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Texas Court Awards Attorney’s Fees in Child Support Case

gavelIn some Texas child support cases, attorney’s fees may be awarded.  When a party fails to make child support payments, the court is to order that party to pay the other party’s reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs in pursuing the child support.  The court may waive the requirement for attorney’s fees, however, if it finds good cause to do so and states its reasons.

In a recent case, a father challenged an award of attorney’s fees to the child’s mother.   The father was ordered to pay child support in the divorce decree.  He subsequently sued to recover child support payments that he claimed were in excess of his obligation.  The mother denied the claims and asserted a counterclaim for back child support, unpaid medical support, and attorney’s fees.  The trial court denied the father’s request for overpayments, determined the amount of arrearages that was owed, and awarded the mother that amount.  The trial court also found each party was responsible for their own attorney’s fees.

The mother appealed, arguing the trial court should not have credited the father for payments that were made directly to her rather than through the registry of state disbursement.  The appeals court affirmed that portion of the order but found the trial court abused its discretion in failing to award the mother attorney’s fees.  The appeals court ordered the trial court to award the mother reasonable attorney’s fees or find good cause for denying such an award.  The trial court held a hearing and awarded the mother more than $17,000 in attorney’s fees.  The father appealed.

The father argued the trial court abused its discretion in failing to find good cause not to award attorney’s fees.  He had testified he paid $250 per month for what he thought was the actual cost of the child’s insurance, in addition to the regular child support payments.  He testified that he and his attorney requested information on the exact cost, but the mother refused to give it to him.  She also refused to credit him for the payments he made to her.  He stopped making child support payments.  He filed an affidavit with the Attorney General’s Office, documenting the child support and medical support payments he had made.  In 2015, he sued for the alleged overpayments.  He argued he acted in good faith because he was ahead on his payments and had paid more than required for the health insurance.  He further argued the mother acted in bad faith in failing to give him the information on the health insurance costs and credit him for the direct payments.

The appeals court noted it deferred to the trial court’s reasonable credibility determinations.  The trial court could have disbelieved the father’s testimony or could have found that the reason the father provided for stopping the payments did not constitute good cause to deny the attorney’s fees.

Furthermore, the statute does not prevent the trial court from awarding attorney’s fees when good cause is established.  Instead, it allows the trial court the discretion to waive the attorney’s fees requirement if it finds good cause to do so.  The appeals court could not conclude the award of fees was unreasonable or arbitrary.

The father also argued the court abused its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees because the mother failed to prove the fees were reasonable.  The appeals court noted testimony detailing the number of hours worked, the nature of preparation, the case’s complexity, the attorney’s experience, and the prevailing hourly rates should be presented.

The mother provided billing statements.  Her attorney testified about the time she spent, the complexity of the case, the reasonableness of the rates, and the total amount of fees incurred.  The appeals court found there was sufficient legal and factual evidence to support the attorney’s fees.

The father also argued the mother failed to separate the fees she incurred in enforcing the child support from those incurred for other matters.  The appeals court noted there is generally a requirement to separate fees between claims, but there is an exception when the services are intertwined between recoverable and unrecoverable claims.

The mother’s attorney testified that the efforts of enforcing the child support and defending the claim of excess payment were “inextricably intertwined.”  She pointed out that each party moved for enforcement.  She stated the services she provided to enforce the child support were also necessary to defend the overpayment claim.  Additionally, she stated that the mother could not collect the owed child support without trying the whole case.

The mother proved the father was behind on his child support obligation.  She was therefore entitled to attorney’s fees for that claim.  The appeals court also found that the mother had to successfully defend against the overpayment claim to succeed in her own claim for child support.  The appeals court therefore concluded that the finding the legal services were inextricably intertwined was supported by the record. The appeals court found the trial court had not abused its discretion in awarding the full amount of attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees can represent a significant award.  They can also act as a deterrent for parties who fail to comply and require the other party to enforce the decree.  If you are involved in a child support dispute, a skilled Texas child support attorney can assist you.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.

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