Everyone (and I do mean everyone) wants us to give them just a “ballpark” figure for how much their case might cost. In some cases, that’s an easier thing to do than others. But, even so, costs can be a difficult thing to estimate. There are a lot of variables involved. There are a lot of things that, try as I might, I just can’t control. And there are some things that, even if an issue may seem simple up front, that doesn’t necessarily mean things will resolve quickly, easily, and inexpensively.
So, what’s involved? How can these cases vary so dramatically? Isn’t one custody case pretty much the same as all the others?
Oh my goodness, no! Custody cases are some of the most varied we have! One case can be very different from the others, and can present all sorts of different issues.
But there are lots of variables we can’t control – from what kind of man your child’s father is (and, obviously, you know the answer to that better than we ever could!), what kind of attorney he hires, and so on. Other things – like whether your kids have special needs, are breastfeeding, homeschooled, or some other unique issue is presented – can impact custody as well. If you or your child’s father are relocating, or a family reunification is involved (we especially see this where one parent – usually dad – has disappeared for a long period of time and is trying to re-establish a relationship with the child). There are even (though I hope you don’t fall into this category) cases where abuse is alleged against one parent or the other.
How much does a custody case cost?
That’s so hard to even begin to guestimate.
Keep in mind that there are different kinds of custody cases. There are divorces, where there’s a custody component (as opposed to a divorce where there are no kids, or just no minor children, or where custody is agreed upon). There are cases where custody is initially determined at the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court level. There are cases where custody is modified (anything relating to the children – child custody, visitation, and child support) based on a material change in circumstances. There are appeals, too – both to the circuit court, or to the Court of Appeals.
Each and every different type of case has its own cost associated. When you combine both the fact that the issues can be different (whether we’re talking about special needs or relocation or breastfeeding or whatever), and that the case structure itself can be different (depending on whether it’s part of a divorce, an initial determination, appeal, or a modification), all of those things can impact total overall costs.
Custody cases are wildcards when it comes to attorney’s fees and costs involved.
Custody is difficult. One of the biggest reasons why it’s difficult is because you can’t put a price tag on custody. It’s not like a retirement account, or an item of personal property – obviously, it’s not beneficial to spend more than an item is worth fighting over it. (Though, sometimes, people still do.)
Custody is invaluable. People will spend any amount of money fighting over custody, and fighting over and over again (remember, even after custody is initially determined, it can be modified), potentially until the child reaches 18.
So how do I prepare financially for a custody case?
I know – all of that is easy enough to understand, but it doesn’t come close to giving you a ballpark figure for how much your custody case might cost.
It’s hard to know exactly how to prepare financially, but there are a couple of different things it’s important to remember when it comes to Virginia custody cases.
Family law attorneys work on retainers, and bill hourly.
The most important thing to know is that attorneys in family law work on retainers. That means that we charge a fee up front to take on a case. The money goes into an escrow account, and, as work is done, we bill from that account.
Custody retainers can range from $2500 on up, depending on the issues involved. There’s a really wide range. It’s not uncommon to see retainers for $5000, $7500, or even $10,000—and certainly it’s possible that a retainer could be more. But is a retainer a good barometer of how much a case will actually cost? Probably not. Though a retainer could have a lot to do with whether you’re able to actually lay out the cash up front and hire an attorney, a retainer isn’t a flat fee. It isn’t an estimate of how much the attorney things your case will cost in the end. It’s just an amount of money needed to take on your case. The actual cost can be (and likely will be, if you go to trial) more.
Really, though, a retainer fee is sort of arbitrary. Since we bill hourly, and retainer agreements generally require a client to maintain a certain amount of money to be available in the escrow account, it doesn’t much matter what a retainer is. Once your retainer runs out, you’ll have to replenish your trust account for the attorney to keep working.
The best way to tell how much an attorney costs –and to compare across firms– is to look at his or her hourly rate. Your retainer will go much further with an attorney with a lower hourly rate; it’s probably fairly likely that attorneys in the same area will charge similar retainers anyway. But hourly rates can differ dramatically, depending on the experience of the attorney, the size of the firm, and other factors as well. If I were you, I’d ask more questions about the attorney’s hourly rate (and the qualifications of the attorney involved) than the retainer fee itself.
You might have to pay a guardian ad litem, too.
In addition to paying your attorney’s fees (and, as a head’s up, it’s super unlikely that your child’s father will have to pay yours, too), you could also have to pay for a guardian ad litem, especially if your case is in circuit court.
A guardian ad litem is an attorney appointed to represent the interests of the child(ren). We see them appointed in lots of custody cases, mostly because a custody case is too important for a judge to rely on himself (or herself) alone. A guardian ad litem can review all the information in the case and, ultimately, make a recommendation to the judge. In my experience, a guardian ad litem’s recommendation is really super important to the judge’s.
Like your own attorney, a guardian ad litem has his or her own hourly rate as well, sometimes as much as $250 an hour. So, yeah – that’ll set you back, too.
All that to say, I don’t know exactly how to provide a ballpark figure. It’s not because I don’t want to; it’s really because they range so dramatically. Many cases resolve quickly, by agreement between the parties, and without too much fuss. (Even if it seems like, at the beginning, it’s not going to go down without a fight.) Other cases drag out for years. They come back again and again. Parties petition and re-petition for changes in custody. Guardian ad litems are involved. There are appeals. Appeals of the appeals. So, you see – custody cases can take all sorts of different forms, and can range from a several thousand dollar case to a hundred thousand dollar case. That’s not to say, of course, that I think your case will be one of the hundred thousand dollar variety (after all, I’ve never even met you), but I hesitate to speak in averages or generalities when so often custody cases don’t lend themselves to averages or generalities. They are a truly unique breed of case, and it can range dramatically.
The best way to get an idea of the complexity of your case is to talk one on one with a divorce or custody lawyer who can help give you an idea of what difficulties you’re up against. Keep in mind, too, that often cases seem far, far worse in the beginning than they do later on down the line – things tend to resolve over time, as parties realize how difficult and expensive and time consuming it is to fight. You’ll definitely want to talk to someone, though, one on one about your unique case, so that you can begin to plan, both legally and financially, for the road ahead.
To talk to one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.