Attorney Fee Requests Against Your Spouse

How and when to seek attorney's fees against your spouse in a divorce

How to seek attorney's fees against your spouse in a divorce

This page discusses five common ways to seek attorneys fees against a spouse in a prejudgment divorce, post judgment or in a parentage case.

We discuss

  • Family Code 2030 through 2032
  • Family Code 7605,
  • Family Code 271,
  • Family Code 3652, and
  • Family Code 6344.

The Family Code provides for attorney fees in code sections other than the above but the above are the most common basis for a fee request.

Family Code 2030 through 2032

Family Code 2030 through 2032 are need-based requests.

A spouse may seek attorney's fees against his or her spouse based on the requesting spouse's need and the other spouse's ability to pay.

Such attorney fee requests are most common when there is a disparity and access to money for representation. Spouses may have this disparity due to income differences or access to liquid funds such as money in bank accounts.

Need-based attorney fee requests are common in divorces

California law does not favor wars of attrition, where one spouse has significantly more access to representation than the other spouse because of access to money.

Therefore, for example, if a wife in a divorce cannot afford an attorney because her husband controls much of the money, including their savings, the wife can request a fee and ask the court to order fees from the savings or other sources.

If both spouses have equal access and one spouse simply earns more than the other, that may also be a basis for an attorney fee request.

Support orders may bridge this gap in income.

For example, if a wife earns $250,000 per year and the husband earns $50,000 per year, but the wife is ordered to pay child and spousal support to the husband, there probably is no longer an income gap between them.

That is because the wife's net disposable income is less after support payment.

A request for order is the typical way to seek attorney fees based on need and ability to pay

But it does not have to be by request for order; California law even allows such requests orally.

It is, however, rare for a spouse to bring an oral request if that spouse has representation. The information the court needs about disparity of income or access typically requires an analysis of each spouse's relative circumstances.

Family Code 7605

Family Code 7605 is very similar to Family Code 2030 through 2032.

The main difference is section 7605 applies to parentage cases, which are child custody and child support cases for unmarried parents.

Everything we wrote above in the Family Code 2030 through 2032 section applies here.

Section 7605 is also a need-based statute and focuses on the disparity in access to funds to retain an attorney.

Family Code 271

Family Code 271 is a sanction-based statute whose focus is to punish a spouse or parent who engages in conduct that frustrates California's policy to resolve family law cases reasonably and amicably.

Family Code 271 is not a need-based statute. Need is irrelevant. Ability to pay is also irrelevant.

Instead, section 271 will order attorney fees against the spouse or parent who violates its provisions unless it finds the sanction would create an unreasonable financial burden on that spouse.

Family Code 271 does not distinguish between a party's conduct and that of his or her lawyer. "But my lawyer did it" is not a defense.

Family Code 271 requires notice

A party may also bring this fee request by a request for an order filed with the court, served on the other party, and with the hearing ahead. However, the code does not require a request for order to seek Family Code 271 attorneys fees and costs.

Instead, a party seeking such fees must give specific notice to the other party by listing specific grounds and conduct that violated Family Code 271.

In a divorce or parentage case, a party will often give this notice through a document called a notice of intent to seek sanctions pursuant to Family Code 271.

This notice lays out specific conduct that violated Family Code 271 and the specific sanctions the party seeks.

Family Code 3652

Family Code 3652 is an interesting code section that permits a prevailing party in a support modification hearing to seek attorney's fees and court costs against the non-prevailing party.

The code does not state the family law judge must grant fees and costs but instead says the court may include such an award for fees and costs to the winner.

The amount of fees and costs is at the court's discretion.

The code section does not specifically state whether a party who seeks such fees must show need or the other party's ability to pay.

Because of that silence, there is an argument that the need and ability to pay are irrelevant to this code section.

Family Code 6344 (updated for 2024)

Family Code 6344 allows the court to order attorney's fees in favor of the winner (mostly for the benefit of the person asking for a restraining order) and against the loser in a domestic violence restraining order proceeding. This code section has three parts.

The first part states the court (after notice and hearing) can order the payment of attorney's fees and costs to the person asking for a restraining order if that person prevails.

The second part states the person accused of domestic violence can get attorney's fees and costs only if they can show the domestic violence allegations were frivolous (meaning they were not true) or were intended to abuse, intimidate, or cause unnecessary delay. That second part seems overkill because when would false allegations be anything other than that?

The third part states before ordering fees and costs against the person accused of domestic violence, the court needs to find that person has, or is reasonably likely to have, the ability to pay it.

This law does not require a person asking for a restraining order to show they have a "need" for the fees and costs. So technically, the domestic violence survivor can have more income or access to money than the person accused and still get fees and costs.

A prevailing party may seek this attorney fee request after a notice and hearing

If the party gave this notice in the petition or the response, the court may rule upon it at the domestic violence hearing.

A party can also bring this request after he or she prevails on the domestic violence restraining order action, but there are timelines for bringing such an attorney fee request, and an experienced attorney's advice is important here.

Ready to read more on attorney fee requests?

The next page about fee requests is linked below. It discusses opposing fee requests.

We also provide you with links to two of our comprehensive guides on attorney's fee requests.

The first guide is on Family Code 2030 and 2032. The second guide is on Family Code 271.

They are a must-read for any spouse who intends to bring a fee request or may need to defend against one.