Legal Fees in Family Law

Before you reach out to a family lawyer, you probably want to get an idea of the legal fees in family law cases. There are laws governing the price tag of attorney’s fees; approval by the court is a part of it. On this page, you can understand the different types of legal fees in family law, what the lawyer can charge, how ethics are involved and more. Knowing this information can help give you an idea of how much you’d be willing to spend on fighting your case.

On this webpage, the following topics will be explained:

  • Types of Family Attorney Fee Arrangements
  • What determines the legal fees in family law?
  • How much do lawyers charge?
  • What’s on The Attorney Fee Agreement?
  • Getting Your Spouse to Pay for Your Lawyer Fees
  • Attorney’s Fees Approval and Ethical Limitations
  • Granting Your Lawyer a FLARPL
  • Cost Advances to You, The Client
  • Are You Ready to Talk to a Family Lawyer?

Legal Fees in Family Law Attorney's Fees Court Approval | JS Family Law Attorney

Types of Family Attorney Fee Arrangements

The cost of a family lawyer tends to be based on their experience, operating costs, and the location of his or her practice. Whatever the fee arrangement may be, it’s important that you realize that less expensive lawyers are not good. It’s important to talk to the lawyers you’re considering about their fee arrangement options.

  • Consultation Fee – Often times, a family lawyer would offer a free initial consultation to see if they can help you with your case. However, there are lawyers who may charge a fee for consulting you on the possible case. They might charge an hourly rate or a flat fee for this time. When you receive a consultation, be sure to check if it is free or if you’ll be charged.
  • Hourly Fee – Hourly fees are the most common form of legal fees in family law. Before the start of the case, the client and attorney agree to an hourly rate. The billable hours cover any time that the attorney spends on working the client’s case until the close of the case, whether settled or won in court. Smaller towns and rural areas tend to have lower fees, averaging $100-$200 per hour. In more populated areas, the fees are closer to $200-$400. Of course, there is the outlier, very experienced family lawyer who charges much more than that. An experienced lawyer, may charge more, but they may be able to resolve the case much quicker.
  • Flat Fee – In cases where the problem seems pretty straightforward and well-defined, flat fees are typically charged. Flat legal fees in family law are usually for: drafting wills, uncontested divorces, or simple document filings. If the attorney is charging a flat fee, be sure to understand exactly what work is covered in that fee and what is not. Filing fees may not be covered in the flat fee rate.
  • Retainer – A retainer fee arrangement is when you pay ahead of time on the attorney’s hourly rate. The retainer is put into a special trust account, then the attorney deducts from it as billable hours accrue. When retainers are paid, they are usually not refundable, unless the court deems it unreasonable. If you decide to drop a case and the lawyer has already started working on the case, the remaining amount is forfeited.
  • Contingency Fee[1]Family law cases don’t often use the contingency fee basis. Attorneys are not allowed to use them if they would in any way promote divorce. When they are permitted, a contingency fee is when the attorney does not take any pay upfront, but instead, gets a percentage of any settlement or judgment that is won. The court does put a limit to the percentage that the lawyer can claim.
  • Statutory Fee – There are some cases where a statute or court may determine the attorney’s fees. These fees are typical of cases in bankruptcy, probate, or other proceedings.

What Determines the Legal Fees in Family Law?

All lawyer fees in family law must be reasonable. Attorney fee amounts are approved by the family law judge. You’re lawyer is not allowed to charge an unconscionable fee. In determining legal fees in family law cases, these are the things that are considered in determining whether the fee is conscionable or not (fair or reasonable)[2]:

  • The amount/value of work done in proportion to the amount of the fee
  • The relative sophistication of the member of the client and the lawyer (how much of an expert in the particular subject matter they are)
  • The difficulty of the case or issues involved
  • If the case will take the lawyer away from his/her other cases
  • The amount of work involved and what the results are
  • The amount of time that will be needed for the case to close
  • The type of relationship between client and attorney and how long the client-attorney relationship has existed
  • The experience, reputation and capability of the attorney regarding the subject at hand
  • Whether the fee is fixed or contingent
  • The client’s consent to the fee

How Much Do Family Lawyers Charge?

Unfortunately, the answer is that this depends. Every family law matter issue is unique.  Every case has different time, skill, and emotional commitments. Some lawyers charge higher hourly rates, but work less hours because they are more efficient. Some lawyers charge lower hourly rates, but your bill ends up being higher because they are slow workers. Most good lawyers ask for high retainers up front until they trust that you will pay your bill on time and in full.

