During your initial consultation, many clients ask how much it will cost for their divorce. The amount of your total bill will consist of two factors: costs and fees.
“Costs” are monies that are paid to third parties. Costs vary from case to case. The court clerk charges a $435 filing fee for each party. Service of process fees can vary, but are usually around $75. Other common costs may include an appraiser to appraise a home or business; a forensic accountant to determine the amount of income a party has available to pay support; a vocational evaluator to determine an unemployed party’s earning ability; or an outside source to draft domestic relation orders (QDROs) that are needed to divide certain types of retirement benefits such as pensions and 401(k) accounts. Some cases incur no costs besides the initial $435 filing fee. Other cases can require substantial costs.
“Fees” paid to the lawyer are determined by the number of hours your lawyer puts into your case times the lawyer’s hourly rate. At the beginning of a case, it is impossible to predict the total number of hours the lawyer will require. Some cases may settle quickly and become uncontested divorces that do not require much time at all. Other cases may escalate into disputes where the parties are unable to agree on even the most basic issues. Those “high conflict” types of cases can involve time consuming discovery, expert witnesses, repeated attempts at negotiating a settlement, multiple court appearances, and a trial. These cases will be very expensive in terms of both costs and fees.
You can take steps to keep costs down. First, be reasonable in terms of your settlement proposals. Sending opposing counsel unrealistic settlement offers generally wastes time and money. Second, do your homework. In every case, parties are required by law to exchange court forms known as “Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure”, which include a four page Income & Expense Declaration and a four page Schedule of Assets and Debts. We give these blank court forms to our clients and ask the clients to fill them out. Some clients do an excellent job of filling out the forms, so we have all of the facts and figures at our fingertips. This allows us to draft settlement proposals quickly and efficiently, saving the client fees. Other clients require more assistance to complete their disclosure forms and, as a result, have higher fees.
Retainer: When you pay retainer to a lawyer, the lawyer puts the money in a trust account and uses the funds to pay costs and fees. The retainer is not the cost of the divorce. It is an initial deposit. The amount of the retainer we request varies from case to case, depending on a variety of factors. Cases with many difficult issues will require a higher retainer than a case that appears to be a simple case. If a case is settled quickly and the total bill is less than the retainer, the unused portion is refunded.
Not all cases require a retainer. Frequently, clients hire us as consultants. For example, if a client is going through mediation and wants us to “coach” them, there is no retainer. Other times, clients are handling their own divorce or their own motion for custody or support and only need an hour or so with an attorney to explain the law, explain court procedures, or to show them what court forms to fill out. These types of clients do not pay retainers, but “pay as they go”. At the end of each consultation, they pay for the amount of time spent.
Credit Cards: Many of our clients pay their retainers and monthly bills with credit cards. Our office accepts Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.
Family Law Real Property Lien: In some cases, one party may not have immediate access to funds to pay a retainer. They may not even have access to a credit card. If they have sufficient equity in real property that is likely to be sold at the conclusion of the divorce, then, in some circumstances, the client can provide the attorney with a “Family Law Attorney Real Property Lien” that is authorized by statute as a substitute for a retainer.