Can an attorney who withdraws from your case file a lien for fees owed before your divorce is final?

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently decided a case where the wife in a divorce hired an attorney to represent her. Over a year later, the attorney withdrew from the case. Shortly thereafter, the attorney filed a Notice of Attorney Fee Lien stating "his intention . . . to hold a lien pursuant to Indiana Code § 33-43-4-1 on all money and property awarded to [wife]." The amount listed was $5,649.48.

The following year, the court issued a divorce decree which required the husband to make a distribution payment of approximately $30,000 to wife. The money was sent to the wife without her prior attorney getting paid.

In defending the complaint filed against her by the attorney, the wife claimed that the lien was not valid because the attorney filed the lien before the court had entered the divorce decree. The relevant Indiana law, code section 33-43-4-1 (2004), requires an attorney to file a lien not later than 60 days after the judgment is rendered. The attorney argued that the law did not keep him from filing the notice of lien before the judgment was entered.

The Court analyzed the exact language of the laws at issue, I.C. 33-43-4-1 and 33-43-4-2:

An attorney practicing law in a court of record in Indiana may hold a lien for the attorney's fees on a judgment rendered in favor of a person employing the attorney to obtain the judgment.
An attorney, not later than sixty (60) days after the date the judgment is rendered, must enter in writing upon the docket or record in which the judgment is recorded, the attorney's intention to hold a lien on the judgment, along with the amount of the attorney's claim.

The Court reviewed earlier versions of the law and other cases interpreting its language, in addition to comparing attorney fee liens to mechanics' liens. That review led to a reversal of the lower court's decision agreeing with the attorney's argument.

 

Key Point: If your divorce lawyer files a notice of lien for attorney fees owed prior to the Court entering your Indiana divorce decree and/or judgment, the lien is not valid.

 

Here's the link to the full case on Google Scholar:

Clem v. Watts, 27 N.E.3d 789 (In. Ct. App. 2015)