How Do I Get An Order for ATTORNEY FEES in a COMPLEX CASE?

Q. My divorce seems like it has stalled. My wife operates our family business, we own several properties including a commercial building and she collects the rents, she isn't cooperating with me on custody on our kids, and I need money to pay my attorney. She is controlling this case, and I am getting nowhere. Any recommendations?

[Please note - this Blog is updated with a recent Blog Article detailing the 2011 Revisions to the California Family Code affecting attorney fee awards 12/9/10].

A. I frequently hear from people whose cases are "stalled" because they have no money to pay their attorney, and no money to hire forensic experts. It is a problem I face in my practice with certain clients. It takes money to develop your case, and if there is really none available it is difficult to get anyone to pay attention. Often there are assets that only one spouse controls. That spouse or RDP (registered domestic partner) usually claims those assets to be their "separate property" even when the claim is ridiculous (for instance, closely held stock issued as "their sole and separate property" when the vesting of title in their name alone during marriage was just their manipulation and you didn't agree to it).

When there are assets that exist there is much that you can do. These assets, whether they be allegedly separate or community, are available to be borrowed against, or sold, to raise money so you can pay your attorney and hire experts to do the work that must be done.

However, your attorney needs to understand how to accomplish this or find one who does. Specifically one method that works well is to have a referee appointed under Code of Civil Procedure section 639 to oversee a "case management plan" under the circumstances described in Family Code section 2032(d).

Specifically, have your attorney ask the Court in a motion to make a finding that your case involves "complex or substantial issues of fact or law." These can be related to property rights, custody, visitation, and support and may include bifurcations of issues. If you don't have an attorney, this would still be a start to obtaining findings that will generate money to hire one.

Once the Court so designates your case, it will itself begin to implement a plan or assign someone else - like an outside lawyer whom the court recognizes as an expert, to make recommendations as a referee. While the Court is not obligated to follow the recommendations of these referees, they usually do. And if they don't the court may find itself overturned on appeal as happened 10/1/10 in In Re Marriage of Tharp, a case I will be writing about in detail as time permits.

This is a major step in not only getting someone to look more closely at the attorney fees you need (judges, after all, have really limited time) but also a good way to jump start a stalled dissolution or other family law case.

BTW, under the new statutes that take effect in 2011 as a result of the Elkins Task Force recommendations, case management may become the norm in California in family law proceedings.

TW Arnold