What Is A Flat-Fee Divorce Attorney And How Does It Work?

The Marble Team

What Is A Flat-Fee Divorce Attorney And How Does It Work?

Family Law
| 5 min

Going through a divorce is a stressful event in anyone’s life. Finding and hiring a divorce attorney shouldn’t be an added stress. Worrying about lawyer fees when getting divorced only adds to the stress, but it’s part of the process. The right divorce attorney, who has a straightforward fee schedule and the education and experience to back it up, can alleviate much of your worry and make the entire process a little smoother. 

How much does a divorce attorney cost?

Most lawyers base their fees on various variables, from a base cost per hour and then extra fees for expenses such as filing, printing, delivery, etc. Clients can also expect to pay for any added legal process such as filing a motion, any needed discovery of assets, or trial preparations. If you decide to hire a divorce attorney specializing in specific cases, for example, a father’s rights lawyer, you can also expect those base fees to be a little steeper. 

Whether your lawyer sends you an account periodically or saves it until the closing of your case, you can expect to pay anywhere between a few thousands and up to around $15,000 or more (and so will your spouse to their lawyer - so, in the event that you are asked to pay their legal fees as well, this number can double). However, this number can grow quickly, and not knowing how much you will pay at the end of the entire ordeal can be enough to make an already stressful event downright nerve-wracking. 

In these times, many people often choose to hire a flat-fee divorce attorney to alleviate some of these issues and to pinpoint exactly how much money to set aside for fees.

What is a flat-fee divorce attorney?

Unlike a traditional lawyer who often charges fees based on hours and expenses (normally the cases in family, civil, and criminal cases), flat-fee attorneys provide an upfront fee covering everything. Clients know exactly what they will be paying from the very beginning. Although for many lawyers, this coverage doesn’t cover office expenses such as printing and faxes. 

Flat fees are traditionally used in uncomplicated divorce cases that don’t go to trial. For attorneys, the process is easy and straightforward, and they can typically guess the rounded cost. Like with real estate cases, for example, that tend to have the same steps each time. In many cases, these attorneys use a “copy and paste” mentality that gets the job done while using precedent forms and changing the names.

Today, innovative law firms are already using predictive modeling to determine an optimal flat-fee price upfront and provide clients with more flexible payment options that accommodate their needs. 

How do flat-fee attorneys set their fees and prices?

It can be tough for a divorce lawyer to set a standard flat-fee for a divorce or any proceeding. They will often average out a certain number of cases and their costs and then set their price from there. For example, if one lawyer had a typical hourly rate of $500 an hour. Last month she had 5 divorce cases. Their final costs amounted to $5,000, $7,000, $10,000 and $12,000. 

So, if a potential client comes in and asks to be given a flat-fee, the lawyer could do the following equation:

[1*5,000]+[1*7,000]+[1*10,000]+[1*12,000]= 8,500. At $500 an hour, this would be approximately 17 hours of work. So, a flat fee could be set at $8,500. 

This client’s case may actually fall either under or over this average cost and however, based on the costs and the likelihood that it will be higher than the flat-fee, a lawyer can usually make a fair presumption when offering the flat-fee. 

What are some issues with flat-fee attorneys?

When an average is calculated to come up with a flat-fee, if there are any outliers, such as tough cases that consumed quite a bit of time and expenses, this can skew the honest average available. If the above lawyer had more cases, for example, 5 more cases that fell below $7,000, those two cases of $10,000 and $12,000 would greatly increase the average when used as part of their calculations. A client could greatly end up overpaying for their divorce attorney fee than what they would have if charged an hourly rate.

Another possible issue could be a lawyer’s tentativeness to put extra work into the case if they suspect it would take them over their flat-fee in costs. Say, for example, a flat-fee file has surpassed the average 17 hours of work. This would lead the attorney to understand that every extra hour done on the file, if the divorce is contested, etc., they are either working for free or for a lower overall average hourly rate. These are hours an attorney could be charging at full price on another file. 

So, attorneys can limit the amount of work they will put into a flat-fee divorce. This is perfectly fine for many cases because it is simple, easy to follow, and predicted. A divorce lawyer can tell a client that they will only put in X amount of hours of work or type of work and a paralegal or legal assistant will do the rest. They can also tell a client that they will only communicate with a client once a week or another specified amount of time.

How does a flat-fee divorce in California differ from a flat-fee divorce in New York?

Across America, the flat-fee process is typically the same. In New York State, many flat-fee attorneys charge a rate that only covers attorney-client communications itself and leaves everything else to a separate account. In these situations, a client is given a set price, however, all court fees and expenses are left out, which provides the lawyer with the ability to cover more than expected if required and the client doesn’t end up overpaying in some situations. 

In the State of California, for divorcing spouses who agree on the separation of property, custody, etc., a fixed fee divorce can be beneficial as it keeps the stress low and can quicken the divorce process. If the case will be uncontested, the attorney can charge a flat fee that includes communication and an initial meeting to provide the information required to fill and file the divorce papers in court. Clients will sign as part of their contract to acknowledge that any future contestation or issues will not be covered as part of the flat-fee.

Depending on how a divorce will play out, a flat-fee divorce attorney could be a wise choice, especially if you expect the process to be quick and agree with your spouse on most issues. However, in contested cases or ones that will require a lot of time, an hourly rate lawyer could be the better choice for both attorney and client.

As a rule, always look for innovative law firms that offer more creative, transparent, and affordable pricing. Firms that use algorithms to provide better pricing models can deal with more complicated cases yet offer an upfront flat fee rate so that you know how much you will pay from day one.

Images: Anastasiia Chepinska

Dec 30, 2020
The Marble Team