Going through a divorce is never easy, but having an experienced divorce lawyer can make the process less painful. Since you’ll likely be working with your divorce lawyer for months or even years, choosing someone you trust and can be honest with is vital to getting the settlement you want and deserve. This guide serves as a general primer on what divorce lawyers do, how much they cost, and which factors you should consider when choosing a family law attorney.
What Can a Divorce Lawyer Do for You?
Divorce attorneys can mediate issues like division of assets, alimony, and child custody schedules. Even if you and your soon-to-be-former spouse are on amicable terms, you should still get your own personal lawyer. Marriages are legal arrangements, so you need someone with legal experience to ensure that your rights are protected. At the very least, ask an attorney for initial advice, and have them look over any documents that you intend to sign.
If you suspect your partner will not cooperate, or if there is a history of domestic violence in the relationship, a lawyer is absolutely necessary to pursue an aggressive divorce complaint. Requesting a restraining order may also be appropriate in such cases.
If you have young children with your spouse, any reputable divorce attorney will tell you upfront that your children’s needs must be prioritized over both parents’. Don’t trust anyone who wants to use your kids to make unreasonable child support or custody demands.
Settlements can be decided between you and your spouse’s respective attorneys, or they can be decided in family court. If you suspect that a divorce trial is inevitable, you need an attorney with considerable courtroom experience. You should also look for someone who knows your local family law judges because that can give you a significant advantage. Even if you don’t think you’ll end up in court, investigate any prospective attorney’s trial record to assess their ability to negotiate settlements.
Fees and Billing
Attorney fees can vary immensely based on where you live, and higher prices don’t always correlate with better experience and quality. Demand and competition drive local rates, so established lawyers in your area are likely to charge the most. You might be able to find an equally experienced lawyer who is new in town and willing to charge less. Either way, expect to pay upfront for an initial visit. A few lawyers offer free consultations, but if you don’t pay professionals for their time, your session could turn into a sales pitch rather than an information gathering session.
Family law attorneys typically bill on an hourly basis. Some may agree to a flat fee if your divorce is straightforward and they can calculate the exact time and labor costs, but making such calculations can be very difficult, so be prepared to pay per hour unless your divorce is 100 percent amicable and requires only light paperwork.
Hourly rates tend to be higher in urban areas, especially on the East and West coasts, and rates can range from $100-$600 per hour in addition to other fees and expenses. Be financially responsible, and make sure you don’t end up in debt from your divorce proceedings.
Choosing the Right Divorce Lawyer
Professionals who are familiar with your local judicial system, such as accountants, psychotherapists, and other lawyers, may have recommendations for a reputable local divorce attorney. Your state bar likely has a certification process for family law specialists, so they can provide you with a list of names. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is also a great place to look for a lawyer because it only admits professionals who have a track record of success.
Friends and relatives who have gone through divorces can offer valuable advice and recommendations. However, keep in mind that every client’s circumstances are unique, so you shouldn’t expect the same outcome in different divorce settlements. Don’t pick the first lawyer that anyone recommends — do your research.
When conducting research, pay attention to your prospective lawyers’ certifications, and investigate what they entail. For example, family law attorneys recognized by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification have at least five years of experience, and they have passed rigorous tests pertaining to their specialties. Maintaining board certification also requires on-going classes in family law each year. Consequently, board-certified family lawyers charge more money, but their expertise may be worth the expense.
Interviewing Divorce Lawyers
During your first meeting with any lawyer, you need to tell them all the details of your case to make sure they can give their informed opinion on whether or not they can help you achieve your goals. Be completely honest; good lawyers never judge their clients although they may give advice that you don’t want to hear. Come prepared with a list of your assets, debts, and sources of income in addition to copies of your last several years’ tax returns. This information will give the attorney a clearer picture of your situation.
Because the lawyer-client relationship is so personal, picking someone who you are comfortable talking to is essential. If you feel uncomfortable during your interview, go with your gut and look for someone else, even if you can’t articulate why you feel uneasy. You will likely be divulging intimate details about your marriage, which can be difficult for anyone, but keep in mind that lawyers are sworn to secrecy and have likely already heard dozens of stories just like yours.
Here are some questions you should ask when interviewing a divorce attorney:
- Are you available at times that are convenient for me?
- How soon do you return missed phone calls?
- Do you have associates or paralegals that will be assisting with my case?
- How much property am I entitled to?
- Am I or my spouse entitled to alimony?
- How much child support will I or my spouse have to pay?
- Can I choose which court hears my case?
- Do you know the family court judges that could decide my case?
- How often are you away from your office?
- In addition to your hourly rate, how much do your charge for things like travel time, photocopies, postage, faxes, phone calls, and supplies?
- Are there additional fees that I am responsible for paying?
- What is your refund policy on your retainer fee?
- Do you have any personal feelings about the circumstances of my case that could influence your strategy?
Your lawyer’s strategy should be tailored to your wants, needs, and circumstances, which is why it’s so vital to be honest with attorneys from the beginning. Being dishonest at any point during divorce proceedings could land you and your lawyer in deep legal trouble.
Divorce proceedings can be emotionally stressful, so it’s natural to want to get things done as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, take your time when looking for a divorce lawyer so that you get the best possible outcome.