Money is often at the top of the list of questions that most women have when it comes to hiring a family law attorney. It’s also one of the hardest questions to answer, even as a divorce attorney with over a decade of experience representing women exclusively in Virginia.
The truth is, it depends. Cases vary in terms of how much they cost. It’s kind of like asking how much a house costs, or even a car. There are a lot of variables! In a divorce, much like in a housing context, there are variables you can control – like the location, the features, the size of the home – and variables you can’t control – like the current interest rates, closing costs, and realtor commissions.
It can be difficult even to estimate a ballpark amount for a divorce case because cases can vary so much, but I’ve written plenty of articles about it before where I try to get you at least in the neighborhood. Keep in mind, though, that things can be pretty different from one case to the next, so the ultimate costs of your case could be higher or lower, depending.
In terms of estimating costs, its often much easier to estimate what a retainer fee might look like. And, in any case, understanding a retainer and how it works is an important concept in a family law case anyway, so its worth some explaining.
What’s a retainer fee in a divorce or custody case?
A retainer is an amount of money required to hire an attorney. Basically, to make an attorney YOUR attorney, for the purposes of this specific case.
It’s not a flat fee; it’s basically a deposit against future services rendered. It’s an amount of money, set by the attorney, that goes into a trust account with your name on it. It’s your money and it stays your money until the attorney does the work and bills against the trust account. Once the money has been billed – and earned – by the attorney, it moves from the trust account to the firm’s general account as payment for the work that was performed.
What if I use up the money in my trust account?
A retainer fee is not a flat fee; it’s just an amount of money you pay up front so that the attorney will take your case.
Most retainer agreements – the contract signed by the attorney and client that specifies the details of the attorney/client relationship – specify exactly what will happen when a trust account drops below a certain amount.
In our retainer agreements, for example, there’s a ‘minimum fee security deposit’ specified. Basically, that’s an amount of money that the account should not fall below. If it’s $1,000, when your account drops to $900, we’ll ask that you put $100 in to bring it back up to $1,000 total.
Is my trust account balance refundable to me?
Yes. Your retainer balance is refundable to you, whether it’s the initial retainer that you paid or any additional amount that you paid into your account to keep it at the minimum level provided by the retainer agreement.
If it’s $1,000 and you keep your account at $1,000, when your file is closed at the end of the case, you’ll get $1,000 back. We don’t keep unearned money.
It’s refundable, too, if you decide to fire your attorney – whether you decide to go with a different attorney instead or whether you and your husband reconcile. It’s all good; it happens.
How much is a retainer fee in a family law case?
Retainer fees vary, depending on the complexity of the case. In general, separation agreement and custody agreement case retainer agreements start at $2,500. Those are our smallest retainers, because they don’t involve court appearances.
A retainer for an uncontested divorce is also small; that typically happens AFTER a client has retained for a separation agreement and just needs the divorce finalized. Those range between $1,500 and $2,500, depending on exactly what needs to be done. If name changes, QDROs, TSP orders, and other documents have to be prepared, you’ll be on the higher end; if not, you’ll be on the lower end.
Contested cases, though, can run the gamut, but they usually start at about $5,000. This is where a court appearance is going to be required. It’s pretty common to see retainers at $7,500 or even $10,000, though, depending on how complicated the case is. In rare situations, retainers can be higher.
Like I said, though, a retainer fee isn’t a flat fee; it doesn’t represent what the attorney estimates to be total overall costs in your case. It just gets things started.
For more information, to request a copy of our divorce book, or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.