This is a rarely discussed topic outside of the legal profession, since it only becomes an issue for most people if they ever choose to file for divorce. Once they sit down with an attorney, “How much will it cost?” is usually one of the first questions that comes up. The answer they generally receive is that there are too many variables to consider in order to give an accurate assessment, but that an initial retainer fee will be determined in order to commence the divorce proceedings. Many clients misunderstand the concept of the retainer, which is simply an amount based on estimates of the initial filing costs and the anticipated core level of legal services that the firm will need to undertake per your specific issues. Attorneys must explain this to the client in writing via a retainer agreement as required by New Jersey Court Rule 5:3-5(a).
Even with a written agreement, clients may have a hard time understanding why the fee is so high, compared to estimates they've gotten from friends and relatives. First, it's important to understand that every divorce is different, and that divorce attorneys charge varying rates based on their experience and credentials. Second, the grounds under which you are filing for divorce, and the circumstances in your marriage may require additional research, filings and legal protections. Grounds such as domestic violence, child abuse and financial fraud, for example, often require emergent filings which involve a whole lot of work that has to be done in a very short amount of time. However, even fairly normal divorces may need to work through issues such as shared custody, division of complex assets and relocation of one or both parents, and how this effects areas such as parenting time.
Along with these issues, an attorney has to think about your spouse's reactions. If he or she believes your spouse will contest most or all of these issues, or just be difficult in general, he or she will have to exert more time and effort in going after them. This issue borders on the emotional aspect of divorce, but it's essential that neither you nor your attorney cross that line when determining the initial retainer. This is, after all, a professional service, and the service fee should not be effected by a lawyer's emotional reaction to the client's circumstances. On the other hand, a client's emotional state during the initial consultation may be a factor in the overall fee. If a client seems to be driven largely by emotion rather than reason and realistic expectations, it could be indicative of a long, drawn-out divorce battle. These are just some of the factors that play a part in determining a retainer fee, but the takeaway here is that each divorce is unique, and there is no universal formula for calculating a precise cost. For more information on family law retainer fees, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.