An uncontested case, will, of course, be much cheaper than a contested one. When you and your child's other parents can agree on all or most issues, you will be paying for less of your lawyer's time and may not need counseling or other services.
State laws on custody vary, so even in simple cases you may need experienced professionals to help prove to the court that your plan is in your child's best interest.
Family Court FeesCosts for filing paperwork in the courts vary widely by state and by the type of case you are filing. Fees for starting a new custody case can range from around $100 to more than three hundred dollars. Depending on the complexity of your case, there could be additional filings as your case progresses. These may require additional fees.
How your case progresses can also depend on whether it is part of a divorce case or not. Although divorce and child custody are technically two separate issues, they can often be handled together, especially if the parents agree on custody arrangements. When the parents were never married, there can be additional issues, such as the need to prove paternity.
You may also have to pay for serving a copy of your filing on the other parent. Some courts may do this for you and may include an initial attempt at service in the filing fee. Others may require you pay for service separately. You may have a choice of mail service or personal service by the sheriff.
In still other courts, you will have to arrange for service yourself. You can usually choose either service by sheriff or hire a private process server. Fees for service vary too, from just a few dollars up to around $100 for the most part.
You may have to pay additional fees if service can't be completed within two or three attempts.
In some cases, you may be allowed to waive the service fee if your child's other parent is willing to accept the papers from you and sign an acceptance of service form.
Lawyer's Fees and Miscellaneous CostsYou probably realize that the best way to protect your rights is to have a lawyer, especially if your child's other parent has one. How much this will cost you depends largely on how complicated your case is. And that can depend on how much the two of you can agree on. The longer it takes to reach a satisfactory agreement, the higher your costs will be.
Lawyers' fees also vary based on where you live and the lawyer's experience. In general, expect an hourly fee in the $100 to $400 range. Many lawyers have two hourly rates, one for work done outside of court and a higher rate for time spent in court. Some lawyers may charge a flat fee instead, but hourly fees are more common.
In general, an uncontested case may cost a few thousand dollars while a contested case can run tens of thousands of dollars. You may have to pay a portion of any estimated cost upfront as a retainer. Your lawyer will take fees out of this money until it is gone. Then you will either need to add more to the retainer or start paying monthly.
Putting together a case can involve other, miscellaneous fees as well. These are things like:
- Copying documents
- Paralegal services
- Notary fees
Experienced Professionals and Other FeesDepending on your situation, you may need other professional services to ensure your child's needs and interests are met. The court may order things like counseling services or a guardian ad litem. Parents also have the right to request experienced professionals.
Fees for these services can vary widely. Often each parent will pay half the total fee.
Examples of professionals you might need include:
- Guardian ad litem: This is a court-appointed guardian to look out for the child's interests. Fees can run up to $300 per hour or more, although some courts limit the total fees this person can charge. Much like a lawyer, fees may be higher in complex cases.
- Psychiatrist/Psychologist/Custody evaluator: Parents and children may have to undergo psychiatric evaluations or interviews to ensure custody arrangements are in the child's best interests. This person can make recommendations to the court. Costs can depend on the psychologist's education level and experience. Expect to pay at least several hundred dollars, and even as much as $1,500, for each person interviewed.
- Mediator: This is a neutral third party who can help you come to a custody agreement outside of court. Mediators may be lawyers or retired lawyers or judges. Hourly rates can be $100 per hour and up. Depending on your situation, courts could require parenting classes before approving a parenting plan. If paternity is in question, you may also need a DNA test.
Child custody cases can get long, complicated and expensive. And because each case is different and state laws vary widely, there's no real average cost that applies to every case. Parents who can't agree on important child care issues will likely need more legal and professional help than those able to come to agreement on their own. So they face much higher costs.
Many states do offer waivers of court costs for people who can't afford these fees. And you may qualify for free or low-cost legal assistance. But most people should expect to pay several thousand dollars or more to resolve a child custody case.