Child custody can be one of the most bitter situations parents and their children will go through, and in addition to emotional costs, it can be financially expensive as well. Depending on the type of custody dispute, a child custody dispute can cost anywhere between $3,000 - $40,000.

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What Factors Cause Child Custody Costs to Vary?

While child custody attorney’s fees are certainly a large portion of the cost of a child custody dispute, other considerations ultimately control how expensive the overall ordeal will be. Below is a general lay out of the costs typically associated with these disputes.

1) Type of Custody Dispute – Whether a child custody dispute is fiercely contested will likely be the biggest determination in how affordable the dispute will be. Generally, if one party is determined to fight for sole custody or is uncooperative, the dispute will mean depositions, filing motions, court time, hiring child psychologists and other experts, and all of this ultimately means more expenses and more attorney’s fees.

Additionally, while trial will be the most expensive option, mediation is not free. Mediators are paid anywhere between $100 - $300 per hour.

2) Specialists – Regardless of whether the dispute is amicable, the parties may need to go through a custody evaluation. These require rigorous tests, interviews, and professional observations, and can range anywhere from $1,500 - $6,000. In addition, as mentioned above, if there is a contested dispute, factor in hiring experts to be deposed and potentially testify, and possibly being ordered to pay for a guardian ad litem, and the overall costs can get into the tens of thousands quickly.

3) Attorney’s Fees – Each party will be responsible for paying their own legal fees. However, most states should have some exceptions to this rule. Ultimately, a court has the power to order attorney’s fees, and may do so if:

  • There is a disparity in financial status of the parties
  • One spouse is unable to afford adequate representation

4) Miscellaneous – Even though these costs may be miscellaneous, they can add up quickly. For example, it will cost about $30 to pay the sheriff to serve the other party, and other papers that need to be filed with the court may cost as little as $1 or as much as $300. 

What Goes into Determining a Lawyer's Fees?

The primary reasons for the large disparity in the cost of a child custody dispute are:

  • How cooperative the parties are
  • The lawyer’s fee structure

As discussed above, whether a child custody dispute is "friendly" or not can have a large impact on the overall cost. In addition, how the lawyer opts to bill the client can also have a huge impact on how expensive everything will be.

Generally, child custody lawyers either bill through a flat fee or by the hour. If a lawyer charges a flat fee, expect to pay $3,000 - $6,000. A lower fee is in no way indicative of a low quality legal representation. It is simply an assessment of what work the lawyer expects to do with respect to the difficulty of the case.

So, if a custody battle is going to be quick and only require mediation, or relatively few court appearances and papers filed, a lawyer will likely charge a lower flat fee. By contrast, where the case may require several appearances before a judge, arguing complex legal issues, but can still ultimately be resolved in a relatively straight forward manner, the lawyer will likely be more inclined to charge a higher flat fee.

People also ask: How Much Will a Family Lawyer Cost?

Why Would Lawyers Charge an Hourly Fee?

Hourly rates will vary greatly, depending on the relative ability of the lawyer. Expect to pay $75 - $400 an hour for a lawyer’s time. Remember, a lower hourly rate is in no way indicative of the quality of representation, but simply what the lawyer has determined their time is worth. In fact, quite the contrary; a lower hourly rate my indicate the lawyer has determined the case will be long, passionately and emotionally contested, and many hours will be required to reach result that is favorable to their client. Thus, charging a "lower" hourly fee is simply taking into account how costly the overall case may be.

As mentioned above, a lawyer who works on an hourly rate may also require the payment of a retainer. This retainer will cover a certain amount of that lawyer’s time. After the retainer is expended, a standard - or potentially discounted - hourly rate will apply.

With an hourly fee structure, it is not uncommon for legal bills to get into the $15,000 - $40,000 range quickly. Thus, this type of billing system is most common where the parties cannot agree as to visitation or custody structure, one party is attempting to move the child to another state, or any other complex child custody issue.

Which Fee Structure Is Preferable?

The only way one fee structure can be superior to the other is if one works better for you. A family law lawyer understands that. It is always a good practice to learn more about what you are paying for. Knowing the basics of a child custody lawyer's fee system and how it works is the first step to starting a dialogue about the fee structure, why they settled on the billing system they did, and how they plan on using their time to secure the best result for you and your child.