In re Williams (12/31/2008)

January 3, 2009

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two Holds A.R.S. § 25-324 Requires Trial Courts to Assess the Reasonableness of a Litigant’s Position by an Objective Standard and to Take Into Account the Financial Resources of Both Parties When Deciding Whether to Award Attorney’s Fees in a Dissolution Action.

In 2007, Jeanette Williams filed a petition to dissolve her marriage to Clarence Williams.  Clarence retained legal counsel, Jeanette did not.  Jeanette rejected a proposed consent decree and proceeded to trial on two issues – spousal maintenance and reimbursement.  The trial court found that Clarence did not need to pay spousal maintenance, but it also found that Jeannette, in seeking maintenance, acted reasonably for someone untrained in the law and thus did not award Clarence attorney’s fees.  The trial court also refused to take into account Clarence’s financial need for attorney’s fees because he was the party requesting them.  This appeal followed.

Section 25-324 allows the trial court in a dissolution action to award attorney’s fees and costs after the trial court “consider[s] the financial resources of both parties and the reasonableness of the positions each party has taken during the proceedings.”  The Appeals Court explained that because the term “reasonable” has been used in Arizona law to connote an objective standard, the reasonableness of each party’s position in a dissolution action should be judged by an objective standard and the trial court erred when it took into account that Jeannette is untrained in the law.  The Court also held that the trial court erred when it disregarded the plain language of § 25-324 and only took into account the financial resources of one party, rather than both. 

Judge Eckerstrom authored the opinion; Judges Espinosa and Vasquez concurred.