Contested divorces can be very expensive propositions. With spouses arguing over everything from alimony and child support to who gets custody of the family pet, attorney’s fees can skyrocket quickly. In fact, those monthly legal invoices are what finally cause many couples to hunker down, put animosity aside, and try to peaceably resolve their differences. Often, one spouse will ask the other to pay both sides’ divorce-related legal fees. How successful that demand will depend on the particular facts of your case.
Needs-Based Attorney’s Fees
In most states, family law courts are authorized to order one spouse to contribute to the other spouse’s attorney’s fees, particularly when there is a large income-gap between them. In these cases, judges usually have the ability to order the higher-earning spouse to cover some or all of the lower-earning (or non-earning) spouse’s fees.
In some states, like California, the policy underlying attorney fee awards is that if one spouse can afford to pay for both sides’ fees, while the other spouse would have to proceed without a lawyer absent some contribution, then an order for fees will be considered both necessary and fair, in order to “level the legal playing field” between the parties.
In New Jersey, courts will order an award of attorney’s fees to a lower-earning spouse — often because it’s clear the higher earning spouse will be able to recover financially after the divorce is finalized.
But in situations where neither spouse is making a sizable income, yet there’s still an earnings difference, decisions on attorney’s fees are more likely to vary from state to state. For example, in New Jersey, courts aren’t likely to grant a request for attorney’s fees if the lower-earning spouse will at some point have access to marital assets that can be used to generate funds to pay those fees, such as:
- Bank accounts
- Stocks, or
- A 401(k) retirement plan.
Even if a cash-poor spouse needs money up front for a lawyer, the court may let the spouse use some of the marital property for attorney’s fees, with the understanding that when that property is eventually divided, the other spouse will be reimbursed.