What should you actually be paying your lawyer for, and what should you NOT pay money for?
Before you even start reading, let me give you the moral of the story: Look closely, very closely, at how a lawyer will bill you before you hire them.
People ask me all the time, “How much will my divorce cost?”
If I had a crystal ball, I would answer that question every time someone walks into my office. While I may be a lawyer, I am also human, and I understand how difficult it is to budget for something when you don’t actually know how much it will cost.
Unfortunately, there is no way to tell how much a case will cost in family court because it really does depend. In most cases, attorneys bill on an hourly rate, so the total expense is largely determined by how much time your lawyers spends on your case.
While you may not be able to control the total expense, you can make sure you are informed about what exactly your lawyer will bill you for. There are certain things you can expect to pay your lawyer for, and some common pitfalls to avoid when choosing a lawyer to represent you.
In my opinion, based on industry standard, business policy, and general fairness, here is what you should expect to pay your lawyer for, and how you can minimize the unnecessary components of those expenses:
- Court Time. This one is, hopefully, the most obvious. You can expect to pay your lawyer for any time spent in court on your case. This generally includes any time you spend sitting and waiting for your case to be called. You can make the best use of this time by using it to talk with your lawyer about case strategy and future plans. As a lawyer, I would much rather spend that waiting time talking to you about your questions and concerns rather than billing you to just sit around waiting.
- Emails and Phone Calls. While it may seem trivial at times, phone calls and emails take up a large chunk of your lawyer’s time. This can be unnerving for people because you quite literally have no control over how often other people will call or email me regarding your case, especially the opposing party or opposing counsel. When hiring a lawyer, ask them how they handle billing for emails and phone calls. Do they log every single contact and charge a minimum for it, or do they go by actual time spent? You can minimize these fees by making sure that you are not the one ringing up the bill. Consolidate your questions and ask them clearly when possible. Also, while it may be tempting, try not to ramble on and on to your lawyer. I absolutely want to understand your feelings, but I cannot help you process things like a therapist.
- Research. Family law in Missouri is not very heavy on legal research. Most issues are determined by statute and have been cemented in the law for quite some time. That being said, families are constantly evolving. If your case involves an area of the law that is still arguable, then legal research may be required to understand what the law actually is. It may also involve motions, hearings, and arguments to determine how the law applies to your case. Before paying your lawyer to do extensive legal research, look closely at what the issue is and how it actually related to your case. What will the likely outcome be? Even if the law is in your favor, how much will it impact the actual outcome of your case? I once had a case where the opposing party paid his lawyer what I am sure was several hundred dollars to do research and draft a brief on an issue that my client was in complete agreement with. If opposing counsel had asked me in advance, he probably could have avoided doing all that work, and charging his client all that money.
- Drafting Documents. Paperwork is inevitable for lawyers. A case lives and breathes on the different pleadings that are filed with the court. You can expect to pay your lawyer to draft documents. To keep this under control, make sure you provide information to your lawyer in an organized and manageable way – fill out the forms they ask you for, organize your documents in advance, and offer to do as much of the paperwork as possible on your own. It can sometimes take me twice as long to draft a brief using piles of notes from clients than it would using a more organized system, like The Parenting Planner.
There are also some things that are perfectly ethical to charge for, but that tend to make a bill go up very quickly. Be very careful before hiring a lawyer who charges for any of the following, and make sure you understand exactly how you will be billed:
- Travel Time. It is perfectly reasonable for a lawyer to charge you for travel time to and from court, meetings, and other things related to your case. That being said, I consider it poor taste to bill a client the same rate for travel as I would for going to court or preparing case strategy. Look for a lawyer who bills a more standard mileage rate for travel, if they even bill for travel at all.
- Copying and Postage. If you need a huge copy or mailing project done, then you can absolutely expect to pay for it. If your lawyer is charging you for every single letter that goes out, then that may be excessive. Make sure you know in advance how you are going to be billed for paperwork. You can minimize these fees easily by finding a lawyer who operates an electronic and paperless practice.
- Meals. I have heard of lawyers passing on fees for meals to clients, especially if those meals are purchased during client meetings or breaks in court. While this may be legitimate, you should be careful of how this will increase your bill. By the time we get to this level of billing, I advise clients to be very careful about knowing where their money is going. If your lawyer does charge you for meals, then ask to meet in their office instead of out in public.
Remember one thing, if nothing else: The money you pay a lawyer is yours until they earn it. It is your right to know what your lawyer will charge you for and how their billing practices work. Getting answers to your questions up front will prevent you from being in a sticky position later.
Do you have questions about money and your family court case? Call The Lien Law Firm at 314-722-8557 for a no-cost consultation where you can have a frank, honest conversation with a lawyer about your case and your budget.
