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Can One Divorcing Spouse Be Made to Pay the Other’s Legal Fees?

Michigan, like most other U.S. states, follows the rule that litigants in civil cases are generally responsible for paying their own attorneys’ fees. However, in exceptional circumstances, the payment obligation can be shifted from one party to another. In divorce or separation cases, this can occur when one spouse is at a significant financial disadvantage or has been penalized by the other spouse’s actions.

The Michigan spousal support statute — which allows a court to require one spouse to pay for the other’s maintenance — also allows for imposing an order to pay any sums necessary to enable the less affluent spouse to carry on or defend the divorce action.

There is also a Michigan court rule permitting a spouse to request that the court order the other spouse to pay all or part of the attorneys’ fees and expenses related to a divorce, maintenance or annulment action. A party who makes such a request must allege facts sufficient to show either of the following:

  • The requesting party is unable to bear the expense of the action and the other party is able to pay.
  • The attorney fees and expenses were incurred because the other party refused to comply with a previous court order despite being able to comply.

The second ground for fee shifting is based on the trial court’s inherent power to impose sanctions on a litigant whose unreasonable conduct causes the other party to suffer additional costs.

The issue of legal fees can be complicated depending on the nature of the case. While Michigan judges have the discretion to award either party attorneys’ fees, you should not presume or expect that legal fees will be shifted upon demand. The burden of proof falls upon the spouse making the request. That means demonstrating that you are financially unable to retain qualified divorce counsel and that your spouse’s greater earnings and assets could foot the bill. If you are alleging your spouse violated a court order, you need to show the violation resulted in out-of-pocket costs to you, such as higher attorneys’ fees.

Competent and diligent legal counsel is essential to protecting your rights and financial interests in a divorce case, including your right to seek to shift attorneys’ fees. At Dawson Family Law, PLLC in Sterling Heights, Michigan, our legal team works tirelessly to obtain the best results possible for our clients. Feel free to contact us online or call 833-671-4445 for an initial consultation.

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