Attorney’s Fees Awarded to Child-Support Obligor in Franklin, Tennessee: Mercer v. Chiarella

March 15, 2021 K.O. Herston 1 Comments

Facts: Father and Mother are the never-married parents of Child. Father was ordered to pay child support of $1550 per month.

Over two years later, Father petitioned to modify child support to reflect Mother’s increased income.

The trial court reduced Father’s child support to $838 per month. Father was also awarded a judgment for his attorney’s fees and expenses totaling $14,080.

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-103(c) gives the court discretion to award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in various types of cases, including actions to modify child support.

Mother argued the fee award was error because the purpose of a fee award is to protect the child’s interests, rather than the parents’ interests. Mother argued Child is no better off because of Father’s success in lowering child support.

The Court found no abuse of discretion in awarding attorney’s fees to the parent who pays child support:

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-103(c) is clear in its authority as to how fees may be awarded. [T]his Court [has] noted that the ability to pay should not be the controlling consideration with regard to awards for legal expenses in custody or support proceedings.

Here, the trial court was well within its discretionary authority under § 36-5-103(c) to award Father his attorney’s fees as the prevailing party in the underlying matter. We find no evidence in the record that supports Mother’s contention that the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees to Father is an abuse of discretion.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

K.O.’s Comment: Tennessee’s appellate courts have reserved awards of attorney’s fees in child-support modification cases to those where the parent receiving child support prevailed in actions to increase the obligor’s support obligation or successfully defended the obligor’s effort to decrease his or her support obligation. The rationale is that the statute is intended to allow a parent to recover attorney’s fees incurred on behalf of the child.

For example, in Carter, the father successfully petitioned to reduce his child-support obligation and was awarded a judgment for his attorney’s fees, just like what happened here. There, the Court of Appeals reversed the fee award because the father/obligor did not occur attorney’s fees on behalf of the child.

How does one reconcile this opinion with all the opinions like Carter?

Mercer v. Chiarella (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, February 25, 2021).

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Attorney’s Fees Awarded to Child-Support Obligor in Franklin, Tennessee: Mercer v. Chiarella was last modified: March 14th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

1 people reacted on this

  1. Why should a child support obligor have to expend $14k in attorney fees to reduce child support? I think the decision can be reconciled by the apparently unreasonable reticence of the mother here not to except the reduction in child support and force a trial and appeal upon the father who was clearly entitled to the reduction. In the same way that the obligor would be expected to agree to an increase of child support based upon clearly changed circumstances (or suffer the attendant attorney’s fees if they lose), so should the obligee.

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