Marecic v. Baker, 2023-NCCOA-______ (2023) (unpublished).
- Facts: The case involved a dispute between the Plaintiff and Defendant, who are the biological parents of a minor child named R.J.M. The parties never married but purchased real estate in North Carolina and Florida during their relationship. Defendant had two older children from a previous marriage. Initially, they lived together with the children in North Carolina. Their relationship ended in January 2017, and Defendant and her two children moved to an apartment while Plaintiff stayed in their property. Despite the separation, they shared custody of R.J.M., with Plaintiff covering most of Defendant’s living expenses and expenses related to all the children. Actions commenced in December 2018 when Plaintiff filed for child custody, child support, attorney’s fees, and alternative dispute resolution. Defendant responded with a complaint for various matters, and the cases were consolidated. Temporary child custody orders were issued in March and July 2019, followed by a permanent child custody order in May 2021, granting shared custody on a rotating schedule. In May 2022, the trial court issued a child support order, and in June 2022, Defendant’s attorney filed for attorney’s fees. In August 2022, the trial court ordered Plaintiff to pay for some of defendant’s legal expenses. Plaintiff appealed.
- Issue: Did the trial court abuse discretion in the attorney fee award?
- Rationale: Specifically, child support attorney fees require a finding that the party for which support is sought has failed or refused to provide adequate support under the circumstances existing at the institution of proceedings. On this, plaintiff argued that he provided $1000 a month, which he deemed reasonable based upon his assessment of the child’s needs. The ultimate child support obligation for plaintiff was just under $2000 a month as calculated by the guidelines. The purpose for attorney fees in child support is to prevent one parent in a custody action from having an inequitable advantage over the other parent, based upon a parent’s inability to hire counsel. Once a trial court has found the statutory facts needed to award attorney fees, the amount is at the discretion of the trial court. Since there was nearly a $1000 difference in what Plaintiff provided and what the guidelines calculated, the trial court did not err in finding that Plaintiff did not provide adequate support.