Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Debtor's Prison: Is an Award of Florida Family Law Attorneys' Fees Enforceable by Contempt?

There is much confusion among parties in Florida family law cases - and certain practicing attorneys - regarding which obligations are enforceable by the court's contempt powers.

One of the more common questions that arises is whether a client "has to pay" an award of attorneys' fees ordered by the court.  Generally speaking, no one wants to pay "the enemy."

Long ago, our society determined that we should not have "debtors' prisons."  In other words, a free person cannot be threatened with imprisonment for failure to pay his or her debts.

This right is expressly protected by Article I, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution.  But, the courts  have fashioned an exception to that rule for family support obligations, such as child support and alimony.

The courts have reasoned that the obligation to pay spousal or child support is a personal duty owed to both the former spouse or child and to society rather than a debt within the meaning of article I, section 11.  See Gibson v. Bennett, 561 So. 2d 565, 570 (Fla. 1990).

"The courts have a duty to provide an effective, realistic means for enforcing a support order, or the parent or former spouse for all practical purposes becomes immune from an order for support."    Gibson, 561 So. 2d at 570.  This duty includes enforcement of a judgment through contempt because "a remedy at law that is ineffective in practice is not an adequate remedy."  Id.

The use of contempt in a family law case is premised on the assumed necessity for the special protection and enforcement of rights growing out of the family relationship.  See Fishman v. Fishman, 656 So. 2d 1250, 1252 (Fla. 1995).  This rule has been extended to include the enforcement of payments of attorney's fees related to family law proceedings.  Id.  Attorneys' fees in family law cases are considered a form of support, as the expense of litigating matters pertaining to family obligations should be borne by the family in the same manner as other expenses.

Although the Court may employ its contempt powers to enforce payment of an attorney's fee award, that power is not without limits.  Civil contempt is appropriate only if the party to be held in contempt has the present ability to comply with the court's order and thereby avoid incarceration or other sanctions.  See Bowen v. Bowen, 471 So. 2d 1274, 1278 (Fla. 1985).