Family Law

How to Manage Attorneys' Fees in Your Divorce

By Aaron Thomas, Attorney
Divorce is often more expensive than a wedding. How much your divorce costs will depend on some factors outside of your control, but there are several steps you can take manage your attorney’s fees.

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While some spouses can work together to resolve their divorce cases without spending very much on fees and costs, it’s not unusual for a couple to spend ten percent or more of their net worth litigating their divorce. This article will explain how to effectively and efficiently manage your attorney’s fees during your divorce.

Understanding How Your Attorney Charges

First, have a conversation with your attorney about "billing," which refers to how and what an attorney charges. If you make it clear up front that one of your primary goals is to keep costs down, most attorneys will keep that in mind as they work on your case. Your attorney can also give you tips to help control costs from your side.

Each divorce is different, so it can be difficult for an attorney to estimate how much your case will cost. Unless your divorce is uncontested (meaning you and your spouse have already agreed on every issue in the case), an attorney is unlikely to charge you a flat fee. Still, you can get an idea of how different attorneys bill by simply asking about it during your first meeting or interview with each potential attorney.

Your attorney should tell you what the firm’s minimum retainer is and the hourly rates for all personnel that will work on your case. The retainer is the amount you have to pay up front to hire the attorney. Some firms have an “evergreen retainer,” which you have to replenish after it falls below a certain amount. If your case ends, and there are unused funds left from your retainer, the attorney should return that money to you.

You’ll also want to ask about billing policies for the different types of expenses associated with a divorce:

  • does the attorney charge for postage and copies, and if so, how much?
  • will your attorney mail court filings to the court, or use a courier service?
  • do you have to reimburse your attorney for mileage traveling to and from court hearings or other appointments?
  • how does your attorney bill for phone calls and emails?

Some attorneys have a minimum they will bill for phone calls and emails. For example, even if a phone call lasts one minute, they may bill you .2 of an hour. If the attorney’s hourly rate is $250, that would mean you pay $50 for a one-minute phone call. Understanding your attorney’s billing procedures can help prevent sticker shock when you get your bill at the end of the month or the case.

Using Your Attorney’s Time Wisely

Regardless of your attorney’s billing procedures, there are several steps you can take to control costs. First, understand that the more work you can do on your own, the less your attorney must do. Ask your attorney what you can do to help move your case forward and be a better client. Gather as much of the financial documentation you’ll need for your case, so you can save your attorney from having to spend time on divorce discovery, sending subpoenas and requests for documents. And complete any forms that you can fill out on your own—that will reduce the time your attorney must spend preparing them.

Rather than calling or emailing your attorney each time you have a small question, it may be helpful to save all your questions for a weekly phone call so your attorney can address all of your concerns more efficiently. Provide your attorney requested information in a timely manner so he or she doesn’t have to request it from you multiple times.

Don’t use your time with your attorney as a counseling session. It’s tempting when getting a divorce to want to unleash each and every one of your spouse’s wrongdoings over the course of the marriage—this is a recipe for a large bill. Instead, ask your attorney what information is relevant to your divorce case so you can streamline your conversations.

Maintaining Focus

Divorce is an emotionally taxing time for spouses. It’s easy to turn your divorce case into an expensive war if you try to fight your spouse on each tiny issue that has to be resolved. Instead, decide on your main goals at the beginning of the case, and focus on those goals rather than “winning.”

One of the biggest mistakes that you can make is having unreasonable expectations about what your life will look like after the divorce. Whatever your household income was prior to the divorce, that same income will now have to support two households instead of one. Don’t expect to maintain your current standard of living when funds are going to be spread more thinly. Instead of focusing on how much you can extract from your spouse, concentrate on what you will need to cover your minimum expenses through the transition. Reasonable expectations are key to reaching a fast and inexpensive divorce settlement.

If you have children, don’t treat custodial arrangements as a referendum on your parenting skills. Recognize that your children will benefit from having ample time and a positive relationship with both parents. Unless your spouse is a danger to your children, it’s generally not worth fighting tooth and nail to minimize your spouse’s contact with the kids.

It can be helpful to look at your divorce as a business transaction. For example, say you have $100,000 to divide between you and your spouse, and both of you feel that you should receive 60% of the money. If you each spend $10,000 fighting over the money, there’s only $80,000 left to split. Even if you get 60% of the money left, you’ll only receive $48,000, less than if you had split the $100,000 evenly without litigation.

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