It happens all the time. In fact, it happens every single day. Multiple times a day. A lady calls in, with just one, quick, simple family law question to ask about her divorce or custody case, expecting a quick and easy answer.
We don’t really give legal advice that way, because to do so would be to give advice in a vacuum—and cases just don’t work that way. A question that looks simple on the surface can be a lot more complicated when you start to get into the weeds, and it’s hard to give a comprehensive answer without knowing more. A LOT more, in many cases!
Divorce and custody cases are complicated, and there are a lot of variables that affect how a judge or guardian ad litem would make a decision in a case. And, sometimes, judges and guardians ad litem aren’t really involved at all; sometimes, it’s really just what we can agree to along with opposing counsel, so it’s a different analysis entirely.
Often, the question, even though it’s worded differently, is really something like, “What should I do?” and that’s always a pretty complicated analysis.
We’re not being evasive when we say that it’s not that easy, or that we can’t answer your question without a consultation; we’re trying to make sure that the advice we give you is the best advice for your situation. It’s virtually impossible to know your entire “situation” when you just ask one quick question, and, really, the way the law is applied to the specific facts in your situation have a lot to do with what the right answer is. Whether we’re talking about case strategy or how we think a judge might decide your case, we need to have more than a 5 minute conversation.
Let’s discuss a quick example. The other day, we had an aunt who called in who wanted information about how to get custody of her niece and nephew. She wanted to know what she needed to do. Well, though it’s possible to file custody and visitation petitions to try to get custody of the child, there’s a LOT more information we’d need to know to give her the best advice possible. Where are mom and dad? Do they have custody right now (and aunt just thinks they’re bad parents), or are they in rehab or jail? Does someone else have custody? Is the child in foster care? If mom and dad have custody, what is their opinion of aunt? Do they agree that aunt could have some time? Does dad agree and mom disagrees? Do both mom and dad disagree? What has happened in the case up until this point? I haven’t even thought that hard about all the different issues that could affect the case to come up with the questions I’ve listed here; I’m sure if I took a little more time, I could think of tons more questions to ask. Whenever a non parent petitions for custody, it’s a pretty complicated case—and it’s not really as easy as “Can I get custody of my niece or nephew?” There’s a lot that depends on the facts involved, so it’s really not an easy answer. This particular woman was pretty annoyed that we didn’t have a quick and easy answer for her, but I don’t know how to give advice when I don’t really know about the situation. It may be easier or more difficult than it appears at first blush, and it’s important to us that we give accurate information about what the best course of action might be. Of course, the way the law is applied in a particular situation would depend, too, on the facts involved—so it’s not just a simple question of knowing what the law is. I know that, as a non parent, it’s difficult to get custody or visitation, but there’s a lot more involved.
Most questions are this way, whether it’s a divorce or custody case that we’re talking about. There are a lot of variables, and, without knowing more, we could give the wrong advice—which, frankly, is not a risk that we’re willing to take. I only discussed the non-parent custody situation to give you a quick overview of a particular issue and all the information we’d need to know to really give an answer; there are lots of questions out there with a million different answers. It all depends on the facts and the law and how it combines to create this woman’s specific case.
So how can I get specific legal advice for my divorce or custody case?
At our office, the solution for that problem is to have a consultation. That way, you get up to an hour of one on one time with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys. You can discuss your unique situation at length and come up with a solution for how to move your case forward—which might be different than how we’d move someone else’s case forward, even with a similar issue. You can get comprehensive legal advice.
In our office, the cost of an initial consultation is $285. During your appointment, the attorney will discuss your case in length, answer all your questions, and help you figure out what your best course of action will be. If there are multiple options, the attorney will discuss each option, including the possible advantages and disadvantages associated with each option, with you. If child or spousal support are at issue, the attorney can calculate those numbers for you to give you an idea of what you might be entitled to receive. We can discuss how divorce works, how assets and liabilities are divided, what a reasonable custody and visitation agreement might look like, and so on. There are a lot of individual pieces that go into each case, and knowing how they fit together is incredibly important to understanding your choices and, ultimately, formulating an answer to even the “simplest” question. It’s legal advice, and it’s complicated!
What if I want to hire the attorney to represent me?
At the end of your case, the attorney may present you with a retainer agreement. A retainer is an amount of money that is needed up front in order for our firm to take your case. It isn’t a flat fee; it’s an amount of money that goes into a trust account with your name on. In order to hire the firm, we need both your signed retainer agreement and your retainer fee paid. As your attorney and paralegal do work on your case, the money will be billed from your retainer. If your account falls below a certain level, which would be specified in your retainer agreement, you’d be asked to make another payment to your account. At the end of your case, anything left over would be refunded to you.
Attorneys generally give retainer agreements unless, for whatever reason, you don’t have a reason to move forward at this time or you would be better off pursuing your divorce in another venue or, depending on the issues presented, with another attorney.
Obviously, it is our job to give you our best, most unbiased family law advice, and we’ll always do our best to point you in the right direction. Each attorney is responsible for setting her own retainer fees, based on how difficult the case will be in the attorney’s opinion, so it is quite possible for a retainer fee to vary from attorney to attorney. Still, a retainer fee isn’t the best way to judge overall costs; since a retainer is refundable to you, it’s not really necessarily an estimate of overall costs in your case. To compare costs from attorney to attorney, it’s probably best to look at the attorney’s hourly rate.
What if I don’t want to hire the attorney to represent me?
If, for whatever reason, at the end of your consultation, you don’t want to hire your family law attorney, you certainly don’t have to. Whether the attorney presents you with a retainer agreement or not, it is always going to be your decision whether you’d like to move forward. Whether you plan to represent yourself or just aren’t ready to make that commitment just yet, we’ll never push you in that direction.
In Virginia, you can represent yourself in divorce and custody cases in the courts, so you may feel like you’d prefer to handle your own case. That’s totally fine. Your attorney can give you some pointers, or even provide more information about our divorce and custody seminars, which might be helpful to you.
There’s a lot at stake in a divorce or custody case and, in most cases, there’s really only one opportunity to get it right. It’s important that you take the time at the outset of your case to get all of your questions answered and come up with a comprehensive plan moving forward. For more information, call our family law office at 757-425-5200 to schedule an appointment. We’ll be sure to answer your questions and help you figure out what your next steps should be.