It’s hard enough facing the prospect of divorce.
You never expected to have to deal with a divorce lawyer. Nobody does.
You might know you should talk to a lawyer. Yet you might be reluctant. You just want what’s fair. And you don’t want to pay an arm and a leg to some lawyer who just wants to “fight.”
It all seems like a big mystery. And the uncertainty of it all can be daunting.
You just want to know how much the divorce will cost. Here’s the lowdown on divorce lawyer fees.
Your first step is to contact and meet with a prospective divorce lawyer in what is typically called a consultation. This is a confidential, in-person meeting to discuss and evaluate your situation based on applicable New Jersey divorce and family laws.
It’s common to pay a one-time fee for a divorce consultation.
Productive consultations generally take anywhere from about one to one and a half hours and result in an action plan plus an understanding of your rights and options.
Some divorce lawyers, however, offer a “free” consultation limited to a maximum of 30 minutes. Free information is generally very limited, however. After all, lawyers are in the business of being paid for valuable advice. So, chances are you won’t get such valuable advice for free.
Most New Jersey divorce and family lawyers charge by the hour. During your consultation, you will find out the hourly rate of the attorney primarily handling your divorce and family matter. Generally, the more experience and expertise the lawyer has, the higher the hourly rate.
A retainer fee is a sum of money paid up front for the lawyer’s divorce and family legal services. During the consultation, you will find out the amount of “retainer fee” the lawyer will require.
Many divorce and family lawyers typically determine the amount of retainer fee by considering factors such as the complexity of issues to be resolved, the likelihood of immediate litigation, and anticipated behavior of your spouse and/or his or her attorney.
For example, a retainer payment might be higher if:
- your spouse’s lawyer has filed a court application;
- the lawyer determines your interests would be best protected by filing an immediate application with the court;
- your spouse’s lawyer is known for being particularly difficult or overly litigious; or
- You have relatively complex commercial assets to be valued.
The lawyer then typically multiplies the number of hours estimated to be initially spent by his or her hourly rate.
At the consultation, the attorney typically gives you a written retainer agreement that explains how you will be charged and what happens if your retainer fee runs out before the end of the case.
Your retainer fee will be deposited into the lawyer’s attorney trust or business account and held in “trust” on your behalf. You will be billed against the retainer fee until it is depleted. In the event the entire retainer is not used, the unbilled amount will be returned to you.
In addition to legal fees, you would typically pay for costs such as court filing fees and courier services. These costs are generally also billed against your retainer fee. Larger divorce and family law firms might also bill you for photocopying and postage (which my practice views as the cost of doing business and adding value for clients).
Incremental Retainer Fee
A good divorce and family attorney will alert you when your retainer is on the verge of being depleted. The lawyer should notify you that either that a new retainer fee is required (typically called an “incremental retainer”) or if invoices are to be paid monthly.
Fixed Fee or Non-Litigation Retainer
During the consultation, some divorce and family attorneys offer one single payment of a fixed or flat fee for specified services. This allows you to pay only for certain legal services you might need at the time.
For example, I’ve offered flat fee payments to help clients decide whether New Jersey or another state is more appropriate for their divorce and family matter. Or where clients would best be served by initial legal coaching to facilitate cooperation by their spouses on a custody and parenting time agreement. Alternatively, we might offer a non-litigation retainer with lower retainer payment, depending on the circumstances and what the client wants to achieve.
Many divorce and family law matters require outside professionals, such as accountants, real estate appraisers, or actuaries to determine values of certain marital assets. Generally, you would retain and pay separately for such professionals.
Naturally, each divorce and family lawyer is different and fees often vary depending on the lawyer and nature of the law practice. That’s why it’s so important to ask lots of questions during your consultation about fees and how you will be billed.
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