I saw a client and I bought a car. (No, the client did not pay for my new car.)
Related blog post: What I learned about lawyers while buying a car
Everywhere you turn, it seems like someone is sick, getting sick, or just getting over being sick. The COVID-19 (the coronavirus) is spreading this year, causing widespread fear and panic. This is especially true for newly single adults without good insurance coverage, and more so for parents of children with an uncooperative co-parent.
Unfortunately, I have seen numerous situations where a child’s medical care has been put on hold because divorced parents could not get it together. I have seen arguments over who is supposed to carry health insurance, who has copies of the insurance information, and who gets to make healthcare decisions delay everything from routine physicals to urgent surgeries. It is not a pleasant experience, and in the end, the children are the ones who suffer the most.
You can avoid situations like these by getting your ducks in a row now. If you have a divorce or child custody order, follow these steps to make sure you are ready for a cold/flu/corona crisis:
- Take care of YOU. Before you can do anything for your family, you need to take care of yourself. If you are newly divorced, then you may have lost insurance coverage or other healthcare benefits through your former spouse’s employer. Make sure that you have a new insurance policy and a primary care physician who has all of your medical records. Execute your living will (aka healthcare directive) and Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare so that your wishes are clear and you know who will be taking care of you if necessary.
- Understand your court order. If you share children with a co-parent, make sure you are crystal clear about what your court order says. You need to know who has authority to make healthcare decisions, who is carrying health insurance, and who is responsible for payment. This is important not only so that you know what to expect and/or demand of the other parent, but also to make sure you do not act in contempt of court yourself. If you have questions about your court order, a one-time session with a lawyer should help clear it up so that you know exactly what it says.
- Get the documents in order. If the other parent is responsible for carrying health insurance, are you sure they have an active policy? Do you know what that policy covers? Do you have a copy of the insurance card and other information you would need to seek emergency care? If not, you need to get this information and keep it in a safe place. If you are the one responsible for carrying insurance on your kids, have you given this information to the other parent? If not, doing so will be the best way to help prevent an allegation of contempt in the event of an emergency. If you cannot get the necessary information from the other parent, or if they will not accept it from you (yes, that really happens), contact a lawyer to help.
- Talk it out. If possible, talk through a crisis plan with your co-parent. Make sure you each know who your kids’ healthcare providers are, where you will go if they get sick, and how you will contact the other parent. Be on the same page with reminding your kids to wash their hands so that they have the same routine with both parents. Not all parents can co-parent this effectively, but if you can, it will help make cold and flu season much less stressful.
- Know your resources. The new coronavirus looks to be mandating a quarantine that could last for weeks. Do you have what you need to stay inside your house for that long? Have your delivery resources ready for prescriptions, groceries, and other supplies. Our favorite delivery services are Imperfect Foods, Hungryroot, and Amazon Prime.
Cold and flu season is stressful, and this year it is even more stressful because of the new virus. If you get your legal information in order now, you will save yourself a lot of stress and grief in the event of a healthcare situation later on down the road.
If you need to talk to a lawyer to get you ready for cold and flu season, call The Lien Law Firm at 314-722-8557. Our paperless practice allows for everything from paperwork to live meetings to be done virtually if you are concerned about germ transmission.
Related blog post: Let’s Talk Money (Time for Truth)
Being a family law attorney, there are certain things that I have gotten used to hearing from my clients over time.
“It’s not my daughter’s fault.”
“I don’t want anything bad for him, I just can’t be married to him.”
And, “It’s not about the money.”
That last one, whenever I hear it, makes me feel a bit sad. It makes me wonder what that woman was told or what stories they heard that made her feel like she has to say that divorce is not about the money. I know exactly what she means: her life, her kids, and her future potential are her primary focus points. I get that. As a lawyer, however, I have to be honest when I tell you that family court is very much about the money, and if you do not pay attention to it, you may end up losing.
I once had a woman who was so determined to fight her divorce at trial that she did not realize how much she was spending on legal fees. By the time she ran out of money, she realized that she could have settled for a much better outcome than she got at trial, and she would not have been left with an extra bill to pay on top of it.
There was also this time a mother was so determined not to agree to anything less than sole custody that she spent all her savings on negotiating something unreasonable and ended up having to represent herself at trial.
Women, for some reason, feel the need to ignore the financial component of family court, or at least to make it look like they are ignoring that aspect when talking to others.
Well, here’s the truth: The clients who do not pay attention to the money are the ones who realize, and often realize too late, how important it is to be informed and make sound financial decisions right from the beginning.
When thinking about money and your family court case, consider these important financial elements:
- Child Support. Perhaps the most common financial element of any child custody case is child support. Many women have confused this with someone’s obligation to support their ex-spouse (spousal maintenance). Others think of it as charity. Child support is actually one of the simplest money-related parts of family court – it is the obligation of both parents to support their children. Nothing more, nothing less.
