How Much Will My Divorce Cost

By Staff Writer

It can not be said enough: Divorce and Separation are not cheap. Not only will you confront the need to divide marital assets, address issues of child support and spousal support, but you will also need to consider the sometimes overwhelming legal and expert costs involved in obtaining a Divorce or Separation. Just how much it will cost, however, varies widely from case to case. New clients routinely ask for an estimate of how much they will have to pay in order to enter into a Separation Agreement, or obtain a Divorce. This is one of the most difficult questions for matrimonial lawyers to answer.

The difficulty in answering this question is not because of any gamesmanship on the part of your attorney. There are many variables in determining what your fees will be. In New York, Divorce lawyers cannot accept so-called "contingency fees". A contingency fee is what you often see in advertisements for personal injury lawyers. Namely, you only pay a percentage of what you actually collect. In contested Divorce cases, matrimonial lawyers are paid for "billable hours" or the actual time they invest in your case. How much you will ultimately pay will depend upon your attorney's hourly rate and the number of hours your attorney spends on your case.

There are many uncertainties and unknowns in any Divorce case. You may certainly be able to control the amount of time that you spend in consultations with or on the phone with your attorney and the amount of work that you request that your attorney do. However, neither you nor your attorney can control your spouse or your spouse's attorney. While you may believe that your case is simple, your spouse may believe differently, or you may have a very honest difference of opinion on how your case be resolved. It is thus impossible to predict with certainty whether, and/or when, you will be able to agree upon certain issues and how much litigation, or "Court-time" will be necessary. If you are unable to negotiate a quick settlement with your spouse out of Court, the costs of your Divorce or Separation will increase. Once a Divorce action is commenced, there are certain filing and other fees which must be paid, legal papers which must be prepared and Court appearances which your attorney must attend. These fees and tasks can get quite costly.

If a Divorce action is started, you and your attorney will have to attend mandatory Court Conferences. If the case does not settle, you can usually plan on attending, at a minimum, three conferences; a preliminary conference, a compliance conference and a pre-trial conference. Often, your case will not be the only one on the Court calendar. Although your conference is scheduled for a certain time, you may have to wait, sometimes for a long period of time, before your case is called and you actually appear before the Judge. Because attorneys cannot work on other cases while waiting with you in Court, the waiting time is billed to you. As a result, although you may only be in front of the Judge for ten to fifteen minutes, you will have to pay your attorney for the entire amount of time you were actually in the Court-house and, in most cases, your attorney's time to travel to and from Court.

If your goal is to keep your costs down, you should always carefully read the Retainer Agreement. This Agreement should specifically spell out the tasks and time for which you will be billed. Also, keep in mind that some Attorneys bill different hourly rates and for different tasks. By consulting with more than one attorney, you will be able to "comparison shop" on how you will be billed and how much per hour you will be billed.

More experienced attorneys usually bill more per hour for their services and, if your case is complicated, you will want an experienced attorney. However, many localities will have a number of experienced attorneys with varying hourly billing rates. Some law offices have a number of individuals working on cases, including paralegals and younger attorneys, called associates. Paralegal time and associate time is often billed at a much lower rate than the time billed by a lead or senior attorney time. Thus, if your attorney's office utilizes a paralegal or associate, your overall bill may be much lower than if you simply hire one lead or experienced attorney.

In addition to hourly rates, you must consider whether your attorney charges a minimum fee. In New York State, attorneys can charge a minimum fee. That is, no matter what amount of time is spent on your case, their will be a minimum fee charged to you. The minimum fee is often the amount of the initial retainer. Thus, if the initial retainer is $5,000 and your attorney bills $200 per hour, you will have paid in advance for 25 hours of work. If your attorney completes your case and only spends 18 hours on your file, you will not receive a refund if you have been charged a minimum fee that equals your retainer. However, if your attorney spends more than twenty five hours on your case, you will receive a bill for the additional time spent by your attorney.

Remember, you are a consumer. Feel free to ask any question regarding the terms of the retainer agreement, the attorney's billing practices and the specific tasks for which you will be billed. Asking detailed questions throughout the process will help you budget and assess the actual costs of your Divorce or Separation. Often, by asking such questions, you will obtain a much better estimate than if you were to ask your attorney, at the beginning of the case, "how much will this cost me?"