Attorney’s Fees in a Modification Case

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

As a general proposition, I think most family lawyers would agree that it’s out of the ordinary for there to be an award of attorney’s fees in a modification case absent a companion claim for contempt.

But it’s not unheard of, and it does happen.

Take, for instance, the recent COA decision in Collins v. Collins, handed down February 25, 2014. In that case, the chancellor had awarded Myra Collins $4,234.74 in attorney’s fees after she prevailed in her quest to obtain an upward modification of separate maintenance. Her ex, Arthur, appealed, arguing that it was erroneous for the chancellor to award attorney’s fees in a modification case when there was no allegation of contempt, and there was no finding of her inability to pay.

Judge Griffis addressed the issue for the court:

¶16. In Labella v. Labella, 722 So. 2d 472, 475 (¶12) (Miss. 1998), the supreme court found that one of the parties “clearly established an inability to pay because she was unemployed at the time of trial and her only income was in the form of unemployment benefits.” The court noted that “[t]he general rule is that if a party is financially able to pay his attorney’[s] fees[,] he should do so, though this is a matter which is entrusted to chancellor’s sound discretion.” Id. at (¶13) (quoting Anderson v. Anderson, 692 So. 2d 65, 74 (Miss. 1997)). Also, in Hammett v. Woods, 602 So. 2d 825, 830 (Miss. 1992), the supreme court ruled that “[w]here the record shows an inability to pay and a disparity in the relative financial positions of the parties, we find no error” in awarding attorney fees. Here, the lower court found that “[Myra] has proven that she has an inability to pay and that [Arthur] has the much, much greater ability to pay attorney’s fees, and therefore an award of fees is appropriate in this modification proceeding.”

 Does this open the door to an attorney’s fee award in every modification case? Probably not, for a couple of reasons. First, this is a separate maintenance case, and, if you think about it, separate maintenance is in effect an ongoing temporary divorce order. Since its purpose is to provide the wife with as close as possible to her reasonable standard of living without rendering the husband destitute, it stands to reason that her standard of living should not be further reduced by having to pay attorney’s fees to mantain that standard of living. To deny her attorney’s fees wouold defeat the purpose. Second, it has always been the law that, although an award of attorney’s fees is not favored in a modification case, it is appropriate where it would impose an unfair burden on the prevailing party, as where there is a clear inability to pay, or the lack of an award would impoverish children, etc.

This case is not an outlier. Rather, it demonstrates that the chancellor has considerable discretion both as to whether to award a fee, and as to its amount.

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