What will my case cost?
This is one of the most important questions a client can ask me. The truth is in family law, it is nearly impossible to do flat fees, because you cannot anticipate what it will take to finalize a family law case. For lawyers that do quote a flat fee, it is a one-and-done situation, where they may withdraw immediately after representation leaving the client high-and-dry. When I quote a retainer fee for clients, I am doing my best to think about the big picture, and what it will take to get my client all the way to the end with the result they want. My retainer fee is an educated guess based on experiences handling the same type of case. When a client comes into my office, the first thing I do is evaluate the case and determine realistically what I think the case will cost. I do my best to be upfront and honest. I do not sugarcoat what I think it will be.
So what will determine how much my case costs?
The number one thing that affects the cost in a family law case, is how contested the matter is. In other words, a contentious case that will require a lot of courtroom time and prep, is going to cost a lot more than a case where the parties are in agreement on all of the issues, and only need to do a simple prove-up at the courthouse. Courtroom time increases costs. Period.
There are five reasons for an increase in attorney's fees in family law cases:
There is a lot that goes into a preparing for a hearing; prepping the client, witnesses, exhibits, pleadings, pretrials, etc. People underestimate what it takes to prepare a case for trial. Not only do you have to subpoena witnesses and exhibits, you have to prepare the exhibits in a form that makes them admissible in court. This can be costly and time-consuming.
The actual time you spend at the courthouse is costly when lawyers bill by the hour. The hours spent at the courthouse, can vary from a three-hour hearing, to an all-day hearing, or a week-long hearing. Sometimes you do not know how long a hearing is going to take, until you are in it and the judge gives you an estimate. Attorneys and legal staff bill by the hour, so the more time you are in court, the more you are likely paying.
Contested cases usually mean that the other party is going the extra mile to make it difficult. This means they are serving you with discovery requests, taking depositions, setting motions and hearings, and doing everything they can to make you go out of your way. All of these things require responses. In addition, with every pleading that is filed, there is usually a filing fee associated with it, no matter how small. There are some lawyers who make a living running up fees this way, and some parties who want the lawyer to be super aggressive, so as to make you exhaust funds. Unfortunately, it can be a strategy in family law cases.
There may be an unexpected event or fact, that requires a procedural course that must be followed. This could be something as dramatic as discovering that someone is not the father of a child, after a DNA test, or something like discovering that the case was filed in the wrong county. It could even be something as unanticipated as a party becoming injured or ill. Usually, this sort of thing is something that is not anticipated by any of the parties or lawyers, and may arise as the lawsuit plays out and more facts are discovered.
Unfortunately, sometimes the other party has severe mental health issues or addiction issues and they simply cannot be reasoned with. The problems can range from borderline personality disorder, to bi-polar disorder, to manic-depressive, to depression, to alcohol, drug, prescription drug, or porn or sex addictions. In cases like this, sometimes the other party is non-responsive and in denial about the divorce, and sometimes they are completely irrational. As I often tell my clients, you cannot reason with crazy. In situations like these, sometimes the only option is to take them to court and have a judge issue an order which will protect you, your property, and your kids. For many of my clients, this is the last resort, but it often leads to sobriety, or at the very least peace of mind for the family.
Quite frankly, if your case is contested, or turns contested, it is going to be more costly than if you were able to reach an agreement on all of the issues. When any of the above happens, the costs of the case can rise. I do my best to anticipate what the costs will be up front. If at the end of the day, your case is finalized and you have a retainer balance left, I will refund you the remaining balance. If on the other hand, your case becomes more complicated (contested, complex, or both), then we will ask you to replenish your retainer account. Oftentimes, we reevaluate the case and the client's budget and immediate needs. If a client is being cost conscious, then we talk about what that means in their particular case. If a client wants to be aggressive and push forward, we talk about how best to accomplish that. In every case, I do my best to foresee what the fees will look like. It is a win-win if I can accomplish what my client wants within their price point.
What is a typical retainer amount? What will you expect me to pay?
Contested Cases $2,500 - $10,000: For contested cases, my retainers usually run anywhere from $2,500 - $10,000 (which includes the first filing fee + process server fees). This will vary, and often does, depending on the complexity of the issues, the contentiousness of the parties, the aggressiveness of the lawyer on the other side or the other party, the time in which I have to prepare for court or get up to speed, the location of the hearing, the responsive pleadings that need to be filed, the pending deadlines, if you can make an additional retainer payment, and/or whether there are children or property issues.
What does my initial retainer payment include?
