One of the questions I get most often is how much a divorce, custody case, etc. will cost. I understand why people ask – I’m constantly trying to get professionals to “give me a ballpark” so I have an idea of what it will cost me.

Unfortunately, this is a very difficult question to answer. A lot of different factors go into how much it’s going to cost. Some of these are controlled by the attorney – how much he or she charges, for example. But the biggest factor in how much it’s going to cost is how willing or able the parties are to settle. The attorney cannot know that. The potential client may have a better idea, but there is still no guarantee.

A case that settles quickly is much, much cheaper than a case that takes a while to settle. Both of those cases will be much cheaper than a case that goes to trial. Discussing the specific circumstances of your case with an attorney may help give a better idea of how likely the case is to settle. The good news is the vast majority of cases settle and do not need to go to trial.

Most family law attorneys charge an hourly rate. They are not permitted to charge contingency fees (i.e. a percentage of what the client “wins” in the divorce). Most family law attorneys do not charge flat fees because it is so difficult to know how many hours a case will take. Cases can range from under 10 hours of the attorney’s time to hundreds of hours. If a family law attorney does charge a flat fee, the entire case is usually broken up into discrete parts – so there would be a flat fee for drafting the initial paperwork, a flat fee for attending the first hearing, a flat fee for attending mediation, etc. So there is still no way to know how much the entire process will cost.

If you’re looking for an attorney, you should talk to several and get an idea of their rates, etc. Most attorneys require a retainer – the amount ranges. This is money that is placed in the attorney’s trust account and will be moved from the trust account to the attorney’s business account as the money is earned – if the case takes less time than expected or you decide to fire your attorney (and get a new one or go without), the unearned portion would be returned to you. Some attorneys are willing to negotiate a bit on the retainer fee or even the hourly rate, so it doesn’t hurt to ask or shop around.

So what do you do if you want an attorney but can’t afford one? Stay tuned for some suggestions in the next post!

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