Attorney’s Fees and Sanctions in California Family Courts

  1. Family Law
  2. Attorney’s Fees and Sanctions in California Family Courts

The California family court system has established a clear goal for all parties involved in family law cases. Parties must have equal access to lawyers who will protect their rights so they each can get a fair trial or settlement.

Family court rules encourage out-of-court settlements, reducing the cost of litigation, and ensuring fair results regardless of the parties’ wealth. Judges are allowed to punish parties who frustrate the litigation process, cause unnecessary delay, or create additional expense for the other party.

California Family Law Cases Allow Attorney’s Fees Requests

In many family law cases, the spouses may not have equal financial resources. Often one spouse has substantially more assets or income earning potential than the other.  Sometimes a spouse with more income or assets tries to delay the case hoping to outlast the other spouse or cause financial troubles through game playing or unnecessary court filings that force the other spouse to simply give up.

To ensure both parties’ right to legal counsel, and hopefully encourage a fair and equitable settlement, the party with more assets may be required to contribute to the other party’s attorney’s fees and costs.  California family courts thus can address financial inequality by reallocating attorney’s fees.

Two Situations That Allow a Reallocation of Attorney’s Fees and Costs

Where one spouse controls more assets or has unequal access to funds that can be used to hire an attorney, the other spouse can request a contribution to attorney’s fees. One scenario is based only on the parties’ respective financial needs and ability to pay, and the other requires conduct that violates a legal policy. In general, a party can request attorney’s fees to:

  • Level the playing field – with a disparity in financial resources, the spouse with fewer assets can request a contribution to his or her attorney’s fees. No bad intent or legal violations are required to bring an action in this situation.
  • Punish sanctionable activity – if a spouse (or the spouse’s attorney) violates a California family law rule, causes an unnecessary delay, refuses to provide information, or otherwise takes action to disadvantage the other spouse, the court can impose sanctions (penalties) in the form of an award of attorney’s fees. 

These two methods of reallocating attorney’s fees help keep a financial and equitable balance between the parties. 

How to Request Needs-Based (Non-Sanction) Attorney’s Fees 

When one party has requested attorneys fees from the other party, the family court must review the relative financial circumstances of the parties. The court does not have to find any wrongdoing or illegal behavior under the following statutes. 

California Family Code Section 2030 requires the court to ensure equal access to legal representation from the very beginning of a case if needed. Depending on the circumstances and the parties’ respective incomes and needs, the court can order one party to pay a reasonable amount of attorney’s fees to the other party to defend or participate in the pending case.

If a spouse can’t afford to pay for an attorney during a pending family case or in a proceeding after a judgment was entered, California Family Code Section 2031 allows that spouse to petition the court for a temporary award of attorney’s fees to protect his or her rights. 

Finally, California Family Code Section 2032 sets forth the factors a court must consider before awarding fair and reasonable attorney’s fees in a family case. The court must review:

  • the requesting party’s need for the award
  • the requesting party’s financial resources
  • the other party’s ability to pay, and 
  • the available resources owned by both parties.

The court can order attorney’s fees from any property source, including community property, separately owned property, income resources, or other assets. When attorney’s fees are requested, both parties must provide full financial disclosure including the amount of fees they have paid, the amount of fees owed, how much more is needed, and the source of money already used to pay fees.  

Improper Behavior Can Lead to Sanctions and Attorney’s Fees

A legal sanction is a monetary fine ordered by the court as a penalty for bad behavior. In family law cases, a party’s actions may be sanctionable under California law. 

Usually, the misconduct is an attempt to delay the case, run up fees and expenses, hide assets, or just wear the other spouse down to get a favorable settlement. Most often, the spouse with greater income and assets is the culprit because they think they can outlast and outspend the other spouse to “win” the case. 

California family courts are allowed to impose sanctions against a spouse who purposefully frustrates the legal system by:

  • avoiding settlement negotiations
  • filing frivolous motions
  • refusing to disclose information as required by discovery rules, and 
  • taking other action intended to increase the cost of a family law case. 

Again, the goal is to place both spouses on equal footing during a family dispute. Under Section 271 of the Family Code, the court can order payment of attorney’s fees and costs as a sanction for conduct that delays the case or disadvantages the other side financially.

California Code of Civil Procedure Section 2023.030 allows the court to order sanctions against a party whose conduct has violated the rules of discovery in any civil case, including family law matters. 

The party requesting sanctions does not have to show financial need but will have to prove how the other party’s conduct was a violation of a specific rule. 

Unfortunately, most judges don’t like to award sanctions and will not punish a litigant unless the conduct is egregious. Family matters are usually emotionally charged so even if you “win” the battle, you may lose the overall war in other ways.

If You Think You Can’t Afford a Family Law Attorney, We May Be Able to Help

Attorneys Deirdre Kingsbury and Noreen Evans understand the complexities of family law cases and how expensive they can be. They can explain your options and whether you can petition for attorney’s fees, or vigorously defend a motion for fees to provide your best possible outcome. At Evans Kingsbury LLP we are trial lawyers with decades of experience, including family trials and settlements. Call us today at (707) 596-6090 or fill out our easy contact form to discuss your case.

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