Two years after entry of a San Diego county Judgment dissolving the marriage of Joseph and MaryAnne Sorge, MaryAnne filed a motion for modification of custody and visitation of the minor child, with attendant requests for a modification of child support as well as attorney fees and spousal support arrears. Both parties were quite wealthy: MaryAnne had around $14 million in assets; Joseph’s income and assets situation was harder to discern as he had recently sold his business, Stratagene Holding Company, and was cagey regarding the disposition of the sale proceeds as well as money made before the 2007 sale. Several years and a motion to compel later, MaryAnne argued that Joseph had failed to disclose $12 million in earnings between 2006-7 as well as the more than $100 million Joseph got from the sale of the business.

The trial-court found that between Joseph and Maryanne, Joseph had 80% of the income and 85% of the assets. Pursuant to Family Codes 2030 and 2032, the court awarded Maryanne $200,000 in fees. The trial-court also sanctioned Joseph some $75,000 for failure to disclose his earnings pursuant to his obligation under §2102(c). Joseph appealed these orders arguing that MaryAnne didn’t need the money and that his obligation to disclose ended upon entry of judgment, not termination of the court’s jurisdiction over child support.

In a decision filed 1/5/12, the California Fourth District of Appeals rejected Joseph’s request to reverse the trial court’s order awarding attorney fees. The appellate court affirmed the findings of the lower court that, “The fact that Maryanne has ample resources to pay her attorney fees does not necessarily bar an order for attorney fees and costs,” noting that pursuant to California statutes and case law, a party’s ” ‘need’ is relative.” The lower court had also noted that, pursuant to §2030, there are a number of other factors besides availability of funds to the parties that need be considered in making an award, including the complexity of the case, the skill of counsel, the reasonableness of the fees, and any other factors affecting the parties’ abilities to pay.

The appellate court did, however, reverse the lower court’s sanctions order; it was concluded, “that any fiduciary duty that Joseph had to disclose material changes in his income to Maryanne ended upon entry of their 2002 divorce decree.” The sanctions request was remanded to the lower court for further proceedings (as there were still grounds for sanctions pursuant to §271 i.e. obstreperous conduct, even if the §2102(c) did not constitute a valid basis).

The full opinion can be found here.