When selecting a law firm to handle your divorce, there are several factors to consider. The first factors you may understandably think of are the attorney’s reputation and record. But something that does not get discussed as often is the attorney’s fee structure. It is important to ask about this, as law firms differ on how they charge fees and it could impact the amount of money you spend on your divorce. For divorces, your local family law attorney will typically charge one of two ways, either by a flat fee or a retainer.
Flat fees are specific fees a lawyer charges to do a bundled amount of work on your case. Flat fees are typically only offered for uncontested divorces where the lawyer can predict how much time she will need to spend on your case based on your situation. Note there are also filing fees, i.e., what the court charges to file divorce petitions and motions. Filing fees are separate from the flat fee, which typically just covers the cost of the attorney’s time on your case. Different situations can determine the flat fee amount as well. For instance, the Harris Firm charges a low flat rate of $290 to handle your uncontested divorce without minor children. If you have minor children, that will involve extra filings and legal work, therefore the flat fee for an uncontested divorce with minor children is $390.
The other typical fee structure for divorce is the retainer. The retainer is a set fee based on the amount of time the attorney expects to spend on your case and based on her and her staff’s hourly rate. Retainers could be thought of as a “down payment” on your case. When you pay the retainer, the attorney deposits the money into a trust account which is established to hold client money. The money in the trust account still technically belongs to the clients and can only be transferred to the attorney’s business account when they perform work on your case and bill for it.
Retainers and flat fees are set at a rate the attorney predicts will cover the attorney’s hourly rate, but can also be used for almost any other expense incurred by the attorney in preparing your case. Things like copies, paying for service of process, parking fees near the courthouse, phone calls, depositions, and other such things can all be billed to the retainer or covered by your flat fee. Your fee can also count towards the time the attorney’s paralegals and associate (junior) attorneys spend working on your case. Junior attorneys and paralegals usually bill at a cheaper hourly rate than partners. Secretarial and clerical staff usually do not bill their time.
Flat fees could potentially save you money, especially if you have an uncontested divorce to file. Divorce attorneys can charge a low flat fee for uncontested divorces because both parties agree on the need to divorce, the terms of how they will divide their assets, and what they would like their custody situation to be if they have minor children. This makes the process go much faster and easily through the courts. When someone wants to file a contested divorce, firms almost always charge a retainer for that. This is because the increased complexity and more litigious nature of the divorce will make predicting the time spent working on your case more difficult. The retainer also serves as a way of having your attorney “on call” as situations arise during the divorce process. As you call or send more information for the attorney to work on for your case, they can bill the retainer that you’ve already paid them.
As with all fee arrangements, be sure to read the agreement carefully. Make sure to ask questions at your consultation so you understand from the beginning what and how your divorce attorney charges for their services.