Probably one of the biggest stressors a lot of my divorce clients have is simple, legal fees – “how much is a divorce going to cost me?” Most divorce lawyers will give the safe, conventional answer – “it depends”. Unfortunately, if you are considering the prospect of a divorce, or if your spouse just moved out and you don’t know what to do next, that answer isn’t going to help you very much.
The cost of divorce can be measured in several different ways. Here are just a few:
- The cost of legal fees – this may be the most obvious cost
- The cost of paying alimony or spousal support
- The cost of losing half of your savings
- Mediation Fees
- Court Costs
- Ancillary Fees (i.e. recording fees, QDRO’s, expert witnesses, therapists, etc.)
For purposes of this article, I want to focus on the cost that is most frequently asked by my clients – “what are my legal fees going to be?”
Overview of the Fees Associated with a Separation and Divorce
Here’s a quick outline of different fees that you might get charged during the course of your divorce case, a brief explanation of what they are, and a range of costs:
- Initial consultation or Divorce Assessment. This is the initial meeting with a lawyer. Most divorce lawyers in Cary, North Carolina, where I practice, charge a variant of this fee. Very rarely will you find a divorce lawyer that offers a “free consultation”, especially in Cary or Raleigh. We charge a flat fee of $250 for a 1-hour consultation.
- Retainers. This is a fee that is paid to reserve the services of your attorney. By accepting this retainer, your attorney will forego the opportunity to represent your spouse or potentially other prospective clients. Client’s have put our firm on “retainer” even when there is no legal work yet to be performed, simply for the peace of mind that they know that they are a client of our firm when the time comes that they will need our assistance. The retainer is earned immediately and placed in the operating account of the firm. – We do not currently charge retainers.
- Advance, prepaid fee, or trust deposit. This is the most common fee that clients are concerned about. We typically refer to this fee as the “trust deposit”, because that is what it is. It is a fee that is earmarked for future services and is placed in the trust account when the client hires our firm. As we begin to work on your file, we will keep track of our time and once a month we will submit an invoice to you for services rendered. As these fees are earned, we transfer the funds from your trust account balance to our operating account. – At The Hart Law Firm, we no longer charge trust deposits. Rather, we have moved to a “flat fee” model described below.
- Minimum Fees. A minimum fee is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the minimum amount a firm will accept to handle your legal matter. Your lawyer will bill against this fee during the course of your representation. If your legal matter requires more time than the minimum fee will cover, then your lawyer will either renegotiate a new minimum fee with you, or keep a credit card on file and bill you for services on an hourly basis.
- Flat Fee. A flat fee is a set price for specific services. At The Hart Law Firm, we have moved to flat-fee pricing for all aspects of representation. We have found that our client’s like the predictability that a flat fee provides, and knowing that we will not be nickel and diming them for phone calls and meetings. With a flat fee, we will bill you based on the stage you are in your case, and are willing to work with you on payment plans to fit your budget. In addition to charging a flat fee for items such as obtaining a divorce, preparing an uncontested separation agreement or drafting a QDRO, we will also charge a flat fee to negotiate a separation agreement, draft a lawsuit, or even appear in court or at mediation on your behalf. Unlike the trust deposit, a flat fee is a set or fixed amount that is agreed to in advance of the representation. We typically will treat this fee as earned immediately and deposit this fee into our operating account. The flat fee provides both benefit and risk. The attorney has the benefit of treating the money as his own immediately but runs the risk that a given case may become more complicated and involve more time than originally anticipated. The client has the benefit of knowing, in advance, how much their case is going to cost. However, in exchange for the risk that the lawyer takes that the case may become more complicated and involve more time than anticipated, the flat fee for litigation cases may be much higher than if the client had just paid the lawyer for their time.