How do attorney’s fees work in a family law case?

Although every law firm handles legal fees and billing a little different, there are generally two types of legal fee arrangements for a family law case in Dallas County or Collin County.  Whether your case is a divorce, a child custody case, or any other family law matter, you can expect the fee arrangement to fall into one of two categories:  flat fee or hourly billing.

Flat fee arrangements most often occur in purely uncontested matters.  For example, when both parties to a divorce have already agreed to terms related to property, custody and child support (if applicable), they may want to hire an attorney simply to complete paperwork properly and handle the final hearing.  In that situation, some attorneys will offer a flat fee.  Flat fees also can occur in custody modification proceedings where the parties have already agreed to the terms of the modification and they simply need a new order prepared and filed.

The vast majority of family law matters are handled on an hourly fee basis.  Some firms use a standard retainer.  They require a certain amount of money up front and bill against it at an hourly rate.  When the balance gets low enough, you are required to replenish the retainer.  For example, a firm may require a $3,000 retainer up front.  When the balance remaining on your account gets to $1,000, the firm requires you to pay another $2,000 towards the retainer.  In a retainer situation, the money is still yours until the work has been done or expenses incurred.  At the end of the case, you would be refunded whatever money was left in your account.

Other firms (like ours) opt not to use retainers, primarily for accounting reasons.  Instead, these firms will charge an upfront, non-refundable “engagement fee.”  They will bill at an hourly rate and when the engagement fee has been used up, they will send a bill each month.  In this situation, the money is considered earned by the firm when paid.  At our firm, the amount of the upfront fee is based on the type of case and whether or not it is contested.

Law firms are not allowed to charge contingency fees in family law cases.  The ethical rules that apply to attorneys specifically prohibit contingency fee arrangements for family law cases.  (A contingency fee is one based on a certain outcome.  For example, if an attorney agreed to take 25% of the property awarded in a divorce, that would be a contingency fee.  Such an agreement is illegal.)

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