Can the Court Award Legal Fees in a Child Suppot Modification Proceeding?
An interesting, and perhaps unanswered, question which may arise in a child support modification proceeding is, “Can the court award legal fees to the prevailing party?” Since 1997, there has been statutory authority for awarding legal fees in a child support case. Previously, no statutory authority existed.
23 Pa.C.S. 4351 authorizes an award of legal fees where “an obligee prevails in a proceeding to establish paternity or to obtain a support order.” Soon after the enactment of this law, it was tested in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by a lawyer who advocated an automatic award of legal fees to all support recipients, based on a simple disparity in their net incomes.
The Supreme Court rejected that notion in Bowser v. Blom, a case that established several criteria for determining whether a support recipient should receive reimbursement of legal fees.
Factors which the court may consider include: (1) whether the obligor’s unreasonable or obstreperous conduct impeded the determination of an appropriate support order; (2) whether the obligor mounted a fair and reasonable defense in a child support order; (3) whether the obligor’s failure to fulfill his moral and financial obligation to support his children required legal action to force him to accept his responsibilities; and (4) whether the financial positions and financial needs of the parties are disparate.
Subsequently, the Superior Court was asked to determine, in Krebs v. Krebs, whether the trial court should have forced a father to reimburse the mother’s legal fees, in a case where child support was modified retroactively for several years because the father had concealed an increase in his income. The Superior Court vacated and remanded the case, instructing the trial court to consider whether the mother’s claim for legal fees was appropriate under 23 Pa.C.S. 4351 or 42 Pa.C.S. 2503 (a different statute authorizing an award of legal fees as a sanction for dilatory, obdurate or vexatious conduct by a litigant).
More recently, in Sirio v. Sirio, the Superior Court was again asked to decide whether the mother should have been awarded legal fees in a child support modification proceeding. Once again, the Superior Court vacated and remanded the trial court’s decision not to award fees, instructing the trial court to consider 23 Pa.C.S. 4351 as well as 42 Pa.C.S. 2503. The Sirio Court alluded to Krebs, suggesting that it answered the question of whether fees could be awarded in a modification proceeding (despite statutory language that refers to “establishing” paternity or “obtaining” a support order).
I think both Krebs and Sirio have asked the question, but I have yet to see an authoritative decision (or, for that matter, a strong policy argument).