- Spousal Maintenance (aka Alimony). Spousal maintenance, formerly called alimony, is a bit of a gray area. Different counties, and sometimes even different judges, have different standards for how to determine if you are entitled to receive maintenance from your former spouse. It is important for you to know how your county and the judge assigned to your case determines maintenance payments if your case goes to trial.
- Court Costs and Services. In all likelihood, the fees you will pay to the court will be the smallest expenses associated with your divorce, especially if you hire a lawyer to represent you. The court usually requires a one-time filing fee. The initial documents and some select motions throughout your case may incur a fee to be formally served on the other party. Other than that, fees from the court will be minimal. If your case involves court-ordered services like therapy, counseling, or other social service interventions, then those services may cost you out-of-pocket if they are not covered by your health insurance.
- Legal Fees. The biggest financial burden for most people in family court is hiring an attorney and paying legal fees. When hiring a lawyer, make sure you understand where every penny of your money is going to go. Have a clear understanding about how legal fees work and what your attorney will be billing you for. In many cases, you may not even need to hire a lawyer for a full retainer when you can do legal coaching instead. Or, if you do, there may be creative financing options available to you that you have not even thought of yet. Most horror stories about how much people spend on family court cases are about attorney’s fees.
Here at Girl’s Best Lawyer Friend, we talk openly and honestly about money, among other things. If you have questions about money and family court, make sure you can talk to your lawyer about it.
Do you have questions about money and your family court case? Call The Lien Law Firm at 314-722-8557 or click here for a no-cost consultation where you can have a frank, honest conversation with a lawyer about your money questions.
A woman called my office recently asking for help with a child custody matter. She found something on the Internet that said I do a sliding fee scale. When I told her that no, I do not discount my fees, I could feel her disappointment. She started to cry. She said, “I just feel so discouraged. I need help, but I cannot afford to pay what everyone is asking for a lawyer.”
“Let’s talk,” I said, “Tell me what’s going on, and I’m sure we can figure out how to get you the help you need.”
She proceeded to tell me about how she represented herself in a divorce involving her now 3-year-old child. Her ex had a lawyer who drafted up the paperwork. She felt like, because she sat in his office and read the papers line for line, that she knew exactly what she was signing. Now, it turns out she has owed child support that she never even knew about, and her ex has been keeping the child from her at his will and claims ‘the papers’ say he can do that.
She was lost. She wanted to see her kid and she could not afford the amount of child support they were claiming she owed given that she was a full-time college student on scholarship. She did not even know where to send the child support payments.
My heart sank when she said, “I really need a lawyer who will help me on a sliding scale. Can you please, please help me?”
Here’s the thing about this young woman: she is intelligent. She knew exactly what questions to ask me, exactly what issues to focus on, and already had a plan for how she wanted to tackle the situation (child support first, then custody/visitation). She knew the consequences for not paying child support and she had already made some calls to the right people. She was stuck because she lacked experience with the process, not because she wasn’t putting forth the effort.
I told her that I can help her. That made her cry again. Apparently she had made lots of calls and so far no one had given her any sense of hope. She said, “Really? No one has told me that before. I’m kind of shocked.”
I gave her my hourly rate and my retainer. She sighed a heavy sigh.
Then, I told her about legal coaching.
I told her that she sounds like an intelligent person, that she obviously is not afraid to get in and get her hands dirty, and she wants to do the right thing. That’s 90% of the battle in family court. The other 10% is knowing the procedure and having the experience to develop an effective strategy to reach your goals. If that’s all you need, then there is really no reason to hire an attorney to do all the other stuff for you.
Yes, you read that right: I, a lawyer, am telling you that you may not actually need to hire a lawyer and pay traditional legal fees.
I told her that for a set monthly fee, she can join the Legal Coaching Program where I help her represent herself in court. She would still have to work diligently, but she would have the benefit of an experienced attorney without the hefty retainer or hourly fees. Her membership fee covers one extended phone call each month where we can cover her questions and tweek her action plan as needed. If she needed more extended coaching sessions, she could book those at her convenience on a reduced rate pay-as-you-go system. And, if quick questions came up that she needed help with, she can text me for quick answers at no additional charge.
I smiled as felt the load lift off this woman’s shoulders. She started crying a little bit again, but this time it was tears of joy. “That costs even less than I was expecting, and it would be so amazing if I really can do this on my own with your help,” she said, “how do I sign up?”
This woman got the exact legal help she needed.
She got it for a fraction of the cost she was expecting.
She had an experienced attorney, not a discount lawyer.
In the end, she got exactly what she wanted.
When her case was over, she said to me, “that was even better than a sliding scale.”
