If that’s not a generic question, I don’t know what is! I know there’s a lot of confusion out there about how attorneys bill and what we charge for. I also know that there’s often a general feeling that we’re not all that willing to give straight answers. In law school, the joke was always that the answer to every single question is “It depends.” Today, I’m going to explain to you what goes in to setting retainer fees, and the different types of cases that we generally face. Now, keep in mind, this isn’t a completely exhaustive list of every single potential kind of case we could possible handle, but I am going to focus on some of the most common types of cases we get – specifically, uncontested divorce, contested divorce, and contested custody.
What is a retainer?
A retainer fee is an amount of money that you pay an attorney to become a client of that particular attorney. It’s not a flat fee. It’s not a representation of exactly what the attorney thinks your case will cost. It’s an amount of money 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 for it.
How do family law attorneys bill?
Family law attorneys bill on an hourly basis, and our fees range depending on the standards in each practice group, as well as the level of experience of that particular attorney. More experienced attorneys charge more. Does that mean they cost more? Well, not necessarily – because, often, the most experienced attorneys are super efficient.
How can I tell how much my case will cost?
Honestly? Probably the thing that will tell you the most about how much your case will cost is (1) how difficult your husband is and, (2) who he hires as counsel. Who you hire, too, makes a difference – you want a pit bull? Expect an aggressive bill, too.
Different types of cases cost differently, too. Cases where parties are able to reach an agreement typically cost less than cases where we have to go to court. Cases where all the issues are litigated, especially if some of the contentious issues are support and/or custody and visitation, are considerably more expensive than cases where some of the issues are resolved ahead of time and only a few are litigated.
Depending on how difficult your case seems, your attorney may quote a different retainer fee. We quote based on the type of case (basically, does it require court or not?) and then the complexity of the issues involved.
So, what do retainers typically look like in different family law cases?
I’m an attorney, so I need to issue a quick disclaimer first. What I’m telling you here today is based off of me knowing nothing about your case. This is general information only, and the retainer fee that you are quoted, if you come in to my office for an appointment (with me or with another attorney in our firm) may be more or less than the general ballpark guideline figures I’ve laid out here today.
Separation Agreements (Uncontested Divorce)
Uncontested divorce cases (basically, cases where the divorce related issues are resolved by a contract called a separation agreement) typically start at a retainer of $2,500. Because no court is required, we can keep these retainer fees lower than litigated divorce fees. Remember: anything not spent is refundable to you, so the case only costs whatever it actually cost you.
In total? Most separation agreement cases range somewhere from $2,000-8,000, depending on how difficult the issues involved are.
Contested Divorce Cases
When divorce is contested, a retainer typically starts at $5,000, but it’s not uncommon to see retainers of $7,500 or even $10,000. Occasionally, retainer fees are even higher – but that’s somewhat rare, and highly dependent on circumstances.
It’s hard to say how much a contested divorce costs in total, but, again it depends on the issues involved. If there are complicated equitable distribution issues (like, determining the value of a family business), custody issues (particularly if there’s some kind of issue, like relocation), or spousal support, it can cost a whole lot.
These types of cases run the gamut. Some settle quickly, for less than the retainer amount. Others drag on for ages. It’s much, much harder to put a ballpark figure, because there is no just plain run-of-the-mill divorce.
Contested Custody Cases
Custody cases, too, are wild cards. When there are unusual issues – like the mental health or addiction of the parents, or possible physical or sexual abuse – these cases can cost a fortune. A retainer for a contested custody case, whether in juvenile court or circuit court, usually starts at $5,000 and goes up from there.
Keep in mind, too, that custody cases can start in juvenile court. You can have a full trial on the merits and win (or lose) only for your case to be appealed to the circuit court. In the juvenile court, you get an appeal to the circuit court de novo (meaning, you get a brand new trial) as a matter of right. If your case is appealed, you may have to pay two retainer fees – one for handling the matter in juvenile court, and another, separate, retainer fee for the case in circuit court.
After the circuit court, you have to prove that there was a mistake of law in order to appeal further – just to illustrate the difference between cases at the juvenile court and circuit court level. Because of the possibility of an appeal, you can end up going through, essentially, two entire trials to reach a resolution in your case.
Needless to say, that can be expensive.
It’s not sufficient to just ask, generically, what a retainer fee looks like. As you can already tell, these cases can take all sorts of different shapes and forms, and that can impact what the total overall cost is.
The best way to gauge? Come in for a consult. Sit down, talk with one of our attorneys one-on-one about the issues in your case. I’ve given general information, but I still know nothing about you or your case.
Can’t afford even the low end of these retainers? You’re not alone. Give Legal Aid a call and see what they can do for you. Also, check out our free divorce and custody books and free reports as well as our low cost divorce and custody seminars. Maybe we’re not the perfect fit to represent you, but we can help get you a little bit of information to get started on the right track. For more information or to schedule today, give us a call at 757-425-5200.