It’s not easy to tell how much a divorce or custody case is going to cost. Even in my position, knowing as much as I know about family law, that would make me uneasy. It’s not easy to feel like, in hiring an attorney, you’re essentially striking a blank check.
I’m going to do my best, in this article, to explain to you how lawyers – family law lawyers, anyway – work and get paid and charge their clients. Unfortunately, though, the answer to the question you’re asking (which is, I think, “how much will MY case cost?”) is a common legal answer:
Lawyers aren’t trying to cop out of giving specific answers when they tell you it depends. They’re trying to safeguard you from being mad at them later if your case doesn’t conform to the shape the attorney expects it’ll take at the beginning of the case.
Look, we’re asked to give cost estimates in cases VERY early on. Before we know our clients. Before we know their husbands. Before we know their husband’s lawyers. Sometimes, even, before we know ANY of the relevant facts. You can appreciate how it could be difficult to estimate costs, right?
That’s like saying, “How much does a house cost?” Well, it depends, right? It depends on a lot of things, like the location of the home, its size, the market, the interest rate you pay, the condition the house is in, and so on. A house doesn’t cost one specific number; houses can run the gamut. A house in, say, Mississippi (where prices are the lowest nationwide – that’s right, I googled) is going to cost a lot less than a house in Montecito, California. Right?
So can divorces. There are little Mississippi divorces, and there are Hollywood mega mansion divorces with private jet pads and climate controlled swimming pools and NFL-sized stadiums in the backyard featuring full sized Hogwarts playsets for the kids and twelve thoroughbred Palominos. But you’re not Bill and Melinda Gates, or Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott, or Elon Musk and Talulah Riley.
Still, a ‘ballpark figure’ is a hard thing to estimate. I don’t say that to be discouraging, but only to help you manage your expectations.
How much does a divorce cost?
It ranges, dramatically. Separation agreement cases, in general, cost far, far less than litigated divorces, where parties go to court and argue their case in front of the judge. Collaborative divorce cases are similar, often, in terms of cost to litigated divorces, but generate far better results.
Family law attorneys do work on retainers, unlike personal injury lawyers, who take a percentage of the settlement at the end of the case. Family law lawyers can’t do this; it’s considered unethical. So, we’re stuck billing hourly, and working against a retainer.
What’s a retainer?
A retainer is an amount of money, paid up front, to get a lawyer to take your case. The money is yours, and it stays yours, until the work has been done to earn it. It goes into a trust account with your name, and as statements are issued and work is done, the money is earned by the lawyer. It then comes out of your trust account and into the law firm’s account.
When your account falls below a certain amount, which will be established clearly in your retainer agreement, you’ll be asked to replenish that account.
Though I can’t speak for other firms, in general our retainers for separation agreements begin at $2500, and $5000+ for collaborative divorce or contested divorce. Those amounts can vary dramatically based on the perceived difficulty involved with the case.
Can divorce lawyers do flat fee work?
Theoretically, yes, it is possible to do work on a flat fee basis, but most lawyers – including those at our firm – do not.
The amount of money you pay in a retainer is NOT a flat fee; it’s just an initial deposit for future services rendered. If you close your account – like, say, if you reconcile, or if you fire the attorney – the amount remaining in trust is yours and is refunded to you if it wasn’t earned.
Do lawyers let their paralegals bill on client accounts?
Yes. In most firms, both lawyers and paralegals have an hourly rate, and they bill for work that is done. I know it’s scary to think of a second person with a separate hourly rate billing on top of the lawyer, but, though the rules may be different at other firms, we do not double bill.
We utilize the paralegal to save money, not to cost you additional money. The paralegal works at a lower hourly rate than the attorney (and, despite the law degree and the license to practice law in the Commonwealth of Virginia, probably knows as much as the lawyer does), so this can be valuable to you.
What is a typical attorney hourly rate?
In our area, attorney hourly rates vary – based on reputation and experience – between $200-500. If you go up to Northern Virginia, you’ll find higher hourly rates; if you go out west, you may find lower hourly rates. But, in general, attorneys prefer to practice in a specific area, where they know the judges, other attorneys, procedures, precedent, and local rules.
My case is terrible. Will you take it pro bono?
No. In general, lawyers don’t take on entire cases pro bono.
Probably not. It’s possible, but not probable. You should expect to pay your own attorney’s fees.
But I can’t afford that retainer or hourly rate!
I hear that a lot. I hear you – it sounds daunting. I definitely recommend that you have a consultation with an attorney, no matter what, to learn about your options. It may be that you’re able to draft an agreement yourself and have it reviewed by an attorney, or work with a mediator and an attorney, in an effort to save money. Definitely discuss your money-related concerns in your consultation to get an idea what might work best for you.
Be careful, though – once signed, an agreement can’t be unsigned, so you want to get it righ the first time. In most cases, there are tens of thousands of dollars in assets (if not hundreds of thousands or millions), so a single mistake can be VERY costly – far more than a $285 consult or $2500 separation agreement retainer. You want to tread carefully, and make sure you understand!
To that end, I definitely encourage you to also download a free copy of our book or attend one of our upcoming divorce seminars – or both! You’ll learn a lot, and be better equipped to make good choices moving forward.
For more information or to discuss your case one on one with a licensed Virginia attorney, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.