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Many factors influence your decision when hiring a divorce attorney. Experience, educational background, even how aggressive the attorney's style is, every client looks for something different. Cost, of course, also plays a role. Understanding the full price of hiring an attorney to represent you in your divorce helps avoid sticker shock when you receive your final bill.
Types of Fee Structures
Divorce attorneys are like other attorneys; there is no national guideline dictating how lawyers set their fees. Typically, lawyers charge either an hourly rate or a flat fee for their services, though some offer a combination. This means that he or she will charge an hourly rate with a set cap both parties agree on. Once the cap is reached, no further charges accrue. Larger firms tend to charge higher rates, though some smaller firms charge higher rates as part of their practice of taking fewer clients in order to devote more attention to each case. Finally, most lawyers charge a retainer to begin working your case.
Fees and legal costs are not the same thing. The fee reimburses your attorney for his or her time. Legal costs are expenses related to handling your case, such as administrative tasks and reimbursing expert witnesses for their time. Attorneys rarely include legal costs in their fees. Ask for an estimate of costs during your consultation.
Typically, when a case is uncomplicated, an attorney offers a prospective client a flat fee for services. In the case of divorce, this may happen when the divorce is uncontested. Even in these cases, amounts vary widely. Expect to pay anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 for a flat fee, depending on the circumstances of your case and the size of the firm.
During your initial consultation, the attorney gets a good idea of how involved your case will be. If he or she offers you a flat rate, that means the attorney thinks it's a straightforward case. One of the questions to ask during your consultation is how he or he plans to handle your case. Some of the services you're paying for include court appearances, depositions, mediation conferences, and filing or defending motions.
The certainty of a flat fee makes it very appealing for some clients. Please note, though, that if your case suddenly becomes complicated, your attorney will likely add fees. For example, if your spouse has a change of heart and contests the divorce, your attorney will usually adjust the fee.
Most divorce attorneys charge an hourly rate for their services. Average rates vary widely not only due to firm size, but also location. In smaller towns, $150 per hour is average, while the average in larger towns is $300 per hour. Rates vary beyond these averages depending on the attorney's experience and firm size.
Please consider that a lower rate won't necessarily save you money. A highly experienced divorce lawyer may have the ability to finish your case more quickly than one with less experience. Your consultation should include questions (from you) about how many hours the attorney expects to devote to your case. Without that, you cannot estimate the total cost of the attorney's fee. This is another area where experience tells, as more experience generally means a more accurate estimate of the time your case requires.
The retainer is an advance payment for your lawyer's time. In a flat fee schedule, this constitutes a percentage of the total fee. After the retainer, you typically make scheduled payments until the full fee is paid. In the case of an hourly rate, the retainer represents a certain number of hours of your lawyer's time. As he or she works your case, those hours are deducted from the retainer. When your attorney reaches the total retainer amount, you either begin a monthly payment schedule or pay for another lump sum of hours.
In most cases, retainers are nonrefundable, even if your attorney never uses all of the funds. There are exceptions, however, so ask the attorney during your consultation.
According to Nolo, the nationwide average for a divorce is $15,500, with $12,800 of that going to pay attorney fees. Costs are higher the more issues there are, and if you go to court expect even higher costs. The average amount spent by couples going to trial is $19,600, of which $15,800 was for the lawyer's fees. Couples settling out of court paid $14,500 on average, with $12,200 in attorney's fees.
Schedule a Free Consultation
If you are filing for divorce, schedule a free consultation with an experienced family law or divorce attorney. Bring all relevant materials and ask plenty of questions to get the best idea of what you can expect to pay.