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What is the average retainer fee for a divorce lawyer?

The cost of a divorce is almost always one of the most important issues facing a person as they prepare for a divorce. If you are in a position where you are either contemplating a divorce or are in need of a lawyer’s assistance in responding to a petition for divorce filed by your spouse, then you have come to the right place. The attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan would like to share with you some information on the basics of attorney’s fees in a divorce case. From there, we can move on to more in depth material on what your divorce may end up costing you when it is all said and done.

What is a retainer fee?

I think before we can even begin discussing this topic we need to define our terms. A retainer fee is basically a down payment that you make towards the hiring of an attorney. The payment will retain that attorney’s services for you for the length of your divorce. Part of paying a retainer will be the signing of a contract that defines the scope of the attorney-client relationship. Both you and your attorney will have the ability to end the relationship for good cause, lack of communication and other reasons that are allowable under state law. 

The key to understanding attorney’s fees in a family law case, like a divorce, as opposed to a personal injury case is that family law attorneys bill by the hour while personal injury attorneys bill on a contingency fee basis. If you are injured in an automobile accident and wish to pursue an injury claim against the at fault driver’s insurance company then you may hire an attorney to represent you. 

That attorney will represent you without needing a retainer in most cases. Rather, a personal injury attorney will have you sign a contract that promises him or her a certain percentage (33.3%, for example) of whatever settlement proceedings you end up winning from the insurance company of the at fault driver. As such, you will not need to pay that lawyer any money at the outset of your relationship. 

Family law attorneys, and most attorneys for that matter, do not work on a contingency fee basis. Family law attorneys bill by the hour. Within the contract that you sign the attorney will likely tell you how much he or she charges per hour worked on your case. The other attorneys in their office, support staff and paralegals will also have an hourly rate assigned to them. For every hour worked on your case, your attorney or their employee will charge you for that time spent working. 

As such, it is important that your account with your attorney stays well-funded so that your case doesn’t fall behind where it needs to be in terms of work, and your attorney’s office can be paid for rendering services to you and your case. There are points in a divorce case where a lot of work has to be done and other times where little work needs to be done on your case. It all depends on the stage of where your case is. 

Stages of a divorce and what costs you are likely to encounter

At the beginning of a divorce case there are some costs associated with your divorce that are somewhat predictable. Let’s look at what those costs may be if you are the spouse who files for divorce. Once you pay your retainer, sign your attorney-client contract and meet with your attorney then your divorce petition will need to be filed. There are fees associated with filing a divorce case that vary depending on the county where you reside. Somewhere between $300-$400 to file a divorce (with or without children) is reasonable to expect for your divorce.

On top of that, your attorney will be billing you for the work performed in preparing and drafting the document associated with filing for your divorce. Remember to check out the hourly billing rate of your attorney so that you can have a good estimate of what it will cost to file your divorce. A petition for divorce is usually a very long or in depth document but the attorney will want to make sure that there are not any mistakes. 

Hiring a process server to serve your spouse with notice of the divorce is another minor fee associated with your case. Since these are somewhat predictable costs that an attorney will encounter on behalf of all their clients, the retainer that you pay is typically a very good estimate of what it will take to get your case off the ground. Subsequent to that, your attorney will likely need you to pay additional funds in order to make sure the work that needs to be done in your case gets done on time and in full. 

What you need to know up front about retainer fees and costs in a divorce is that the attorney does not control how much your case ends up costing you in terms of dollars spent. True, the attorney will set the retainer fee amount, but it is usual that the retainer reflects the likely costs that your divorce will run at the beginning of the case. The more complex, complicated and/or contentious your case is the more your case will end up costing. This is because more time needs to be committed to a case the more complex it is. 

Where does a retainer fee go once it is paid by you to the lawyer?

