What does a divorce cost?

After the anxiety of “what will happen to me and my kids in my divorce?” the question of “how much will my divorce cost?” is usually the next most worrisome question.

After all, you will have read through the articles on my website and the websites of other lawyers about all the other financial aspects of divorce.  You’ll know your assets will be divided approximately 50/50 or “equitably” which is almost never more than 65/35.  You’ll now that maintenance will be 33% of your income minus 25% of your spouse’s (or vice versa).  You’ll have gone to the Illinois Healthcare and Family Services website to total the estimated child support.

So even before you file for divorce, you will likely know all the costs associated with the divorce’s result.

No one ever seems to be transparent about the cost of the divorce process.  Lawyers will say, “well, it depends” and the lawyers are right in saying that.  Still, you should know what it depends on.

Initially, every lawyer will give you two numbers, their hourly rate and their retainer amount.

The Retainer

My engagement agreement (contract with the lawyer) defines the retainer agreement as:

“A retainer fee is an advance deposit paid initially to hire an Attorney.  Your attorney will use this money to pay for court fees, attorney fees, or any other expenses that may arise in your case. The retainer does not reflect the total amount of attorney’s fees for a case. Final invoices are relative to the total amount of work performed by the Attorneys and office staff, and additional costs incurred on behalf of the client. “

I put my clients’ retainer money in a special trust account which is supervised by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Discipline Committee.  As I earn the money or spend the money on legitimate expenses, I withdraw the money from the trust account and deposit into my operating account.

Some attorneys require an “evergreen retainer” which means they want more money in the trust account for future work after the initial retainer is exhausted.  I do not require an evergreen retainer.  After the initial retainer is exhausted, the invoices will reflect the outstanding balance owed.  At this stage of the attorney-client relationship I am fully familiar with my client’s finances and know what they can afford to immediately pay and what they cannot afford.  I usually arrange a payment plan based on that ability to pay.

My retainer varies based on the case.  For a true no asset/no kids divorce, I can and will get done for $ 1500.  This includes the $ 602 filing fee for both parties.  For contested divorces of any kind, my retainer is $ 3000.

Why do I use these two numbers?  I use $ 1500 and $ 3000 retainers because it sets expectations for both myself and the client.  At these retainer amounts both the client and my staff will both strive to come to a satisfactory conclusion at the retainer’s total amount or less.  My office has done so a thousand times.

Of course, divorce is contentious so about half of all cases that come into my office exhaust the retainer after a few months of temporary motions.

The Hourly Rate

After the retainer is determined, the next question is “what does the lawyer and the staff charge?”

Most lawyers charge an hourly rate for themselves and their staff.  I charge $ 325 an hour.  I co-counsel every case (in-lieu of partnership for complicated reasons) with Rahul Iyer who charges $ 250 an hour.  Our paralegals charge $ 100 an hour.

75% of divorce and family law is relatively simple.   The paralegals can accomplish all the simple matters at the fair price of $ 100 an hour while they’re being supervised by lawyers.  The other 25% of a divorce involves strategy and a thorough knowledge of the statutes, the case law, the demeanor of the opposing counsel and the judge.  Lawyers handle the more strategiv areas of the case.

My invoices typically reflect this split of time on a case between the paralegals and the lawyers.

How Much Do Lawyers And Paralegals Bill?

This is the big question you need to ask but can never be answered is how much do they bill?

There is no way to know in advance how much the lawyers and the paralegals will bill.  You can only rely on what you hear about previous cases until you receive your first invoice.

I am in no position to argue whether a lawyer’s bill is reasonable or unreasonable because…it depends.

What Are Unreasonable Billing Practices?

Unreasonable billing practices are usually obvious when you see them.  Does it take 30 minutes to copy some documents?  Should a lawyer be copying those documents or should a paralegal?

Are the billing items even being described?  My staff and myself describe every instance of work in detail to assure the client what we were doing and a record to ourselves of the progress in the case.

If your invoice just says “telephone call .5 hour” that may be legitimate but it is very hard to describe what the purpose and use of that time was.

What If I Don’t Pay My Attorney’s Invoices  

It’s possible that your spouse may be ordered to pay your attorneys’ fees.  I address that in this article.

It’s also possible that you have an asset that isn’t cash that can be liquified during or after the divorce to pay your fees.  For most working people, their house is their biggest asset and I am often happy to be paid from the proceeds of the sale of the home.

If you don’t pay your attorneys’ invoices without entering into a payment plan, your attorney will withdraw from representing you in your case.  After your attorney’s withdrawal, you will have to find a new attorney, pay a new retainer or represent yourself (a terrible idea).

What Happens To The Attorneys’ Fees Owed At The End Of The Case?

At the end of every divorce, the attorneys’ fees have to apportioned between the two parties.  Once they are, the divorce attorneys can pursue their own clients for collection within the same divorce court.

“The determination of attorneys’ fees and costs either under this subsection (c), whether initiated by a counsel or a client, or in an independent proceeding for services within the scope of subdivisions (1) through (5) of subsection (a), is within the sound discretion of the trial court.” 750 ILCS 508(c)(3) 

At the end of every single one of my cases, I file a petition for final fees if I am owed final fees.  I have always had my clients enter into an agreement with me as to the final fees.  I am happy to work with a payment plan but my staff and I will be paid what we are owed in full.

What About Flat Fees?  

Some divorce lawyers charge a flat fee for a divorce.  This means the divorce lawyer will make the same amount of money whether he works your case or does not.  I think this creates a horrible incentive for the lawyer to force a settlement.

Other lawyers charge a flat fee plus a monthly fee to mitigate the disincentive to settle immediately.  I believe this just creates another incentive to drag the case out as long as possible while doing as little work as possible (the worst of both worlds).

Outside Experts

Once your case needs an outside expert you are officially in an expensive case.  On top of two attorneys working on the case, you now have other experts that need to get paid.

Guardian ad litems, child representatives, mediators, therapists, children’s coordinators, actuaries and Forensic Accountants all charge extremely high rates to resolve issues when you and your spouse cannot resolve those issues.

The solution to avoiding these experts billing you and/or your spouse is to settle these matters in lieu of relying on their expertise to resolve the matter.

How Do I Minimize The Cost Of My Divorce?

There are many ways a client can minimize the cost of their divorce.

  • Come to an agreement right away so that you have an uncontested divorce.
  • Mediate the matter. Mediation often starts right after your divorce is filed during the “calm before the storm” of litigation when initial discovery is being collected.
  • Communicate with paralegals as much as possible in lieu of the attorneys.
  • Get your own discovery. When you receive a discovery request from the opposing counsel, gather your own discovery as much as possible in lieu of directing your attorney’s staff where to find it.
  • Organize your own discovery. When you have your discovery, organize it in folders with an index or organize it in an electronic file with as many labels as possible.
  • Treat your attorney like an attorney and not like a therapist. (Sidebar: I am happy to listen to your issues and will not cut you off but there is definitely a grey area between telling me your relevant legal issues and telling me about your emotional problems)
  • Settle the case. There are many issues that can simply be resolved by settling the matter.  You don’t even have to settle the entire case.  You can just compromise issue by issue.  There may not be many issues left or work to be done if you’ve settled even some of the issues.

If you’d like to learn more about what a divorce would or should cost, contact my Chicago law office to schedule a free consultation to learn more.

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