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How much is a divorce? Top 10 items to consider when assessing the costs of a family law case

Do you want to pay for your own children to go college, or for your attorney’s children?*

“How much is this going to cost me?”

This is one of the top questions that I receive from prospective family law clients. After reviewing the deadlines and process of their cases, everyone  is concerned about the cost of litigation.  I tell my clients that “you can send my kids to college– or you can send your kids to college.” 

First, you should review the mandatory fees for the court in which you are filing. These are costs in addition to the costs of hiring your attorney, and any lawyer whom you hire will need to pay them.

Next, you should consider the top 10 things that you can consider in assessing the real cost of a family law case:

  1. Are you going to litigate all issues?  In your first interview, we will assess your goals of litigation and determine which battles you want to fight.  There is no dollar amount equivalent for custody or access, but you can buy a new set of dishes or clothes for the children instead of litigating those matters.  Obviously you can’t pay for more time with the kids, so you will need a lawyer to take that issue to the judge if it is in dispute.
  2. A low retainer does not necessarily mean low overall cost.  Just because a lawyer asks for a retainer of $1500 does not mean that the entire $1500 will not evaporate in the first billing cycle. It is important to consider their hourly rate and the number of hours they likely will spend on the case.
  3. Are you going to pay me $600 to go to Court to argue over and end table worth $650? Consider the value of the things for which you are fighting, and the costs that it takes to litigate those matters. Rather than have my clients humiliate themselves before the judge, I have even offered to take them to Weirs or Pottery Barn to replace their precious end table; they can get a fun shopping spree and likely spend less than they would have spent in litigation.
  4. You can only control your side of the equation.  If spouse’s attorney wants to depose everyone you ever met and the janitor in your office building, then you will pay for it. But the end result will be less money for the estate that will be divided, so no one comes out a winner.
  5. Who is opposing counsel?  Sometimes when we see a very litigious opposing counsel on the other side, or an attorney known for his borderline-unethical tricks, we know that we will have to be on the defensive.  The cost of your case will probably be higher.
  6. There are fees that have nothing to do with the attorneys that you need to factor in: social study fees, DNA tests, drug tests, psychological evaluations and expert fees.  In the tit-for-tat world of family law, you will pay for all of the testing and scrutiny you want to impose on the other side.
  7. Are you hiring a board certified attorney? Board certified attorneys cost more.  Obviously, this credential is important for the knowledge and respect of the bar.  However, board certified lawyers charge a rough average of $150-$250 more than non-board certified family attorneys. Over the full course of a case, this could be thousands and thousands of dollars more for a result that may not be much different.
  8. How big is the firm?  Bigger firm, higher overhead. If you are impressed by the scenic views of your attorney’s office and the team of paralegals/receptionists who know your name, you had better enjoy them — because you will certainly be paying for them. By contrast, an attorney with a smaller staff and a more modest office is not under the same pressure to increase your bills in order to cover their overhead. The question is, what do you want to pay for … the attorney’s expertise, or their posh office?
  9. A flat fee divorce is not a great way to save money.  If your attorney only charges you a low flat fee, then you should expect them to spend minimal effort on your case. Such legal practices focus on high volume of “check-the-box, cookie-cutter” divorces. Consider, for example, that the court’s required filing fees and cost-of-service alone can be nearly $500; this makes me suspicious of any attorney who is advertising a an “all-inclusive divorce” for $500 – 600. Do you want an attorney to spend no more time crafting the legal structure of your family’s future than the typical Starbucks barista spends crafting the foam on your latte?
  10. Interview more than one attorney before hiring.  Price shopping with attorneys is not prohibited, but be away that the phrase, “you get what you pay for,” is not always true in this business. You need to ensure that you are comfortable with not only the price of an attorney, but with their approach and how well you get along with them. Remember, you are going to spend some of the most stressful periods of your life with this person at your side; pick someone whom you want on your team to guide you through this process, not just the one who appeared to charge you the least.

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Natalie Gregg
The Law Office of Natalie Gregg
(972) 829 – 3923
[email protected]

* (Image c/o Creative Commons)