The cost of a divorce, child custody, child support, or adoption in Florida?

As with almost every question related to the law, the answer is: it depends.

I know, I know, why read Mr. Jones’s legal blog if he never gives a straight answer? Because you deserve the full story, not a quick, possibly correct in some cases type of answer that you might find on random “how to” websites. Your family is unique, and the circumstances and terms of your legal representation and fees will also be unique. But keep reading, and hopefully, I can shed light on the issue that often intimidates potential clients and keeps them from calling as soon as trouble arises.

No state sets a particular hourly rate, flat-fee, or retainer amount for any particular type of case. It is true that some states cap the amount of fees an attorney may charge for certain types of cases. Fee caps are usually applied in personal injury related cases: medical malpractice, Social Security disability, workers compensation, etc. Those cases are almost always taken on by lawyers under a contingency fee contract. You’ve heard the commercials, “You owe us nothing unless we recover for you.” That’s a contingency fee. The attorney takes on the expense of litigating your case in exchange for a percentage of your recovery and reimbursement of expenses spent on your case, obviously paid at the end of the representation. It may seem like a large percentage, but when you consider the cost of litigation, the investment risk for the attorney, and that the attorney is tying up his staff and resources, possibly for years before getting paid, it is reasonable. Those fee agreements are often graduated, meaning that if it settles before the attorney files a complaint in court, you may pay a little less from the proceeds of your settlement than if the case goes to trial – again, it makes sense because the costs a lawyer is fronting on the case increase if the case goes to trial. In Florida, the usual contingency fee is somewhere between 33-40% (except where fee caps apply), with an additional amount if an appeal is necessary. Sometimes attorneys will further alter the percentage fee if the jury award or settlement exceeds a certain amount. For example 40% on the first $1 million recovered, but then only 30% on additional amounts between $1 million and $ 2 million and only 25% on amounts above $2 million (and btw – million dollar personal injury cases are few and far between; you’re probably not getting a million dollars for a sprained ankle after falling in Wal Mart, unless you’re an Olympic runner now left without a career). The precise variations of a contingency fee agreement may vary from law firm to law firm.

In family law cases, Florida attorneys cannot charge a contingency fee. For example, we cannot tell you that you will pay nothing unless we recover a certain amount for you in the equitable distribution of property and/or alimony and then charge a percentage of what you recover. For obvious reasons, such a billing method would create numerous problems with getting the family to a quick resolution so that they can move on with their lives. Your family is not a bargaining chip to enrich the attorney. Divorces, child custody, adoptions, child support, alimony, and modification cases in Florida are almost always billed with a retainer deposit into the attorney’s client trust account, and the attorney bills his or her time at an hourly rate, drawing from the deposit in the trust account. If the money runs out, the client is asked to deposit additional funds to cover future work. Some cases are appropriate for a flat-fee. For example, when someone comes to me with an “uncontested” divorce, I usually start with a flat-fee, but with the caveat that if after a certain number of communications the other party does not agree to the settlement proposal, the relationship will convert to a retainer/hourly fee. (As an aside, flat-fee agreements must always be in writing, describing the scope of representation, and signed by the client.)

“But how much?!” you ask. Let’s say it together: it depends.

No matter the type of fee agreement, the rules regulating Florida lawyers require that our rates be reasonable.” What is reasonable depends on a variety of factors including comparable rates of other lawyers in the area of the state where the case is pending, the complexity of the case, whether the case requires emergency action or the client has hired the attorney with a very short timeline for a response or appearance, and the experience of the attorney. So, as an example, an attorney in Miami (where office overhead is much more expensive than Pensacola, Florida), hired to handle a long-term, international dissolution of marriage involving real estate around the world, minor children, and an adult child with disabilities, will require a much greater retainer and hourly rate than an attorney in Pensacola, Florida hired to handle an uncontested divorce for a short-term marriage without children or real estate. Logically, the Miami case is much more complicated and will take much more time to resolve; thus, the retainer and hourly rate will be larger.

Generally, in Northwest Florida, from discussions with colleagues, I find that the rates for a family lawyer are currently ranging between $150 an hour to $450 an hour, with retainer deposits starting at $2500 and up, depending on the complexity of the case and experience of the attorney. Some attorneys use a combination flat-fee and hourly billing, counting the first payment as a non-refundable flat-fee that acts as a credit on the account (billed against at the hourly rate), and after that is exhausted, a refundable retainer is deposited into the trust account. The flat-fee portion is generally an amount that would cover enough hours to get the case in motion and filed. That much of a case is fairly predictable, but once responses start coming in from the other party, the rest of the case and the time required is not so predictable. Whatever funds are left in the trust account when the case closes ALWAYS go back to the client, including detailed accounting records. Trust accounting discrepancies are taken very seriously by the Florida Bar, a co-owner of the trust account. There are some risks for attorneys that use a combined flat-fee nonrefundable/retainer billing method. For example, it would violate the rules if an attorney were hired one day on a hybrid fee agreement, fired the next day before work had begun, and then the attorney refused to refund the flat-fee portion. That would be a problem.

Keep in mind that case expenses are almost always in addition to the hourly rate of the attorney and his legal staff (yes, the time for staff is also billed, though at a much lower hourly rate). For example, in addition to the professional fee, the client is expected to cover the filing fees before the attorney will file the documents with the court. Another example is the cost of depositions or expert witnesses, which are not always necessary. The filing fees can be different for each county, and the attorney will double check the current filing fees when the client hires the attorney. Some attorneys charge for every photocopy and postage stamp used in a case, while others compensate for such expenses by bumping up their hourly rate rather than tracking every single piece of paper.

And the ultimate question: do you accept payment plans? Almost always, NO. It’s the number one rule any advice book about solo law practice says. I admit that in my early days of solo practice, before I had a book of word-of-mouth referrals and return clients, I had no choice but to offer payment plans, and I was burned a few times. I know YOU wouldn’t stiff me on a bill, but that’s what I thought about the other guy, too. You wouldn’t get in to see a doctor without first paying the co-pay (or if you don’t have insurance the entire medical bill), so why would a lawyer represent you on a promise? That sounds harsh, I know. It pains me to say it. But, solo practitioners are running small businesses and have staff and rent to pay. Despite the glamour on television, we’re not all driving the newest Mercedes Benz home to a twelve room mansion every afternoon. Most lawyers accept credit cards or can refer you to a banker for a small loan. And sometimes clients save up the funds and come back to me when they can afford it. I hang onto my intake notes in case someone comes back, and I often follow-up to see how folks are doing, even if they haven’t hired me. I accept virtually every form of payment from cash to Pay Pal. I’ve even bartered with clients that provide services, such as landscaping services and home repair. I always do my best to help potential clients meet the financial challenges of finding legal help, even if that means connecting clients with legal aid services or the free Florida Supreme Court approved family law forms.

No matter how much or how little money you have, you shouldn’t keep yourself or your family in a bad situation for fear of the potential cost of an attorney. If you never schedule that first consultation, you’ll never know whether you can afford an attorney. And you might be surprised how affordable legal solutions can be.

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