Typically, unless both parties want a divorce equally and agree to do things quickly and without litigation, both parties are going to incur attorney’s fees and court costs throughout the dissolution of marriage proceedings. The general rule for attorney’s fees in the United States is that both parties pay their own legal fees. Despite this general rule, the statute governing divorces and family law cases – the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA) – is concerned about equity and ensuring each party is able to mount a vigorous case, and as such, specifically allows a method by which the Court can require one party to pay and contribute to the fees of the other party.
Let’s talk about this by way of an example.
Let’s say that Monica, a self-made millionaire chef with her own restaurants and a line of frozen foods available in grocery stores across the U.S., wants a divorce from Chandler, a business intern at an advertising company that pays him minimum wage. Monica has virtually limitless resources to pay her own attorneys in the divorce, while Chandler is living paycheck-to-paycheck and does not have resources to pay for his attorneys. The law and the courts want to put Chandler in a position that allows him to maintain an adequate defense and allows him to not be saddled with debt at the end of the divorce when the Judgment of Dissolution has been entered.
That’s where the contribution hearing comes into play.
Contribution Hearing in an Illinois Divorce
Section 503 of the IMDMA (750 ILCS 5/503) provides that a party may generally file a Petition for Contribution to ask the Court to require their spouse to help pay for those fees and costs, before the final hearing or within fourteen (14) days of the closing of proofs in the final hearing.
What is a Final Hearing?
A final hearing is one that resolves all outstanding issues between the parties, besides contribution, unless the parties have agreed to decide the issue of whether one party should “contribute” or pay for the other party’s attorney fees and legal costs at the same time as the final hearing. Suppose the parties do not agree to decide the issues of contribution during the final hearing on all other issues.
In that case, the issue will be decided before a Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage is entered at a hearing on this dispute – a contribution hearing.
The Contribution Hearing Process
At a contribution hearing, the party seeking contribution to their fees informs the Court of, at a minimum:
- What fees did their lawyer charge them to help on their case;
- How much of the fees remain outstanding, or whether they have been paid in full;
- Where the money came from to pay for the fees that have been paid;
- Whether they cannot fully pay and provide for their own fees on the case; and
- Whether the other party can pay and provide for those fees and where the money would come from to pay it.
The attorney representing the party seeking contribution would also need to speak to certain aspects of the fees charged, including
- what fees they charged for the case and the nature of the work performed on behalf of the client;
- that the fees charged were reasonable and necessary;
- that the hourly rate they charged for the work was a standard rate for practitioners of family law; and
- that the client received a Client’s Bill of Rights, as well as a retainer detailing how the fees would be applied.
In the example above, Chandler would testify to his own inability to pay for the fees his lawyer incurred and his understanding of how Monica should be required to pay the fees (where the money would come from). Then, through her attorneys, Monica would argue against the contribution to fees – either by saying she didn’t have the funds needed or finding a different way to imply that equity requires the parties to pay their own legal fees. At that point, the Court would make a decision and either award attorneys fees to Chandler or deny Chandler the fees.