Lawyers in divorce cases work for an hourly rate, usually billed in tenths of an hour. That's because most states do not allow any other form of compensation - contingent fees in divorce cases are usually prohibited by state law.
Atop your lawyer's fee will be fees charged by the Court - these vary by state but usually are less than $500 even in the most bitterly contested divorce cases. In New York there is an Index Fee (currently $210) at the start of the case, and several other fees along the way, including separate fees for the Request for Judicial Intervention ($95), the Note of Issue ($30) and any motions along the way ($45 each).
Think of these fees as tolls taken by the State Court system as your case travels through the courthouse.
In a truly uncontested divorce the Court fees may total as much as the fees you pay your attorney. In a contested case the legal fees will be the largest factor in the cost.
How Expensive Should My Lawyer Be?
Lawyers charge fees based on their experience and upon what they think the market will bear. Depending on where you live, lawyers who work on divorce cases usually charge hourly fees that range anywhere between $150 and $1100 - no kidding, there are top level divorce attorneys who can and do charge well above one thousand dollars an hour.
Your next question will likely be "Can you tell how good an attorney is by the amount they charge?" The answer is what you'd expect: no.
In choosing an attorney you should look not just at the hourly rate but at how efficiently they work, what their reputation is and, most importantly, whether you can communicate effectively with the lawyer. Does the attorney understand your situation? Has he or she dealt with these issues before? Do the solutions and tactics being proposed make sense? Are they likely to be cost effective?
What Drives the Cost of the Divorce?
What drives divorce costs dramatically higher is one thing and one thing only: disagreement between the parties. If the husband and wife can agree on the key issues, such as grounds, custody, child support and property division, all that remains is the drafting of documents. But when there are battles, negotiations, debates - all those things take time. And as noted above, the lawyers are charging by the tenth of an hour.
So, if both sides are represented by attorneys (and they should be!) a debate over who gets to keep the painting in the living room or Aunt Sally's wedding present can quickly become far more expensive than the painting or buying a new toaster oven.
That's not to say that key issues and disagreements shouldn't be fought out - either in negotiation or litigation - but simply a word to the wise. It often makes sense to settle economic issues rather than litigate them.
Why Can't My Lawyer Tell Me Now How Much it's Going to Cost?
A good question, with a simple answer. Your lawyer can't predict what the other side is going to do. If there's reason prevailing, issues can be resolved inexpensively. However, if emotions are running high (and, understandably, they often are in divorce cases) then there can be bumps in the road to your divorce. Each of those bumps can cause delays and increase costs. As issues come up that have to be resolved, delaying the resolution of the case adds to the legal fees.
What Can I Do to Keep My Divorce Costs Down?
This could become a guide all by itself, but the primary points to remember are:
1. Be organized. Your lawyer will need documents and information in order to negotiate and prepare your divorce. If you have that information available, you can save time and money.
2. Try to control your emotions. Divorce is a difficult thing for many people, but try to see this aspect as a business deal. You've already dealt with the emotionally difficult issue of breaking up. Now you're just dividing the dishes.
3. Be reasonable. Litigating issues is expensive. If you can reach an agreement, do so. Save the fights for the really important things.
4. Communicate honestly with your lawyer. Ask questions when you have them. But make sure you've given accurate answers to the lawyer's questions in order to avoid expenses and delays when the other side comes up with something that surprises your attorney.
Additional resources provided by the author
David A. Browde, P.C. represents clients in family law matters throughout the New York City metropolitan area, including all suburban counties, and recognizes that finding a cost effective solution is important, no matter what the issue may be.
Please feel free to call or e-mail for a consultation.