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Father's behavior to blame for mother’s $40K attorney fees, COA says

February 21, 2019

A father ordered to pay half of the attorney’s fees incurred by the mother of his child during a paternity action was denied his appeal to be rid of them Thursday when appellate judges found the high fees were a result of his behavior.

Despite the assistance of a parenting coordinator, several disputes existed between Ryan Benefiel and Junko Stalker in dispute over parenting time of their child. At a final hearing in June 2018, one of the issues up for discussion was how much Benefiel should pay toward Stalker’s attorney’s fees, which reached nearly $40,000. In comparison, Benefiel’s attorneys’ fees were roughly $12,000.

The Hamilton Circuit Court ultimately ordered Benefiel pay half of Stalker’s attorney’s fees, finding his “obstreperous” behavior during the paternity action was the ultimate reason for the $40,000 fee.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, finding the trial court did not err in ordering Benefiel to pay $20,000 of Stalker’s attorney fees in Ryan A. Benefiel v. Junko M. Stalker, 18A-JP-2078.

First, the appellate panel found the parties’ economic conditions supported an award of attorney’s fees when considering Benefiel’s nearly $48,000 annual income was “three times that” of Stalker’s $15,000 annual income as a waitress. It also noted that Benefiel failed to cite evidence as to other assists and liabilities the parties may have had.

Additionally, the appellate court found that a 38-page attorney-fee statement submitted by Stalker’s lawyer supported the award of fees to Stalker, as did the attorney’s testimony that the instant case was “the most expensive case (she had) done in 20 years.” 

The court further cited the attorney’s testimony that the case did not need to be so expensive and only was so because of Benefiel’s actions during the case, which included his request for an expedited hearing, his numerous allegations against mother that involved police and Child Protective Services, his failure to cooperate in discovery and Stalker’s request for two protective orders against him.

“Although Mother’s attorney did not put a specific dollar amount on the attorney’s fees that were attributable to Father’s misconduct, the trial court, which was very familiar with this case, did not abuse its discretion in determining that Father’s behavior caused Mother to incur ‘a great deal’ of additional attorney’s fees,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the court. “This is supported by Mother’s attorney’s fees of nearly $40,000 when compared to Father’s attorney’s fees of $11,960. We therefore affirm the trial court.”

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