Occasionally an inquiring attorney will ask me where the money goes that he or she would pay us as a retainer fee. I think some people imagine the lawyer running to the bank to deposit the client’s check directly into their personal bank account. From there, the hypothetical client may believe, that the lawyer will spend that money on fancy suits and steak dinners. The truth of the matter is that this money never touches a lawyer’s personal bank account 

Your initial retainer payment will go into a trust account. The trust account is where client money goes into so that it never intermingles with the lawyer’s personal account. This keeps things nice and “clean” from a ethical perspective. The money that you have paid our firm in the trust account has the hours that our office has billed deducted from that number. Any money left in the trust account at the conclusion of your case may be returned to you at the end of your case. 

On the other hand, it may happen that you need to pay the law office additional sums of money as your case goes along. It all depends on the lawyer you select to represent you, the initial retainer in your case as well as the type of divorce that you have. If yours is an attorney who charges a substantial retainer at the outset of your case it may be that you don’t need to pay any additional sums of money after that. On the other hand, if you signed up with your attorney at a relatively low retainer fee then you will likely need to make monthly payments to your attorney as your case proceeds.

What sort of retainer fee could you end up paying in your Texas divorce?

Just like people going through divorces come in all shapes and sizes, attorneys do as well. You can find an attorney who is willing to accept a very low retainer for representation of you. An amount of $1,500 may be what this type of lawyer charges. However, attorneys who will accept a retainer at that level will commonly be either inexperienced, not willing to do much work on your case- or both. Lawyers typically do not work for free- although you may be able to find a lawyer will take your case on a pro bono (no charge basis) if you are not working or lack assets to sell to pay for a lawyer. 

For the most part, however, a divorce retainer in the Houston area would typically run you between $2,500 and $5,000. If you choose to hire a lawyer with fancy furniture, a great deal of experience or some other quality such as these the retainer can be much, much more than $5,000. Again, it depends on how much money you are willing to spend, the attorney you select, your location in the state of Texas as well as the complexity of your case. 

What aspects of a divorce tend to increase the overall cost of your case?

I have already mentioned to you a couple times that the more complex your case is-or at least the more contentious your case is- tends to increase the costs associated with it. The most contentious and important issue in a divorce case relates to children. If you and your spouse cannot agree on which of you the child should live with on a full-time basis after the divorce then this will almost surely cause your case to run a little more expensive. Parents are typically willing to spend more money on their case when their kids are at issue than any other subject.

If you have a family business that needs to be divided in the divorce, or other significant financial assets that are part of your community estate, then these can be factors that increase the length and cost of your divorce will increase. Assets like a business need to be valued and then a plan will need to be developed between you and your spouse on how you would like to divide the asset. The same can be said for debts. 

The other category that more expensive divorces tend to fall into are ones that involve difficult opposing spouses and/or difficult opposing attorneys. These are things that you and attorney have little to no control over. It is not uncommon for difficult people to be attracted to one another. Don’t be surprised if your spouse hires an attorney who likes to fight if she wants to fight. 

A fire, it is said, needs oxygen to stay aflame. In the context of a divorce case this same concept holds true. Your spouse and their attorney may want to fight tooth and nail with you. That desire to fight may be justified or it may not be. However, if you go about your business, have your attorney advocate for you, but not engage in the fighting with your spouse then you have a better opportunity to decrease fighting and decrease costs associated with your case.

How can you find out what has been charged on your case so far?

If you have decided to hire our law office to represent you in a divorce case, you will be able to call our office during business hours and request an accounting of any charges made against your case by your attorney and their staff. This will allow you to get a much better idea about what your case has cost and what it is likely to cost in the future. 

In the event that you have questions about your bill, we have team members who are equipped to answer your questions. Your attorney will be more than happy to sit down with you and walk through the work done on your case, as well. It is your case and you have the right to know what’s happening.

Questions about retainer fees or other costs of a divorce? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the information contained in today’s blog post please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week here in our office. These consultations are great opportunities for you to ask questions and receive direct feedback about your particular case. Thank you for choosing to spend part of your day with us today and we look forward to you joining us tomorrow as we post another blog related to issues in Texas family law. 


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