>Frequently Asked Questions about Fees and Costs in Family Law cases
• How much will my case cost? It depends. In family cases, attorneys charge by the hour, or a portion thereof, for their time, and for paralegal time. The total amount of fees charged depends on the number of issues involved, the amount of discovery, the number of hearings, and the obstructionism of the opposing party. Many of these factors are out of the control of you and your attorney, so it can be difficult to control costs. A divorce where the parties can reach an early agreement may cost as little as a few thousand dollars; a case where there are multiple issues, hearings, discovery, and obstructionism of the other party may cost well in excess of $100,000.00.
• My attorney bills me a minimum amount no matter how short the time spent. Why? Most attorneys provide for a minimum amount of time in their billing structure, usually either 1/10 of an hour, ten minutes, or ¼ of an hour. Therefore, if you have a three minute phone call with your attorney, he or she may charge you up to fifteen minutes for that call. In fairness to the attorney, one of the most difficult parts of our practice is “capturing” all of the time we spend on a case. For example, it is rare, even with minimum time protocols, for attorneys to be able to capture all their billable hours they spend in a day for clients, particularly if they are dealing with multiple cases during the day. Minimum fees help to bridge that gap.
• Why are the attorney’s hourly rates so high? It’s a matter of simple economics. An attorney, as with any businessperson, has overhead, including rent, utilities, staff salaries, law books and computers. The hourly rate reflects all of those costs in addition to the attorney’s salary.
• How do I minimize costs? There are several ways to keep fees down.
o Gathering and organizing financial documents is a big cost saver. Talk to your attorney about what documents you should be gathering and how he or she wants them organized.
o Keeping the temperature cool: This means trying not to do anything that will provoke the other side, if possible. When your soon to be ex-spouse becomes angry, costs invariably go up. For example, throwing your spouse’s clothes on the lawn may turn out to be an expensive act of revenge when your spouse calls his or her attorney, and the hope of a negotiated settlement goes out the window. Another red flag: dating or living with a new girlfriend or boyfriend does not matter to the court, but will anger your spouse—usually resulting in a more contentious divorce.
o Negotiating a settlement: litigation is very expensive; negotiated settlements are almost always less so. Even if you cannot agree on everything, try to agree upon as much as possible, and you have a right to litigate the rest. This does not mean, however, that you need to agree for agreement’s sake. If your spouse is being unrealistic, then a hearing may be necessary.
• Can I pay my attorney on a contingency fee basis? The law does not allow lawyers to represent clients in family cases on a contingency fee without prior court approval. In addition, many family law cases involve other issues besides property awards; thus a contingency fee would not apply to those cases.
• What other expenses can I expect in a family law case? The most costly expenses you can expect are for expert fees and deposition costs, if you need an expert or you need to take someone’s deposition. Some experts attorneys use are: private investigators, forensic psychologists, property appraisers, actuaries to determine values of pensions or annuities, financial experts. Those costs may run from hundreds to thousands of dollars, but in a particular case may be worth the investment.
• Do attorneys double bill when they are doing work for two clients? Attorneys are prohibited from double billing by the Code of Ethics. If Attorneys are traveling to court for two hearings, for example, they cannot bill both clients for the time on the road. We pro-rate travel time when we are traveling to court for more than one client.
• Why am I not credited with interest on the money in attorneys client’s trust accounts? Most attorneys require that an advance fee be paid in cases involving hourly charges. That advance fee is placed in a clients trust account, and the funds are transferred to the operating account when an attorney spends time or has an expense in your case. The Code of Ethics requires lawyers to place their clients trust monies into special interest bearing accounts called IOLTA accounts. With those accounts, the banks have a legal obligation to pay the interest directly to the Association. The interest earned goes to people or organizations with legal needs. In Vermont, most of the interest earned on IOLTA accounts is paid by the Vermont Bar Association to Vermont Legal Aid to help represent needy clients, and to other legal causes.
• Can the other party be ordered to pay my attorneys fees in family cases? Yes. The court can order a spouse or ex-spouse to pay your attorneys fees. It is up to the court to decide. The court may or may not grant your request. The court will only order a spouse to pay attorneys fees when there is large gap between the parties’ income, and when you can show you are unable to pay your fees. My advice, however, is not to count on this. It is rare for Vermont courts to award attorneys fees.
• Attorneys are expensive; why isn’t it better to negotiate a settlement with my spouse myself? It is true that divorce is expensive. However, there is a great deal at stake: your children’s future and your financial security for years to come. Lawyers are paid to look into the future and determine the impact of the terms of a settlement on you and your family. In addition, if you are in an emotional breakup—and what breakups aren’t?—it is difficult to negotiate a settlement that takes into account all of the issues–and is fair and equitable. If you want to negotiate a settlement with your spouse yourself, then my advice is to at least have an attorney review the settlement before you sign. Most attorneys will be willing to give you advice about a settlement you have negotiated with your spouse. It will be money well spent.