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A Better Partnership
June 05, 2015

COA clarifies rules for awarding spousal support, attorney fees in divorce cases

When a court enters a judgment of divorce, Michigan Court Rule (“MCR”) 3.206(C) allows the court to award attorney fees to either party.  In Richards v. Richards, No. 319753, the Michigan Court of Appeals clarified that MCR 3.206(C) actually contains two independent bases for awarding attorney fees and expenses: one for parties unable to bear the expense of the action, and another for when the other party refused to comply with a previous court order.    Because the Court of Appeals found that the trial court had committed clear error in not awarding attorney fees based on the defendant’s refusal to comply with an order of the trial court, it vacated this portion of the decision and remanded for an evidentiary hearing.  The court further vacated the judgment's support provision to the extent that it limited spousal support in contravention of state law, and affirmed the remainder of the decision.
Sherri and William H. Richards, III were married on December 20, 1980.  Defendant William Richards had been a successful urologist throughout the marriage, although he was forced to stop practicing due to the progression of Parkinson’s disease.  Plaintiff Sherri Richards had been employed as a registered nurse, but had stopped working in 1989 to care for the couple’s children.  In October 2011, defendant began having an affair.  On December 11, 2013, the trial court entered an amended judgment of divorce.  The judgment awarded plaintiff 55 percent of the couple’s marital assets and 50 percent of the defendant’s disability payments for six years as temporary spousal support.  Plaintiff requested, but was denied, a portion of the attorney fees she incurred as a result of defendant’s refusal to follow orders of the court. 
Defendant appealed the decision, contesting both the unequal distribution of marital assets and the award of spousal support.  Plaintiff cross-appealed, contesting the trial court’s refusal to award attorney fees.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the division of marital property, holding that such a division need not be equal, merely equitable.  Taking into account factors such as the defendant’s fault in ending the marriage, it found the unequal distribution of assets to be equitable.  The court also upheld the award of spousal support as it was designed to facilitate plaintiff’s return to the workforce. 
However, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred to the extent that it ordered spousal support for a fixed time period in contravention of MCL 552.28, and vacated this portion of the judgment.  It also found the trial court erred by refusing plaintiff’s request for attorney fees.  Although it had specifically found that the defendant had failed to obey orders of the court, the trial court appeared to conflate the different bases for which it may award attorney fees and refused plaintiff’s request.  The Court of Appeals clarified that MCR 3.206(C), which allows for attorney fees in divorce actions, contains two separate bases for awarding attorney fees and expenses.  Fees may be awarded if the party is unable to bear the expense of the action and the other party is able to pay or if the attorney fees and expenses were incurred because the other party refused to comply with a previous court order, despite having the ability to comply.    The Court of Appeals vacated the portion of the judgment relating to attorney fees and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on this issue.

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