As the holidays near, it is quite common to see a spike in separations. For those that about to embark in the divorce process, it is important to understand the four main types of services generally available to clients with family law matters:
(1) initial consults;
(2) flat-fee services for preparing specific documents;
(3) alternate dispute resolution; or
(4) representation through retainers.
Initial consults are key because they provide clients with an overview of the law, including their rights and obligations, as well as a detailed explanation of the legal process. It is important to obtain this information, together with an expert’s advice on strategy, early on and usually a one-hour consult in the DC Area ranges from $300-$600, depending on the attorney’s reputation and level of experience.
Flat-fee services are typically offered for drafting or reviewing Prenuptial Agreements, Separation/Marital Settlement Agreements and/or uncontested divorce documents simply because the time involved with these services can easily be predicted. Flat-fee arrangements are not available in contested situations.
Alternate dispute resolution is conducted outside of court and includes using an attorney as a mediator or working in a Collaborative Divorce Process, where each party has his/her own attorney and as a team they work to resolve the outstanding issues outside of court. In these arrangements, individuals may be able do a pay-as-you-go plan, without the need for hefty retainers because they are agreeing to avoid litigation and instead focus on an amicable settlement.
Representation through retainers requires clients to pay a deposit towards the legal services requested. Essentially, it gives clients the ability to have a lawyer “on call.” When this full level of service is requested, the process can become quite expensive. To make the process more affordable, many service providers are starting to use limited engagement retainers that dramatically narrow the scope of an attorney’s representation.
Limited engagement retainers are a bit controversial because there is a concern that people may not fully understand what this means, but as long as the limited scope is clear, this a-la-carte style of purchasing can greatly benefit consumers seeking greater control over their legal expenses. These limited engagement retainers typically exclude representation in court, which is the most costly aspect of the legal services. The attorneys essentially serve as ghost-writers and coaches throughout the legal process, without any commitment to appear in court.
Under any scenario, divorce clients have to be realistic with their own budgets and find ways to work within their limits. Family law cases are civil matters, and the government does not have any responsibility to provide attorneys in these cases, except in very specific actions such as those involving child support or abuse and neglect claims. It is also not the lawyer’s problem to figure out how the client will finance a private action– that is where friends, family, bank loans or credit cards come into play if a person lacks sufficient means to pay for legal representation. Law firms are not intended to be financial institutions, and attorneys need to avoid conflicts of interest that can easily be created once they are put in the position of acting as lenders with their clients. As a result, there is a rise in divorce financing through private institutions in some areas, depending on the overall assets of the marital estate.
Divorce is rarely a cheap or easy process; therefore, it is each consumer’s responsibility to do his/her own research and to then request the appropriate services taking into account the financial resources s/he has available for the process. Ultimately, the key to a successful divorce is understanding the options available, having realistic expectations and choosing the process best-suited to the parties’ situation.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.