Attorney’s Fees in Modification Cases

December 4, 2019 § Leave a comment

Can the court award attorney’s fees in a modification of child support case?

The COA dealt with that question in the case of Blevins v. Wiggins, decided November 5, 2019. Judge Corey Wilson penned the opinion:

¶17. Amy [Blevins] asserts that the chancery court applied an erroneous legal standard to deny her request for attorney’s fees. She contends that Monty’s counterclaim was not filed in good faith because Monty [Wiggins] “did not allege that a material change in circumstance had occurred which had an adverse impact on the children.” Amy further contends that Monty filed the counterclaim to financially harass her and that the chancery court failed to consider her inability to pay attorney’s fees.

¶18. “The standard for an award of attorney[’s] fees on a motion for modification of support is basically the same as that applied in an original divorce action.” Setser v. Piazza, 644 So. 2d 1211, 1216 (Miss. 1994). “Attorney fees are not awarded in child support modification cases unless the party requesting fees is financially unable to pay them.” Id. However, “[t]he question of attorney fees in a divorce action is a matter largely entrusted to the sound discretion of the trial court,” and we are generally “reluctant to disturb a chancellor’s discretionary determination whether or not to award attorney fees and of the amount of [any] award.” Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 937 (Miss. 1994); Geiger v. Geiger, 530 So. 2d 185, 187 (Miss. 1988).

¶19. Further, Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-55-5(1) (Rev. 2012) provides that

in any civil action commenced or appealed in any court of record in this state, the court shall award, as part of its judgment and in addition to any other costs otherwise assessed, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs against any party or attorney if the court, upon the motion of any party or on its own motion, finds that an attorney or party brought an action, or asserted any claim or defense, that is without substantial justification, or that the action, or any claim or defense asserted, was interposed for delay or harassment . . . .

(Emphasis added).

¶20. Here, the chancery court considered the relative financial condition and earning capacity of the parties—specifically, Amy’s and Monty’s financial declarations and monthly incomes and expenses— and concluded that “[u]nder the facts of this case, the law requires that each party pay their own attorney fees.” Regarding Amy’s inability to pay attorney’s fees, the chancellor heard the testimony, considered the financial evidence offered by the parties, and determined that an award of attorney’s fees was not warranted. Consequently, we decline to disturb the chancery court’s ruling with regard to attorney’s fees.

¶21. Furthermore, based on the record, we cannot find that Monty’s counterclaim for custody was filed without substantial justification or was interposed for delay or harassment such that the chancery court erred in declining to award Amy attorney’s fees under section 11-55-5(1). At trial Monty testified that he was seeking custody of the children “[b]ecause I would love [for] them to live with me. They have been with [Amy] ever since we have been divorced and, you know, I mean, why shouldn’t I have the opportunity to raise them as well.” Monty also testified that, in his opinion, receiving custody “would [put an end to] a lot of the fighting [over] the money because I wouldn’t be asking for any money.” Effectively, Monty’s counterclaim involved the same issues raised in Amy’s petition for modification such that the same evidence and issues were to be tried whether Monty asserted his counterclaim or not. We cannot conclude that the chancery court erred in denying Amy’s request for attorney’s fees.

More often than one would expect, the only evidence I have of inability to pay is an assertion. Sometimes I have 8.05’s to substantiate the claim. Quite often neither party has ability to pay. In that situation it is erroneous to award attorney’s fees. Masino v. Masino, 829 So. 2d 1267, 1274 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002).

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