by Diane Moniz
“Divorce” is a word often closely followed by the word “Lawyer”. No lawyer can guarantee the outcome of a divorce case, however, you can usually be guaranteed that your legal bill will end up much higher than you expected at the start.
See an attorney about a divorce and chances are you will be asked for a “retainer” of anywhere from $1000 to $10,000. This amount is used to pay the attorney’s hourly fees and, sometimes, initial court filing fees. Depending on the complexity of your case, you will be eventually get a request to ‘replenish’ the retainer. Any time after the first month of work you are fair game for this.
Now, to be honest, you have been seeing copies of letters and/or pleadings in your inbox all month, and you’ve made a few phone calls to the attorney to pose a question, complain about your spouse, or to provide information that has been requested. You may have spoken to the attorney, but chances are you spoke to the paralegal. After all, attorneys are ‘in court’, ‘in a meeting’, ‘with a client’ or any number of other ‘places’. It goes without saying that some are really on the golf course, but you never heard that from me.
So, when thirty days or so rolls around, and there’s a window envelope in your mail, you are shocked at the long list of ‘events’ that you have been charged for, and the note on the bottom that says “Please replenish your retainer” or other words to that effect. Upon study, there is no doubt that the charges are accurate. Yes, you remember calling the attorney’s office on such-and-such a date, but did not know that the billing would look like this:
And that is just the first six days of the month! Imagine what the rest of the month looks like. And now imagine the eight to twenty months that this divorce could take, or longer.
“But wait”, you say, “spouse and I are not really fighting. We have limited assets, neither of us are hiding assets, we both have W-2 jobs, and we know we can co-operate with parenting time. So why is this going to cost so much, and why did the attorney not tell me up front how much it would really cost?”
The general all-purpose answer is that the attorney really does not know up front how much it will cost. It all depends on you, and besides, the last thing that any attorney wants to tell you up front is that the $3,000 ‘retainer’ will be $30,000 by the time you are done.
“$30,000????” you ask.
Yes, in my experience the retainer is generally about ten to twenty-five percent of what you can eventually expect to be billed. Not a hard and fast rule, and never, again in my experience, is that figure pre-planned by an attorney. Many attorneys hope, for your sake, that they can complete your case for close to the retainer amount. Many other attorneys know that will never happen, and have already questioned you about your assets before they set the retainer amount… in short, they know whether or not you have the money to finance what the case will really cost, based on their methods of running a case.
Some attorneys work to keep your costs down, and count on ‘volume’, i.e. – lots of clients – to make a living. Others are looking for the client with assets. They like to conduct “discovery”: depositions, interrogatories, etc., all of which are designed to garner information from the other party; information you may already have and don’t need expensive procedures to ferret out.
Obviously, I tell you all of this for a reason. Those outside of the mysterious world of the law office have no idea that there are options that might work better for them.
Too often in divorce, a spouse thinks that they will “get to court and tell the judge” all about the transgressions of the other. The truth is, the court seldom has any interest in what a spouse has ‘done wrong’.
Many states are “no-fault” states, with laws that state, in effect: “It is important to recognize that, in almost all situations, an allegation against a spouse, even when proven by evidence, will not affect the outcome of the divorce. So, claiming that your spouse had an adulterous affair will not improve your chances of receiving more in child support, alimony, or equitable distribution.”
Most states are also equitable distribution states: “… in the event of a divorce, the marital property is not automatically split 50-50. Rather, equitable distribution is defined as the division of marital assets in a manner that is fair but not necessarily equal.”
If you and your spouse are cooperating with sharing of parenting time, you both want to be fair in determining the amount of money necessary to support the children (and their activities), there is little in the way of assets, or you both are sure what assets each have and want to divide everything fairly, there are a number of resources on the internet that can help.
Most states’ courts base child support on the number of children, the ages of the children, the number of overnights the children spend with each parent, and the income of each parent. Try an internet search for “child support guidelines in [my state]”. You will most likely find several programs that can give you fair and accurate child support figures. Note that “parent expenses” do not count; you are expected to reduce your expenses to match your means, or increase your income to match your expenses.
If you have assets to divide, do an internet search for “marital settlement agreements in [my state]”. At the very least, you will find documents that will let you know what things you need to think about dividing, such as furniture, pension plans, etc. If you do go to an attorney, at least you have some knowledge going in.
And finally, if you agree on the issues, or have no children together and no assets to divide, do you really need two expensive attorneys? There are many internet sites that prepare forms for divorce. Another solution is legal document preparation firms, which will take your information and prepare professional documents ready for filing with the court. While the document preparation specialists at such firms are not attorneys, and cannot provide legal advice, the forms are usually identical in substance to the self-help forms provided by some court systems, but are filled out by professionals experienced in family law, have a professional look, and as an added bonus, many have local offices you can visit, speak with an experienced person familiar with you and your case, and get help with the various steps needed during your case. The low fees charged by document preparation firms are usually preferable to trying to comprehend and fill out a fifteen-page packet of forms and instructions that you would be handed by the court.
So before you run to the lawyer, talk with your spouse. Try to be as agreeable as possible, then look for solutions. After all, I never heard an attorney ask if you would prefer to pay legal fees or to keep your family assets in the family.
Call Diane at 908-235-4444
Toll-Free at 888-670-4404
Copyright Diane Moniz, 2013
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