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Georgia Case Law Update – Hoard v. Beveridge

In Georgia, there are two statutes under which a party to a divorce case may be awarded attorney’s fees. The first statute, O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14, awards fees for a party’s misconduct. One subsection of this statute requires fees to be awarded when the other party “has asserted a claim, defense, or other position with respect to which there existed such a complete absence of any justiciable issue of law or fact that it could not be reasonably believed that a court would accept the asserted claim, defense, or other position.” O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14(a). The other, more commonly used subsection allows fees to be awarded if “an attorney or party brought or defended an action, or any part thereof, that lacked substantial justification or that the action, or any part thereof, was interposed for delay or harassment, or if it finds that an attorney or party unnecessarily expanded the proceeding by other improper conduct,” including abuses of discovery. O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14(b). The other attorney’s fees statute, O.C.G.A. §19-6-2, awards fees based on the financial circumstances of the parties, and to ensure they both receive effective representation in the divorce action.

The interplay of these two statutes was recently discussed in the Supreme Court of Georgia case of Hoard v. Beveridge. Hoard v. Beveridge, S15A1685 (March 7, 2016). In that case, the Husband was awarded fees under both O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14(b) and O.C.G.A. § 19-6-2 after a contentious custody fight in the divorce case that was fraught with multiple attempts by the Wife to disqualify the custody evaluator, motions to set aside, for new trial, for mistrial, and to amend, reopen and rehear her motions to disqualify. The Wife appealed the award of fees to the Husband, alleging that the trial court erred in failing to allocate the fees to each particular statute and that “the trial court’s findings are not sufficient to independently sustain the full award under either statute.”

The Supreme Court of Georgia disagreed with the Wife and upheld the fee award. The Court agreed that the full fee award could not be upheld under O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14(b) alone, but held that it could be sustained under O.C.G.A. § 19-6-2 – the trial court heard substantial evidence of the parties’ financial circumstances and, as such, the Georgia Supreme Court could not say there was an abuse of discretion. Thus, even though the trial court’s order was procedurally incorrect as it did not allocate the fees, the Husband was saved by the fact that the parties’ financial situations were distinct enough that he needed fees to make the case fair.

If you have a case that in which the final order involves fees, make sure the court is specific in how those fees should be allocated. Had the fees award here not be able to stand on its own under O.C.G.A. § 19-6-2, it likely would have been vacated and remanded for the trial court to look at it again…causing more fees to be incurred by both parties.

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