At the end of the day every single family law matter is evaluated by the lawyer and he or she will give you a price estimate. What should give you significant peace of mind is that the Judge in your matter will probably approve the total fees charged by your lawyer. No judge will approve fees that are outside of the norm.

What’s in the Attorney Fee Agreement?

Even though a lawyer might have his or her own practice, there are statutory requirements that they must follow. The Business and Professions Code Section 6148 provides a guideline in which the attorney must follow when billing clients. These requirements apply to any attorney fee arrangement, except the contingency fee:

  • The contract for services must be in writing when the total expenses are more than $1000.
    • The written contract must be duplicated so that the client has one copy. Both copies need to be signed by both attorney and client, to be in effect.
    • When a contract is entered into by attorney and client, the attorney must practice confidentiality. The written fee contract is to be kept secret (aka attorney-client privilege).
  • The Attorney fee agreements must contain, at the least, these provisions:
    • The agreed upon fees that are to be charged. Attorneys cannot change the fees in the middle of a case without notifying and getting the consent of the client. This gives the client the opportunity to agree to the new rate or decide to switch to a new attorney.
    • A list of the work that will be performed.
  • Regarding the billings, the attorney’s bill has to clearly state what is included in the calculations. “Bills for the fee portion of the bill shall include the amount, rate, basis for calculation, or other method of determination of the attorney’s fees and costs. Bills for the cost and expense portion of the bill shall clearly identify the costs and expenses incurred and the amount of the costs and expenses.” (Business & Prof. Code § 6148)

Get Your Spouse to Pay for Your Lawyer’s Fees

In most marriages, one spouse earns substantially more than the other. In these cases, the Court will order the spouse with the larger income to pay for the attorney’s fees of the spouse with the smaller income. To learn more visit our Family Code 2030 webpage.

Attorney’s Fees Approval and Ethical Limitations

Attorney fee amounts are approved by the family court. There are ethical limitations regarding legal fees in family law. This is to protect the clients from being taken advantage of. It is wrong for an attorney to:

  • Take advantage of client’s financial situations. (i.e. charging wealthy clients more money for the same services provided at a lower cost to others.)
  • Collect “unconscionable” fees. To put it another way, these are ridiculously high amounts for fees that don’t match the work put in. This does not mean that a lawyer that charges an extremely high rate is charging an “unconscionable” fee. “Unconscionable” fees take into consideration: the value of work put in, in proportion to the fee, the difficulty of the case, whether the lawyer will need to put off other client’s work, the attorney’s experience, reputation and ability.
  • Billing and taking payments for work that is not done
  • Manipulate a client into “gifting” things to the attorney, except in the case that the client and attorney are relatives. It is wrong for an attorney to induce a client to give a “huge gift”, like rent-free living, to the attorney or his/her family to influence the services provided[3].
  • Accept payment from a 3rd-party for their representation of the client. However, the attorney may accept payment from a 3rd-party for the services provided to the client and paid on behalf of the client.

Granting Your Lawyer a FLARPL

One option that may be available to pay for your lawyer is a FLARPL, or “Family Law Attorney Real Property Lien.” This allows you to acquire the funds needed in order to pay for legal fees in family law. Granting a FLARPL is like having a mortgage or line of credit on real property. If you have a good amount available through equity in a home, a family law attorney may agree to work with you as long as they can have a secured interest in some property; they’ll trust that you’ll pay them later. The property is not being sold to the attorney, but rather ensuring that there is a source of payment if the client fails to pay. It’s not necessary to grant your lawyer a FLARPL, but it may be your only option if you don’t have the immediate cash for lawyer fees.

Cost Advances to You, The Client

At times, the family lawyer may advance payments for some expenses for the client, such as paying for experts ordered by the court (i.e. social services for child custody cases). The cost advance comes with the client’s obligation to pay the lawyer back or it can be reimbursed contingent to the outcome of the case. For example, In re Marriage of Gonzales (1975), the agreement between client and attorney was to pay the lawyer a percentage of the settlement or judgment. The agreement also stated that the client will not be responsible for paying any legal fees, including any amount that was advanced by the attorneys.

Are You Ready to Talk to a Lawyer?

There are some issues that require you to resolve through the California family court and your best bet at winning is by having great legal representation. If you’re ready to start working with a family attorney, give us a call for a consultation. We don’t start charging legal fees in family law until after an understanding between the client and lawyer has occurred. Once we get a conversation going, you’ll get an idea of whether we’ll be a good fit to work with each other on your family law case.

[1] Bus. & Prof. Code § 6147

[2] Rule 4-200 Fees for Legal Services

[3] Rule 4-400 Gifts from Client