How Much Is This Gonna Cost Me?
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Top three tips for keeping divorce fees down
It’s an all-too-familiar scene in any divorce lawyer’s office. A client sits on the other side of the desk, unable to escape an uncomfortable feeling ranging from sad to angry to confused and, oftentimes, mildly petrified, while describing what has brought her to this place.
Her marriage is about to dissolve, and she needs to know her options—all of them—including what will happen with her children, her home, and the wealth she and her spouse have managed to accumulate since the day they said, “I do.” And then it comes. The last, but certainly not least, question of the consultation: “How much is this divorce gonna cost me?”
Although years of legal experience typically allow me to answer most questions with a great degree of certainty, this question, invariably, is not one of them.
When it comes to getting divorced, handling child custody, or determining support matters, most attorneys work on an hourly-fee basis. In other words, for each hour spent, the client will incur the corresponding fee set forth in the fee agreement (also called the “retainer agreement”). It’s pretty simple math.
But when clients want to know how much the divorce will cost, my prediction would be about as accurate as the fortune in the cookie that follows my pint of chicken fried rice. It’s a question an attorney cannot answer definitively (at least not without a crystal ball).
However, it is possible to control divorce fees and costs if you follow a few basic rules. What follows are a couple of pointers and my top three tips to guide you through the math of getting unhitched.
The difference between fees and costs
Fees are typically the monetary amounts charged in exchange for the time the attorney and/or staff spends handling the various aspects of a case. Costs are the hard costs associated with the matter, such as copies, faxes, filing fees, deposition transcripts, experts’ fees, and the like. The focus of this article is on attorney fees, although keep in mind that the more work that is required in your case, the higher the costs will likely climb.
Time is money
The first step in getting a handle on divorce fees and costs is to understand this premise: time is money. Quite simply, the more time it takes to get to the finish line, the more fees will be incurred in getting you there. Sounds easy enough, right? And it is, except when a client is unsure about what is truly important—and what is not. Therein lies the rub.
Tip one: With divorce, as in life, don’t waste time on the unimportant
For example, say a client is a party in a no-fault divorce (which, by the way, is the new normal) but spends time trying to “prove” her husband’s infidelity and subsequently sends her attorney a series of daily e-mails reporting the “evidence” she’s found on her husband’s cell phone. The client will be unhappy to learn that not only is she being charged for the time it takes for her attorney to read and reply to the e-mail exchange but also none of the so-called evidence is relevant to the divorce. In no-fault divorce actions, the court doesn’t care nor will your settlement be affected by whether your spouse is spending all of his free time on Tinder.
What is the easiest way to know what will be helpful in getting you from beginning to end in your divorce? Follow your attorney’s instruction. She or he will be happy to tell you what’s needed. If it’s not on that list, don’t drop it off, hit send, or craft a 10-part text with an accompanying photo that will require your attorney’s attention (which could take, say, 30 minutes or more) without first asking your lawyer (in six minutes or less) if he or she believes what you are itching to provide will be useful.
An efficient way to lay the groundwork in your divorce is to have a brief meeting with your lawyer at the start in what I like to call a “legal strategy session.” This is always money well spent because it will not only manage expectations but also save you from incurring thousands in unnecessary attorney fees down the road.
Tip two: Know when not to talk to your lawyer
I appreciate the fact that most of my clients actually enjoy speaking with me. I mean, why not? I’m fun to be around, and I have fantastic taste in shoes. But I also realize they don’t always need to speak with me, and this is precisely why I have administrative staff on whom my clients can rely for the nonlegal stuff. Need a court-date reminder or copies made, or have a question that doesn’t require a lawyer’s expertise? Great, contact the paralegal assigned to your case instead and get billed at a much lower rate—if at all. (See also “What to Ask a Potential Divorce Attorney.”)
Tip three: Pick your battles
This is a biggie and yet probably the most difficult for clients to follow.
Let’s face it: divorce is emotional. Whether you are leading the charge or reluctantly going along for the ride, the end of a marriage can feel like the end of the world. I get it.
And I also understand completely that many clients will fight just to fight. They fight because they are mad. They fight because they are hurt. They fight because, well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when getting divorced?
Repeat after me: fighting equals fees.
Don’t get me wrong—some battles in divorce are unavoidable and downright necessary. If a spouse wants to move the kids to Bora Bora, it’s time to fight. A spouse dissipated marital funds that affects your equitable distribution? Lace up the gloves. There is an issue about which portion of the respective retirement accounts is marital property? Buckle up.
But if you suddenly find yourself unnaturally attached to the Barcalounger with the beer stains in the basement because your spouse really, really wants it, you may collect a few hundred dollar bills, place them in the garbage disposal, and hit the switch.
Rule of thumb: if you can replace it for less than it will cost you in attorney fees to fight over it, let it go; otherwise, you are jumping over dollars to pick up dimes and, well, that’s just dumb.
I mentioned earlier that divorce often can feel like the end of the world. It’s not. Divorce may be the end of your marriage, but it is also the beginning of the rest of your life. Following these few simple tips can have you starting anew with several hundred, or perhaps several thousand, more dollars in your pocket rather than in mine.
As a lawyer whose main goal is to have a positive impact during one of the most difficult times in a client’s life, I’m more than OK with that. Your attorney should be, too.
Jonna Spilbor, Esq., is an unstuffy lawyer, radio host, motivational speaker, and TV legal analyst who appears regularly on Fox News and other major networks.
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