Jun 08

Tennessee Appellate Court Decision Provides Guidance for Attorney Fee Awards in Divorce Litigation

On June 3, 2015, the Tennessee Court of Appeals for the Western District issued an opinion in the matter of   Holdsworth v. Holdsworth, finding that the trial court in that matter had not applied the proper legal standard in awarding the wife in that case her attorney fees and expenses.

Legal Standard for Attorney Fee Awards

In Tennessee, courts may award a party’s attorney fees as a form of alimony, ordering one party to pay the other party's fees and suit expenses incurred in bringing the divorce to conclusion. The court has broad discretion to do so, and must follow statutory guidelines in making a decision to award attorney fees. The Holdsworth Court, citing Gonsewski v. Gonsewski, 350 S.W.3d 99, 113 (Tenn.2011) stated that an award of fees is appropriate if (1) one of the parties is not able to hire an attorney, and (2) the other party has the ability to pay those legal fees on behalf of the disadvantaged spouse.

Financial Resources to be Considered in Determining Need vs. Ability to Pay

In considering the ability of a spouse to hire an attorney, the Holdsworth Court found it notable that the wife in that matter had resources upon which to draw to participate in trial, specifically the assistance of family members, an award of  over $400,000 in marital assets, and her earned income from work. The Holdsworth Court made an important distinction concerning the second part of the test, indicating that trial courts should examine a party’s ability to pay his or her legal fees after the division of assets and alimony award are determined by the court.   

How Much Should the Court Award?

As to the amount of attorney fees a party incurs, the Holdsworth Court indicated that even though awards of attorney fees may be appropriate in some circumstances, the wife in this case had “the freedom to choose which counsel she would hire, and she must bear some responsibility for her choice.”  The Court found that the wife's request to preserve her share of the marital estate yet ensure that the husband's share was depleted, based on her choice of attorneys and litigation strategy, was unjust given that the trial court had not analyzed the husband's ability to pay those expenses.

The complete opinion can be accessed through the Tennessee Court of Appeals website: http://tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/holdsworthstevenopn_1.pdf

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