Alimony Award Equalized Incomes, Stymied Florida Wife’s Claim for Attorneys’ Fees

A recent 1st District Court of Appeal ruling provides insight upon all the analysis that must go into an a award of attorneys’ fees in a dissolution of marriage case. Awarding fees and costs requires finding that one spouse has a need for such an award, and the other spouse has the ability to pay. In the recent case, the trial court’s alimony award to the wife essentially equalized the incomes of both spouses, meaning that each spouse had an equal ability to pay and, as a result, the husband should not be required to pay his wife’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

The decision came in the case of R.H. (husband) and H.H. (wife), who decided to divorce after 36 years of marriage. At the time of the couple’s divorce trial, the husband’s annual income was $89,000, and the wife’s was $39,000. The trial court ordered the husband to pay the wife alimony in the amount of $2,100 per month for 12 years. The trial court also decided that the husband should pay the wife another $6,000 for her attorneys’ fees and costs.

The husband appealed that decision, and he was successful. The appeals court explained that the statutory section governing the award of attorneys’ fees, Florida Statutes Section 61.16, calls for an analysis of several factors, including the requesting spouse’s financial need for the award and the other’s spouse’s ability to pay. This system was devised in order “to ensure that both parties will have a similar ability to obtain competent legal counsel.”

When a spouse makes a claim that the court should order the other spouse to pay his or her attorneys’ fees, the trial court must make detailed findings with regard to both the requesting spouse’s need and the other spouse’s ability to pay. In a South Florida case from this spring, the 4th DCA reversed a trial court’s decision to order a husband to pay the wife’s attorneys’ fees. In that case, while the trial court made the necessary findings stating that the wife had a valid financial need for an award of attorneys’ fees, the trial court never made the type of detailed findings the law demands regarding the husband’s ability to pay.

The law says that if the trial court’s analysis and findings reveal that both spouses are equally able to pay the attorneys’ fees and costs in question, it is improper to order one spouse to pay the other spouse’s fees and costs. If the trial court’s divorce decision equalizes the two spouses’ incomes, those two spouses are legally considered equally able to pay the fees and costs, which again means that each spouse should pay his or her own legal bills.

In this case, the husband made $7,400 per month and the wife $3,300. Factoring in the $2,100 per month of alimony that the trial court ordered, that meant that each spouse would have a nearly equal income ($5,300 for the husband and $5,400 for the wife). As a result of that alimony order, the spouses were in roughly equal financial positions and were roughly equally able to pay the wife’s attorneys’ fees and costs. In that situation, it was improper to make the husband pay those expenses.

For thoughtful advice and strong representation regarding your divorce case, contact the South Florida family law attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. Our experienced attorneys have the skills and experience to help you with alimony and other family law matters. Contact us online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

Florida Alimony Award Too Low to Allow Wife to Maintain Lifestyle Enjoyed During Marriage, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Feb. 25, 2015
Divorce Order Fails Due to Use of ‘Verbatim’ Proposed Order, Complete with Awards Not Requested in Petition, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Oct. 27, 2014