Can you send me a quote for attorney’s fees in my family law case?

Posted on Jan 22, 2021 by Katie Carter


Everyone is concerned about money, especially now. But, really, in my line of business, I feel the same sense of urgency where finances are concerned regardless of whether there’s a global pandemic.

Attorneys are expensive. And family law attorneys are different from other kinds of attorneys – specifically, personal injury attorneys – so some of the things that people expect (“no fee unless we get money for you”, that kind of thing) don’t really apply to us. What personal injury attorneys always talk about when it comes to attorney fees is a contingency basis; usually, they take 30-40% of the total value of the settlement at the end of the case. They don’t take money up front for their services.

We can’t do that. It’s considered unethical. And, really, if you stop to think about it, it doesn’t make sense. What’s the value of a divorce case? Forty percent of the assets you receive? If you stop to think about that, not only is that insanely high (especially if you have retirement accounts, a home with equity, savings in the bank, etc), but it doesn’t really make sense. There aren’t winners and losers in divorce (at least, not usually!) like there are in personal injury cases. Do both a husband and wife pay out 30-40% of what they receive? Yikes. And what about people who have no assets at all – how do they get attorneys?

Anyway, it doesn’t work that way. That contingency fee based system unravels in family law cases, which is why it’s considered unethical. Thirty percent of a $100,000 settlement isn’t chump change, by any stretch, but it just work to try to apply that division to all of the marital assets a party receives in a divorce case.

Anyway, we can’t do it, even if we wanted to. It’s against the rules.

So, divorce attorneys use retainers and bill hourly for work as it is done. There are very few – if any – flat fees in divorce, either, because it is so difficult to gauge total overall costs in a case.

I’ve written before about saving money in divorce and custody cases, and also about how a good paralegal can be a family law attorney’s secret weapon, especially when it comes to saving clients serious cash in a case.

But I often get asked for a “quote” in my cases, and it’s always something I struggle to give. I talk sometimes about ballpark figures – while pointing out that, based on the facts and evidence and even the people involved, my guesstimate could be seriously off. It’s hard to know, from an initial consultation, exactly how difficult a case will be.

A wife telling me that her husband will fight everything, won’t sign anything, or will stop at nothing is really no indication, either. They almost all say that. And sometimes there’s a husband who is truly hellbent on destroying his wife, but, mostly, after awhile, tensions cool. No one wants to spend an egregious amount of money on a bad investment. And litigating on some issues is just a bad investment, no matter how you slice it.

So, even if he’s a narcissist, or just a total pig of a human being (hey, it happens), practicality plays a role. But it may not even be down to him, or his lack of stellar personal attributes. The attorney he hires can have a dramatic impact on total overall costs in a case as well. Some attorneys are more or less reasonable, or more or less litigious, than others – and that can cost you as well.

In most cases, I’d rather have a represented husband than a pro se husband. Attorneys, in most cases, help keep the train firmly on the tracks, so to speak. And that’s a good thing. We’ve taken oaths, we have to follow rules, we can’t just play nasty tricks – things that unrepresented husbands sometimes try to do, to more or less effect.

It depends on the issues, too. Child support, for example, is often not heavily litigated, unless it’s part of a larger custody action. Retirement accounts and the marital residence are easy to divide, and rarely – on their own – require litigation. But other things, like custody and spousal support, can be heavily litigated. It depends on what the issues are in your case how complicated things will ultimately be, and it’s hard to know until you really get started and see where the other side is coming from.

But a quote, still, is a difficult thing to do, even if you remove all those variables. Even on just my end, billing is based off of how long something takes me to do.

I drafted a separation agreement the other day where the parties were married less than 3 months, and had nothing in common.
I drafted a different separation agreement with three IRAs, a pension account, a 401(k), and two residences.  I drafted a third separation agreement with a complicated custody and visitation provision designed to help the parties share children across the country, since both of the parents are active duty military.

Those three separation agreements are NOT the same, and did not take the same amount of time to draft. I’ve never, ever done two cases that were exactly the same. Even the first agreement – where the parties had nothing in common at all – was a little strange for me because it’s not normal or usual to have nothing at all to divide! Often, there’s a child, or a vehicle, a bank account – something – even the shortest term marriages.

One case is not like another, which can make quoting costs difficult. It’s not like I can say, oh, yeah, definitely – that separation agreement will take 1.5 hours, but this other one will take 2.8. It’s a difficult thing to do.

Probably the best thing you can do, though, is to have a full and frank conversation with your attorney about money – both at the beginning of the process, and also as the case progresses – to ensure that the two of you are on the same page. Ask about the next steps, what’s involved, and what the attorney expects.

Open a dialogue that allows you to assess and then re-assess where you are, as things move along, and as the attorney has a better understanding of your husband/child’s father, and what his sticking points may be.

Ask a lot of questions. Get as much information as you can. But also understand that the level of detail you’re hoping for may not be available, especially not immediately. Once a case has begun, it may be more or less difficult to estimate costs related to particular pieces of the process – like the uncontested divorce, the discovery process, or the pendente lite hearing – but understand the difficulty involved in gauging total overall expenses. Don’t stop asking questions, throw your hands up, or feel defeated, though – engage in an ongoing, productive, meaningful dialogue designed to keep your attorney apprised of your needs and concerns, and allow your attorney to work her strategies around your needs as best as she can.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.