Nothing can pour salt on the wound better than attorney fees. Think about it, your family is being sliced apart, both financially and literally, by a stranger in a black robe. On top of that, the jargon and rules are so convoluted that you have no idea what's happening. And when you get a lawyer, your jaw drops at the cost of just one hours worth of legal fees.
Seem fair? It's not. But as an attorney, let me explain why things are what they are, and how the play into a Illinois Family Law case.
First, fees vary greatly. I work both in the Loop and in suburbs. A Joliet attorney usually charges $200-250 an hour. But if you go to the loop, it's not uncommon to find a practitioner of comparable skill for $300-400. What's going on?
There's the overhead. Offices are expensive, unbelievable so - and we prefer ones in safe locations where we won't get beaten, stabbed, or raped. Then there's the usual overhead. Secretary salaries, paralegals, filing clerks. Furniture. Utilities. Office supplies (Lots of paper and ink). Bar Dues. Malpractice insurance. Suits. Drycleaning. Transportation. Books. CLE's (These are mandated classes we must take every year, and they aren't cheap).
By the time you're done, the rate you charge is generally just enough to keep you in the black. Believe it or not, law firms go bust every day. You don't see it on the news, but we see it every day in court.
So the rate we charge is largely impacted by required overhead. Some lawyers, myself included, have found a way to bypass some of this by running "virtual" law offices. This is where we contract through a middle-man for office space on an hourly basis. It allows us the same level of service, but at a rate significantly less than our competition.
So that out of the way, how do fees factor into family law? Well let's talk about 2 common situations:
1) I've ran up $10,000 in legal fees, I can't pay my attorney, he/she's withdrawing, and I'm not sure what's going to happen with that.
Answer: Depends. The attorney can seek leave to file a fee petition against you in the same case. Or they can file a separate lawsuit against you for breach of contract. Generally it's cheaper and easier to do the former, but I know one firm in the Chicago Loop that does the former on a regular basis. These fees can be discharged in bankruptcy IF you meet the means test. Meaning you might get them discharged, you might not. If you can't, typically the lawyer will either garnish your wages, attach them (without notice) to your bank account, put a lein on your property, or other angry things.
2) The judge is making me pay for the other side's attorney. What the heck man!?!
Answer. Yes, it can happen under an interim fees petition, a 508(a) petition, or a 508(b). The first, interim, you sorta get back - as it's considered an "advance" against the marital estate. You get it back when it comes time to divide stuff up, at the very end of the case.
If it's a 508(a), that happens afterwards, and it's not dischargable. Generally, but not always, these are awarded in situations where one side makes a lot more than the other.
If it's a 508(b), well, that's usually a tough situation. You see, unlike interim and 508(a) fees, which are 100% within the court's discreation, 508(b) fees are not. The court must award this anytime someone violates an order without reasonable cause or excuse. The only thing anyone can challenge is their reasonableness. That's it.
So let me briefly talk about stiffing the lawyer. Yes, happens all the time. Sometimes people do it on purpose, sometimes they're flat broke. Well, the bankruptcy code allows you to stick it to your attorney, BUT NOT fees entered against you by your ex's attorney That's just the way your government wrote the laws. Keep in mind that until the fee is discharged, it accrues 9% annual interest. Basically it doubles every 7 years.
In closing, this is a rough overview of the fee process and how it plays into the family law setting, at least here in Illinois. If you have more questions, contact a practitioner in your area for specific guidance.
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