Child custody refers to the court-given right a divorced parent has to make any major decisions concerning their child. Biological parents have a right to seek legal or physical custody of their child or child visitation, regardless of whether they were married or not when the child was born. The court determines which parent is most fit, taking into consideration a number of factors, and awards custody rights to that parent.
If you have children and are going through a divorce, or have recently gone through a divorce or separation, then you will likely need the assistance of an attorney who specializes in child custody. Although not a requirement for child custody, consulting with a well qualified and knowledgeable child custody lawyer is recommended in order to ensure that your parental rights are respected.
A large portion of the costs associated with child custody disputes come from attorney’s fees, but other factors contribute to how expensive the overall case will be. Typically, the following costs will be factored in:
- Type of Custody Dispute: Obviously, uncontested child custody cases are going to cost less to resolve than contested cases. This is one of the biggest determinations of how affordable the dispute will be. If one party is determined to receive sole custody and will not compromise or cooperate, the dispute will proceed with depositions, filing motions, excessive court time, and hired child psychologists and other experts.
- Additionally, while going to trial is the most expensive option, mediation is not without its costs either. Mediators are typically paid hourly, and cost anywhere between $100 and $300 per hour;
- Specialists and Expert Witnesses: As mentioned above, some cases require the assistance of a specialist or an expert, such as a child psychologist. Even if the dispute is amicable, the parties involved might still need to go through a custody evaluation.
- Custody evaluations involve tests, interviews, and professional observations; this ranges from $1,500 to $6,000. These costs are elevated if the case is contested and can quickly reach the tens of thousands range;
- Attorney’s Fees: Each attorney sets their own fees, and each party is responsible for paying their own legal fees. Attorney’s fees in child custody matters are complex and will be further discussed further below; and
- Miscellaneous Fees: There are some miscellaneous fees that add up quickly. An example is the approximate $30 needed to pay the sheriff or a third party process server to serve the other party. Other papers that need to be filed with the court can cost as little as one dollar, or as much as $300. All of these little fees add up to a costly process. Further, the court may order mediation before granting any party custody, which can be free or very costly.
As noted above, when you file a court case, you must pay a filing fee. The filing costs for child custody are set by your local district clerk’s office in the county where you are planning to file your child custody papers, but normally range from $200 to $400.
However, if you cannot afford the filing costs, there are waivers at the district clerk’s office that you may fill out to see if you qualify for a fee waiver. However, the true cost of child custody cases are determined largely by the legal fees that are associated with the case, this is especially true in contentious cases where the parties cannot agree on child custody.
Legal fees in a child custody case are determined by several different factors. These include:
- The amount of time spent on your case;
- The attorney’s experience, abilities, and established reputation;
- The difficulty and potential novelty of your case; and
- Other costs involved, such as court fees and overhead costs (rent, utilities, etc).
The costs associated with child custody disputes are primarily based on how cooperative the parties are and the lawyer’s fee structure. Some structures are prohibited from being implemented in family law cases, such as a contingency fee structure. Common types of fees and agreements that are generally used for child custody cases include:
- Consultation Fee: Your initial meeting, where you both decide if the attorney can take your case. Some attorneys charge this fee, and some do not, so it is important to check with each prospective attorney before going in for your consultation;
- A Flat Fee Agreement: A flat fee is generally only offered if the case is simple and straightforward. This fee is specific and totaled;
- An Hourly Fee Agreement: This is the most common structure used. Some attorneys charge different hourly fees for the type of work being done, such as one rate for legal research and another for a court appearance;
- A Referral Fee: If an attorney refers you to another attorney, they might ask for a portion of the total fee you’ll be paying for the case; or
- Retainer Fees: A retainer structure is essentially a down payment on the legal services you will be receiving. It is comparable to having your attorney on call. An amount of money, typically based on the attorney’s hourly rate, is placed in an account and withdrawn as costs are incurred.
Generally, child custody attorneys choose a flat fee or an hourly rate. A typical flat fee for a child custody matter can be expected to range from $3,000 to $20,000. However, a low fee is not necessarily an indication of the quality of legal representation you will be receiving. These fees are assessed based on the amount of work an attorney expects to put into the case with regards to the difficulty of the case.
If the custody battle is going to be quick and only requires mediation, or few court appearances and filings, there will likely be a lower flat fee. A complex or contested case, requiring many more court appearances and work, will likely come with a higher flat fee.
However, an attorney may charge an hourly rate if the parties cannot agree on visitation or custody structures, or one party is attempting to move the child to another state, or if there are any other complex child custody issues. Hourly rates do not indicate quality, but rather how costly the overall case might be. An attorney who chooses an hourly rate structure might also require a retainer.
As noted above, there are are numerous factors that may affect the cost of child custody matters, and the same are true for modifying an existing child custody order. However, if both parents are in agreement to the modification of the child custody, then the child custody order may be able to be modified at little to no cost.
For example, if one parent is moving away for a job opportunity and is unable to take the child, then the parents may agree to grant sole custody to one parent in order to keep the child in a familiar environment.
In cases such as these, the filing fee for a motion to modify an existing child custody order may be free. However, if the modification is contested you may be looking at higher filing fees and additional legal fees.
Typically in child custody matters, each party is responsible for paying their own legal fees for the costs associated with the case. However, most courts do have exceptions to that general rule in cases where it is demonstrated that there is a great disparity in the two parties financial statuses, if one party cannot afford legal representation, or in other situations where a judge may determine it just to award reasonable attorney fees given the facts of the case.
Child custody cases are often complicated, emotionally charged, and require knowledge about several aspects of family law. Thus, a knowledgeable and experieced child custody lawyer will prove to be invaluable in your custody case.
An experienced child custody lawyer can help you understand your rights and options, prepare your custody claim, and represent you in court. They might also be able to negotiate with the other parent, avoiding prolonged litigation.