Flat Fee Divorce: Know Exactly How Much Your Divorce Will Cost at the Front End!

Divorces can be incredibly expensive.  Most divorce lawyers charge by the hour, and rates range between $200 to $400 per hour, or more!  This means that for a short phone call to your attorney, you will be charged $50, $60, or $100!  Is the advice you receive during that phone call worth that much?  It might be, depending on the nature of the question, but it usually doesn’t seem like it.

There are all sorts of problems created by the hourly fee model:  the lawyer has no incentive to settle your case quickly and efficiently because it means he or she will be paid less.  This model assumes that every minute of a lawyer’s time is of equal value, regardless of the benefit imputed to the client.  In my experience, this is a false assumption:  the amount of time the lawyer spends on the case bears little relation to the actual benefit received by the client.

Fortunately, there is another way: the flat fee contract.  With a flat fee, the lawyer will estimate–based upon his experience and the information provided by the client–how much it should cost to complete the case from start to finish.  The attorney may quote a fee that is somewhat higher than a standard, up front, hourly-fee retainer, where the client makes an initial deposit then pays for attorneys time.  This is because there is a certain amount of risk involved in a flat fee that is not present in an hourly fee contract.  If the lawyer underestimates the complexity of the case, he could end up losing money.  On the other hand, the higher flat fee is often attractive to the client, because he knows the total cost at the front end.  He doesn’t have to worry about being billed $75 for a simple phone call, because phone calls are included in the total fee.

A good flat fee arrangement will set objective measures so that the lawyer and client can tell when the lawyer’s fee is earned.  For instance, the contract may state that the lawyer will have earned a percentage of the total fee as soon as the divorce petition is filed, another percentage after the financial disclosures are completed, another upon entry of temporary orders, and the final balance upon completion of the case.  That way, the unearned portion of the client’s fees may be refunded if the case is dismissed; for instance, if the husband and wife reconcile as soon as the petition is filed.

It should be noted that not even the best attorney can anticipate every issued in a divorce or custody matter.  The amount of time and effort that an attorney must spend on a case is determined not only by the client but also on the other party and opposing counsel.  Therefore, a good flat fee contract will set out what situation will merit an increase of the fee.  For example, if the client hires an attorney for the limited purpose of increasing the other parent’s child support obligation, and then the other parent files for full custody; the flat fee will not cover the custody case.  The lawyer and client will have to renegotiate the fee for representation on the broader issues.

Every system has pros and cons, and the flat fee contract is no exception.  It is not right for every case.  However, when a person with limited resources faces the uncertainty of the legal process, a flat fee contract will provide some assurance that the process will be affordable and efficient.

Do-It-Yourself Divorce?

Representing yourself in court can be scary.

Representing yourself in court can be scary.

Do I have to hire a lawyer to get a divorce?  The answer is no:  you have the right to represent yourself in court. Pro se (pronounced “pro say”) is the term used to describe a party who represents himself in court, without an attorney.  In as many as half of the divorces filed in El Paso County today, neither party hires a lawyer.  The most common reason a person will represent himself is the high cost of hiring an attorney.  While you can represent yourself, for the reasons stated below, I don’t recommend it.

Why does divorce cost so much?  The old punchline says….“Because it’s worth it!”  But seriously, divorce costs so much because it is a long and complicated process.  The State of Colorado has adopted divorce laws and procedures designed to ensure that property is divided fairly and that children’s best interest is protected.  Those laws require both parties to disclose and document all property, debts and expenses.  Furthermore, Colorado courts actively manage all lawsuits, including divorces.  This means that certain hearings and deadlines are imposed in every case–even in cases where the parties have agreed to everything.  Ironically, these procedures were designed to ensure fairness and to prevent parties and attorneys from abusing the legal process.  But they have the effect of complicating every case, even the most simple ones.

Another reason divorces cost so much is that the law of divorce is much more complicated than most non-lawyers realize.  There are laws about the characterization of property, laws concerning the division of parental responsibilities, and procedural laws which govern the case from beginning to end.  There are laws of evidence and proof, which dictate how we prove the value of property and who can testify.

But I can do it myself, right?  Yes, you can represent yourself in a divorce or family law case.  Neither party is required to hire an attorney.  Courts are generally prohibited from giving legal advice to non-lawyers, but there are a number of resources available to help parties through the process.  For instance, the Colorado courts website has a Self-Help Center with information and forms.  The forms can be downloaded in Word or pdf formats, and can be filled in on line.

Helpful Links  Here are links to pro se legal resources and legal aid in Colorado–

Colorado Judicial Branch Self-Help Center

Colorado Judicial Branch Forms and Instructions

Fourth Judicial District Self-Help Center (El Paso County Courts)

Fourth Judicial District Legal Help List and Pro Se Resources

Additionally, the El Paso County Bar Association has legal resources for the public available on its website–

El Paso County Bar Association, For the Public

If you need legal representation and absolutely cannot afford an attorney, contact Colorado Legal Services–

Colorado Legal Services

But should you?  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  You have the right to remove your own appendix, and Evan O’Neill Kane did just that, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

As I stated earlier, divorce is a very complex subject.  There are several substantive legal issues, including property (characterization, value, and division), spousal maintenance, and parent-child matters (including custody, parental rights and responsibilities, child support, visitation, etc.).  And then there are the procedural issues, which include how to go about filing for divorce, the requirements for the pleadings, service of process, drafting orders, and presenting your case before a judge.  Lawyers are trained to handle all of these matters.  The judicial system was designed by lawyers for lawyers.  Handling the case by yourself is risky.  If not done properly, it may actually cost more to fix problems after the fact than it would have to hire a lawyer to do it right the first time.

If you simply cannot afford an attorney, it may be helpful to talk to a lawyer about the process.  The Law Office of Kirk Garner offers free half-hour consultations.  Also, we offer unbundled legal services, which is a fancy way of saying that we will handle a limited part of the case if you cannot afford to hire me to represent you throughout the entire process.  You won’t know that you can’t afford it until you talk to a lawyer to discuss your payment and representation options.  Call today.