Except for special circumstances, my initial retainer fee almost always includes the cost of the filing fee + the process server fees. When you consult with our office, we can determine what is applicable to your case.
Filing Fees: Depending on the county, filing an original petition for divorce or modification can run anywhere from $300 - $400. Click here to see filing fees in Travis County. Click here to see filing fees in Williamson County.
Process Server Fees or Constable Fees: For almost all contested and new lawsuits, it is necessary to serve the other party with the pleadings, so you can provide proof to the court that the party has actual notice of the lawsuit. (In legal terms, this is known as due process and it is a Constitutional right). This way, if the court has to take action down the road, they can rest assured that the other party has had the opportunity to respond to the allegations in the lawsuit. The way you ensure that notice has been given to the other party is by having them served with paperwork by a private process server, or in some cases, a sheriff or constable. The server will then personally serve the papers on the party at their home, work, or wherever they are found. Process server fees can run from $100 - $200 or more, depending on the difficulty in locating and serving the party.
What is a typical retainer for an agreed divorce?
Agreed or Uncontested Divorces $1,800 - $3,000: I can usually begin an agreed divorce for about $1,800 (which includes the first filing fee + the filing fee for the Waiver of Service). This includes the drafting and filing of the Original Petition for Divorce, drafting and filing of the Waiver of Service, and the creation of the letter and packet to send to the other party.
Why does an agreed divorce cost that much?
The reality is that most agreed divorces require some level of negotiating and back-and-forth with the other party. In my experience, most agreed divorces end up costing a little over $2,000, sometimes a lot more, sometimes a lot less. Part of the reason an agreed divorce can cost that much is because once the attorney drafts the final decree of divorce, which is the final order that divorces the parties, the other side may have multiple requests for changes. I then have to revise and resend, and so on, until everyone is agreeable to the terms. Also, typically during a divorce, there is a lot of change taking place. This means that an agreement that one party reaches today, may change tomorrow. Additionally, even in an agreed divorce, there are substantial closing documents that need to be drafted to finalize the case. Even if both parties agree on who will get the house, deeds still need to be drafted, signed, and filed with the court, to effectuate that transfer. The same goes for awarding vehicles to one party, (exchanging car titles via powers of attorney), and drafting, or paying for the drafting of an order that divides a retirement plan or 401k (known as a QDRO or Qualified Domestic Relations Order). Oftentimes, a third-party drafter is needed to draft a QDRO in more complex cases. Also, even in an agreed divorce, there is oftentimes lot of foot-dragging and delay by one party. In cases like that, the only option, even if you believe they will eventually agree to the terms of the final decree of divorce, is to pay a process server and have the party formally served with paperwork. Finally, there is a short prove-up hearing at the end of any agreed divorce that usually runs anywhere from 30 minutes - 1 hour, depending on the docket. It does not require the presence of the other party, but this hearing must be done before a judge can grant your divorce in Texas. It is the last step, and a small hearing, but it is often overlooked when quoting fees.
As lawyers, once we are hired on a case and make an appearance, we have specific legal duties and a judge will not let us withdraw from the case without good cause. This means that when a case gets more complicated, we are obligated to respond on your behalf, therefore, I try to anticipate up front what your case may cost you. In my experience, it is best to be prepared and plan to have a bit of a buffer in the event your case does get more complex or contested.
How do you control costs in a family law case?
I try to control costs in several ways. In my initial meeting with you, I determine what your budget is and what your price range is for your case. Based on that, and on what the issues are, I do my best to anticipate what your case is going to cost. This may mean that we do not send discovery requests, and instead do informal discovery. This can help save fees for a contested final hearing down the road. Of course, this is always an estimate. There are some cases that I simply cannot take because the client's budget and requests are unrealistic. I try to be realistic and straightforward with my clients about what the fees will cost, so as to avoid a situation where we get half-way through a case and they are out of money, and left without a resolution. I also touch base with my clients regularly to make sure that we are on the same page as far as fees go. I send out bills every month by email that list my time and the time of my staff. In addition, I encourage clients to wait until they have at least five or more questions before emailing or calling me, as I can address their concerns in one 20-minute conversation, as opposed to five 20-minute conversations, that they get billed for. I also never bill for questions pertaining to a bill or fees. Finally, one crucial way, is to determine what issues can be agreed-upon, so as to narrow the issues at a mediation or hearing, and get to the heart of the matter. If you can get rid of the agreed issues, then you can focus your energies and time on tackling the issues that are not agreed.