Can Courts Award Attorney Fees?

In Child Custody, Child Support, Separation & Divorce by Elizabeth Stephenson

Lawsuits are expensive. There are many costs associated with litigation, which may include filing fees, fees to serve people, witness fees, and expert fees. In addition, there are attorney’s fees, which can vary greatly based on how complex or contentious a case is. Legal proceedings involving divorce and child custody are no exception and can be drawn-out, hard fought battles—which translates into proportionately high attorney fees.

An unfortunate truth of divorce and child custody proceedings is that it strains your limited resources. Nowhere is this strain more evident than in alimony and child support proceedings, where a person is literally asking a court to order the other person to pay monetary support. To compound the problem, there may be a significant imbalance in resources between parties, meaning a party with money can afford to pay high dollar lawyers to make things harder on the party who has no job and is caring for the children.

Fortunately, in certain circumstances, a court is authorized to order one party to pay for the other party’s attorney fees. These are allowed in proceedings involving alimony, post-separation support, child support, and child custody. Notably, attorney fees are not permissible in property division proceedings.


Under General Statute Section 50-16.4, a court may order “reasonable” attorney fees to a spouse seeking post-separation support or alimony. The actual amount of the award is entirely up to the judge, who has broad discretion to consider the evidence supporting the alimony order when awarding attorney fees.

Child Support and Custody

North Carolina General Statute Section 50-13.6 also allows for the award of reasonable attorney fees in original proceedings and modification proceedings relating to child custody and child support. In order to qualify for these fees, the party seeing the fees must demonstrate that:

  1. He or she they has “insufficient means to defray the expense of the suit;”
  2. The party seeking the reasonable attorney’s fees was acting in “good faith” in filing the suit; and
  3. The party ordered to pay support has “refused to provide support which is adequate under the circumstances existing” when the proceeding was initiated.

In the alternative, the court may also order reasonable attorney fees if the party paying support has initiated a frivolous lawsuit.

Let New Direction Family Law Assist You

New Direction Family Law is a family law firm that guides clients through separations, divorces, and child custody issues. We treat our clients with respect and will fight for your legal rights. If your former partner has hired an attorney, we can help you even the odds. We serve Wake, Johnston, Durham and surrounding counties. Call New Direction Family Law at (919) 719-3470 to schedule an appointment or visit us online at our website.