power, who at times thinks that they can litigate cost-free while their spouse pays the bill at the end. The “monied” spouse always has the opportunity to rebut the presumption that they should pay all legal fees by showing the Court that the other spouse has the ability to pay for their own attorney, or by showing that their spouse unnecessarily drove up the cost of the litigation.

Let’s say for example that the spouse earning substantially less money, or earning no income as a stay-at-home parent, has substantial assets, inheritance, or money available to him or her. He or she may have the ability to pay his or her own legal fees, and an award from the Court would not ‘level the playing field,’ but would instead provide an unfair advantage. So, while the starting point may be that a spouse without income is entitled to have his or her legal fees paid by the other spouse, equity and fairness should prevail once it is demonstrated to the Court that the same spouse is already on a level playing field because of other assets or circumstances.

On the other side, however, if one spouse truly does not have the income or assets to litigate with, the Court will level the playing field immediately at the commencement of the case, or even in the middle of the case, and the higher courts have held that it is an error when the trial court fails to “level the playing field.”

What is the best approach?

There are different strategies to use when approaching this issue, depending on which side you fall on. If there are liquid marital assets, we often get creative and try to split up one or more of those assets ahead of time. We recommend this approach to litigants on both sides, because it helps the “non-monied” spouse in that he or she will now have the funds with which to pay his or her attorney and for living expenses, and it also helps the “monied” spouse, who now may not have to pay his or her spouse’s legal fees because the other spouse has the financial ability to do so. This strategy also helps alleviate the need for one spouse to constantly ask the Court for additional money for legal fees and living expenses, and it alleviates the need for the other spouse to defend against such requests—thus reducing the cost of litigation for both sides.

Our approach actually helps both sides during the litigation, and the less that you pay in legal fees on these issues, the more money there is available for you and your spouse!

Please contact us today with questions or comments.

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