“What was?” I asked.
She smiled, looked at me, and said, “I got results, I saved my money, and now, I know I got this.”
The Legal Coaching Program at The Lien Law Firm helps you represent yourself ‘pro se’ in family court. You can follow this link to apply online and see if the program is a good fit for your needs. To speak with our lawyer (and legal coach) directly, call our office at 314-722-8557 or follow this link to schedule a complimentary phone consultation.
Everyone talks about lawyers winning and losing cases.
When you hire a lawyer, though, who defines what constitutes a “win?”
A woman once came to my office for help with a divorce. The case had already been filed by her husband, so she needed an attorney to file her response and start working on a settlement. The marital estate was pretty large – two properties, multiple vehicles, several financial accounts, and more. When I asked her what she wanted from the divorce, her request was beyond reasonable, in my opinion: half of the assets, half of the debts, and 50/50 custody of the kids. She wanted a clean, fair break. She was a stay-at-home mom of over 10 years and would have been entitled to some spousal maintenance (aka alimony), but she did not want it. She wanted to go back to school, refresh her certifications, and get a job to support herself.
This is all very reasonable so far. But there’s a catch: they had a “prenup” (more properly called a prenuptial agreement).
These two people got married overseas in a culture and religion where it is normal practice for the male elders of the bride’s family to agree on a marriage contract with the male elders of the groom’s family. In this case, the woman’s father and uncles agreed that in the event of a divorce, the woman would get a certain amount of money and nothing else. Her father told her to sign it, so she signed it…without reading it.
Now, 12 years later, the husband wanted to enforce that contract in the divorce. This woman did not want to walk away with a small amount of cash and nothing else.
(I will not violate confidentiality by telling you how much she would have gotten, but I’ll say it this way: He made close to seven figures annually, and her payout would have been a 4-figure number).
As her lawyer, I was charged with the task of getting her a fair settlement in the divorce. I did my research, talked to the professionals I needed to consult with, and dug deep into the situation. Finally, I found it: duress. The best way (and potentially the only way) for the prenup to be invalidated and set aside was for my client to testify under oath that she was forced to sign it without the chance to read it thoroughly or consult with a lawyer.
When I met with this woman to talk with her about this strategy, her face sunk right in front of me. “Absolutely not,” she said, “I will not disrespect my elders.”
It took me a moment. I blinked, took a deep breath, and asked her to repeat what she had just said. I thought I was dreaming.
“I will take whatever he will give me and move on,” she said. “I do not want a trial, and I will not say anything bad about my family.”
We got into a long conversation about her goals for the divorce and for her life. She wanted to raise her children with the same cultural and religious customs she was raised with. A part of that included undying family loyalty and respect for elders. In that spirit, she refused to say that she was forced to sign the prenup.
As a lawyer, there was an easy win on the table for me. All I had to do was present the facts of how the prenup came to be and I was confident that the husband’s lawyer would not push it to the point of trial. I, theoretically, could have done this without the woman even knowing that I had used that argument. It would have been quite a case for my memoirs, and I would have felt so good about getting this woman so much more in the divorce than her prenup dictated.
As her lawyer, though, there was no way I could or would do that.
I had to stay focused on her goals for this divorce and for her future. She needed enough to leave the relationship and provide for herself and her kids. The argument I had to make was not a legal one, but a practical appeal from one human soul to another. I approached the husband’s lawyer and said, “Look, she may be able to invalidate the prenup or she may not, we do not know. Both of these people want to be divorced, and she needs a fair settlement that will allow the kids to continue having a meaningful relationship with their mom. She wants that, and nothing more.”
She kept one of the houses to live in, one of the cars, and just enough cash to keep everything afloat while she started her life over again. The husband settled for giving her more instead of putting the money towards a trial.
As a lawyer, this would typically be considered a “loss,” because my client got less than half of the marital estate.
For this woman, this was an outcome she never even imagined would be possible. She was ecstatic. She hugged me, cried, and invited me over for dinner. She felt like she had everything she needed to keep caring for her kids while she restructured her life as an independent woman. For this woman, the only person whose feelings truly mattered, this was a definite win.
When hiring a lawyer, do you know what they would consider a WIN?
Is it a certain cookie cutter outcome, or is it based on your goals and vision for the future?
Does their success depend on where the land in the eyes of the law, or on how much relief you get from the painful problems that take you to court?
If you do not know the answers, then consider asking those questions before deciding who will represent you and your interests in family court.
At The Lien Law Firm, we focus on helping clients reach their long-term goals and achieve success. To talk with a lawyer about your goals in family court, call our office at 314-722-8557 or follow this link to schedule a complimentary phone consultation.
Related blog post: Is it the lawyer’s “win,” or yours?
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.