We recently surveyed our readers to find out about their experiences with divorce attorneys. Here’s what we found out.
Does Everyone Hire a Divorce Lawyer?
The majority of divorcing spouses hire attorneys to help them through their divorce rather than going it alone. Those who have child custody or support issues are most likely to hire a lawyer, while those without minor children, joint property, or alimony issues are least likely to hire a lawyer.
According to our survey, 80% of our readers with minor children hired some type of legal help, whether it be a traditional, full-scope attorney or one on a consulting basis. Almost 60% of our readers with child custody issues hired full-scope attorneys to handle their divorces (compared to only 47% of consumers without child-related issues). With so much at stake, parents are willing to spend money on lawyers and other experts in order to make sure their rights are protected.
If your spouse has an attorney, or is aggressive or unreasonable, or if you have complicated financial issues, consider hiring a lawyer to help you sort through these complex issues. (For more information, see our article on when it pays to hire a divorce lawyer.)
How Divorce Attorneys Charge Fees
Divorce attorneys typically charge by the hour, rather than a flat rate fee, because every divorce case is unique and no two cases will cost the same amount. Even if your set of facts looks strikingly similar to another client’s (two kids, a two-income household, and a nice home with a two-car garage), it doesn’t mean your divorce case will turn out the same way.
You and your spouse may find it easy to compromise and settle your entire case after one or two short meetings, but the Jones’ divorce case may drag on for years, with contentious custody and support battles. The same set of facts may be resolved fairly easily, or end up costing thousands in fees. No attorney can tell you exactly how much your case will cost; it’s simply impossible to predict.
However, the divorce lawyers we interviewed reported that a typical divorce that settles before going to trial takes about 15-30 hours of an attorney's time. If the case goes all the way to trial, you can plan on paying for another 10-50 hours of your attorney's time (depending on the number and complexity of issues).
The amount of attorney's fees you'll pay depends largely on your attorney's hourly rate. Divorce attorneys generally charge an hourly fee for all of the work they do on your divorce, regardless of what issues your case entails. Nationwide, the typical fee that people paid their divorce attorneys was $250 per hour, but in metro areas, fees ran closer to $400 or $500 per hour.
The lowest hourly rate reported in our survey was $50 per hour, reported in Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The highest rates were $500 per hour in California and D.C. and a whopping $650 hourly fee in New York.
It's not common, but some divorce attorneys charge a slightly higher hourly rate for litigation (time spent directly preparing for trial and in court) than they do for everything else.
Almost all divorce lawyers will ask for a retainer when you hire them, an advance of attorney's fees. A typical retainer runs from $2,000 to $3,500. Some divorce attorneys will charge as much as $5,000, or even more if the suspect ahead of time that your case will go to trial. Any money not earned by the attorney gets returned to you at the end of the case.
Different Ways to Use a Divorce Lawyer
Not everyone hires a traditional divorce litigator to handle their case from start to finish. The divorcing consumers we surveyed used attorneys in one of the following ways:
- Full-scope representation – hiring an attorney to handle the entire case.
- Collaborative attorney – hiring an attorney trained in “collaborative divorce” (no courts, no formal discovery, and a team approach to solving divorce issues).
- Limited-scope representation – hiring an attorney to handle just one or a few parts of a case, such as child custody and support.
- Consulting attorney – meeting for an hour or two with a lawyer or hiring a consulting attorney to provide advice during mediation or self-representation.
The Cost of a Full-Scope Divorce Attorney
The typical cost of a full-scope attorney in our survey ranged from $9,000 to $14,000. For this reason, full-scope representation is used more often by spouses with income in the middle ranges (or where at least one spouse earns enough to pay for both parties’ legal fees). In our survey, 45% of the consumers who hired full-scope attorneys made more than $40,000 per year, while only 26% made less than $40,000 a year. Lower-income divorcing couples sometimes rely on legal aid or low-cost legal services for divorce-related issues.
What Do Attorneys Charge For?
Attorneys generally bill you for everything. A quick phone call to update you on the status of the case – that gets billed. The email you sent about a certain set of DVDs – you will get a bill for that email, which may cost more than the DVDs you’re complaining about. All communications are billed, whether by phone, letter, text, or email.
In addition, attorneys charge for reviewing documents, performing research, and drafting letters or communications to your spouse, his or her attorney, or anyone else involved in the case. They also charge for discovery (written requests for information and depositions), preparing for hearings and trial, appearing and arguing at hearings and trial, and all post-trial follow-up work. The rule of thumb is, if it constitutes work on your case, it will be billed.
What Other Costs Will a Divorce Attorney Bill Me For?
Divorce lawyers bill all of their expenses to their clients. These can include copying costs, fees for creating and maintaining files, and other administrative costs. Attorneys will also bill you for the services of experts (such as custody evaluators, real estate appraisers, or tax consultants), or they may have you pay these experts directly. (Learn more in our article about reimbursing your divorce lawyer for costs.)
Added to the attorney's fees are also charges for the law firm's staff, including paralegals. Many attorneys have paralegals trained to help them prepare forms, disclosures, discovery, and exhibits for trial. Paralegals are usually billed out at an hourly rate that's lower than the attorney's.
When in doubt, double check the fee agreement you signed with your attorney; it should contain specific information on costs and fees.
Is Hiring an Attorney Worth It?
Hiring a lawyer to handle your divorce makes sense if you’re anticipating issues with custody, child support, alimony, property, or debt division. Especially if spending time with your children is what’s at stake, you want to make sure you understand the law and that your rights are fully protected.
If your spouse has already hired an attorney, make sure you protect yourself by having an attorney on your side too. And if you can't agree on the issues in your case and you see yourself headed to court to resolve them, see a lawyer; most spouses who end up in trial do so with lawyers. In our survey, for spouses who went to trial, those who hired a lawyer (either in a consulting capacity or to handle the whole thing) were twice as satisfied as those who represented themselves. (For more information, see our article on when it makes sense to hire a divorce lawyer.)
Hiring an Experienced Divorce Attorney
Family law is a specialized field of practice that presents a minefield of issues that only an experienced divorce attorney (or “family law attorney”) will know how to handle. It’s best to find an attorney who has several years of practice dedicated specifically to family law. Someone who has only practiced personal injury, for example, is probably not going to have the background necessary to resolve your case efficiently and effectively. For more information, see our article on what to look for in a divorce lawyer.