A woman walked into my office completely flustrated (that’s my word that combines “flustered” and “frustrated”). “I don’t know what to do, but I NEED help,” she said, “I need to leave my husband and make a better life for my kids.”
“I am ready to change my life. It’s time. What do I do next?” she asked.
“Let’s talk about how to file for divorce,” I answered.
Her face went white. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“I guess now is not the right time,” she said.
Within seconds, this woman went from feeling empowered and ready to design her life to completely changing her mind, all at the mention of the word DIVORCE.
When I asked her what had just happened, she said honestly, “I can’t afford to get divorced. Is there any other way?”
This baffled me, because we had yet to talk about how much it would cost. I asked, “How much do you think it will cost to get divorced?”
I then heard, not for the first time, a series of stories about how her sister spent over $20,000 on her divorce and did not even have children to factor in. A friend of hers spent less than that, but her lawyer was not very good and she got a terrible result. She expected to have to put down a retainer of at least $10,000, and that money would be gone the minute she paid it, even if they settled the case the very next day.
I was horrified.
While I understand that good legal services do not come cheap, it does not have to be out of reach. The misconceptions of how much it costs (and should cost) to get divorced deter people from creating the lives they want without ever actually knowing the truth.
Let’s clear this up right now. Here are some truthful facts about legal fees and how much it costs to get divorced:
- Retainers are not the same as down payments. When you put down a retainer for an attorney who charges an hourly rate, that money goes towards your legal services. If there is money left from your retainer (commonly called a trust account) when your case is done, that money goes back to you. For example, if an attorney charges $100/hour and you put down a $1,000 retainer, then that retainer will cover 10 hours of legal work. If your case is done after 5 hours of legal work, then you would get a $500 refund. If an attorney tells you up front that your retainer is non-refundable, make extra certain you know where that money is going and whether the attorney is acting ethically.
- Good legal help is not cheap, but it can be affordable. It’s no secret: lawyers are expensive. That being said, they do not have to be out of reach. A lawyer’s hourly rate is based on a variety of factors. Newer lawyers generally have lower hourly rates, but it may take them longer to get the job done. More seasoned lawyers may have higher rates, but they have a system that makes everything happen more quickly. Some lawyers charge a rate based on their firm that has nothing to do with their actual level of experience. When looking for a lawyer, do not just ask how much they charge. Ask them how experienced they are with cases similar to yours and make them explain their general billing philosophy. The right lawyer for you should be affordable by your own standards.
- There are always options. While family law attorneys most often charge by the hour, times are changing. Some lawyers now charge flat fees, making the cost of a divorce plain and simple up front. Many lawyers offer some form of payment plan that helps you either save up your retainer or keep your trust account balance up so that you do not have to worry about large lump sum payments while going through a divorce. Most lawyers, especially the ones who are in solo practices and small firms, have some flexibility to work with you based on your unique needs. Does this mean they will work for you for free? Most likely not. Does it mean that they will be dedicated to helping you make it work if you are dedicated to your own success? Probably.
- In many ways, the cost is up to you. You really can have some control over the cost of your divorce. Paying a lawyer to represent you in court and take a case to trial is absolutely not the only way for you to get divorced.
Let me repeat: you do not necessarily need to retain a lawyer to get divorced.Lawyers who generally charge hourly may charge a lower flat fee if you and the other party know that you want to settle the case out of court. If you feel like you could represent yourself in court with some help and guidance from an experienced lawyer, then legal coaching may cost significantly less than actually retaining a lawyer while giving you almost identical benefits. If you do pay a lawyer hourly to handle all aspects of your case, you can still do a lot of your own legwork like compiling information and requesting records so that your lawyer does not have to charge you for things you can do yourself.
How much will your divorce cost? If I had a crystal ball (that actually worked), I would happily answer that question for everyone who comes into my office. What I can say is this: After almost 8 years practicing family law and working with 700+ clients in everything from simple non-contested cases to high-conflict sexual abuse cases, I have never made $10,000 on a single case.
The Lien Law Firm’s “Time for Truth” blog series focuses on debunking common myths and misconceptions about family law issues. You can read more at www.lienlawfirm.com. Questions or fears about your own life? Call 314-722-8557 to speak with a friendly Missouri lawyer and get truthful answers to your unique questions.