Massachusetts Divorce Resources
From the Law Office of Robert P. Murray
©2004 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Robert P. Murray, Esquire
How Much Will it Cost Me?
Costs of obtaining a divorce vary greatly, depending upon numerous factors, including but not limited to: complexity of the case, various marital issues (care, custody, support, visitation, division of assets, debts, etc.), location of the parties and/or their respective attorneys (large city lawyers generally tend to charge more per hour), the attorney’s basic hourly rate (which is usually geared to the lawyer’s office overhead and experience), etc., etc. Overall, however, one might consider comparing the costs of getting married (wedding costs) to divorce costs and discover that, to most people’s surprise, divorce generally is less expensive — but most often has far more significant financial implications in the long run. The more experienced an attorney, the higher the legal fee. The old adage, “You get what you pay for!” does ring fairly true in divorce actions, except for the very, very simple divorces (short-term marriage, no children and no real estate).
It is true that you might be able to process your own divorce action, from start to finish, without the assistance of an attorney (and save a bundle of money), however this is NOT recommended. Divorce actions are fraught with pitfalls, some with lasting effects, and the procedures may be confusing and overwhelming to most people. You wouldn’t take a Sunday stroll by yourself through a minefield — so why jump into a divorce action unprotected?
Many law offices offer discounted, flat fee arrangements for basic, simple divorce actions. These charges can vary from as low as a few hundred dollars (plus costs) on up. In fact, some law offices concentrate on simple, inexpensive divorces, and advertise low cost, discount divorce representation. Keep in mind, however, those offices probably depend upon volume — quick handling of more cases for less money. [Fast food vs. Restaurant Dining]. For some people, this may be the only way to go. However, a “divorce mill” may not suit your needs. You should consider: will my case get the same care and attention as it should? Will I be dealing with my lawyer or mostly with his/her staff? Will I meet my lawyer for the first time — in Court? Will my lawyer really know me and my concerns?
Flat fee arrangements run from a low, cut-rate fee of about $500.00 + to a high of $2,500.00, depending on the factors noted above, with the average being about $750.00 to $1,500.00. Beware of inexpensive, foreign divorces, however — frequently seen advertised in newspapers. You may find that such a divorce is not recognized in Massachusetts. Consult with a reputable, local attorney before venturing into foreign ports.
In your initial interview with an attorney, be certain to discuss fee options. You may discover that, although he/she generally charges an hourly rate plus costs, your case might be suitable for a flat fee arrangement. If your attorney quotes an hourly rate, but indicates that your case might be initiated on a flat fee basis — be aware that, should things get out of control or not proceed as smoothly as you and your lawyer anticipated, your case might be required to convert to an hourly arrangement. Discuss this possibility with your attorney. Also, keep in mind that you and your lawyer do not have complete control of how the case will proceed. There is always the possibility that your spouse may hire an attorney who will cause your costs to escalate. This will certainly drive the “flat fee arrangement” into an “hourly rate” basis. Whichever fee arrangement you have with your attorney — get it in writing.
Again, hourly rates for attorneys vary greatly. Often the larger law firms or attorneys located in larger cities charge more per hour than smaller or more rural offices. More experienced attorneys usually always charge higher per hourly rates than newer attorneys, and rightfully so. Hourly rates may vary from a low of $75.00 (almost unheard of) to $250.00 and higher. Be certain that your hourly fee arrangement is in writing and that you be provided with periodic billing statements.
A retainer is a lump-sum payment made to your attorney at the time you hire him or her. This money is held in the attorney’s Trust Account (not his or her office or personal account) and it belongs to you at the time it is paid and continues to belong to you during the course of the divorce action. However, the attorney’s fee agreement will permit him or her to bill against this fund for his or her legal fees and for out-of-pocket expenses, including filing fees and Sheriff’s or Constable fees, making periodic deductions from your funds. If there are any funds remaining at the end of your case or at the time of termination of the attorney’s services, the funds remaining in your retainer account must be refunded to you. Retainer requirements may vary from a low of $500.00 to a high of approximately $5,000.00 or more, with the average being about $2,500.00. (Naturally, some very high priced attorneys may require significantly more.) The next question is, of course — what happens if the initial retainer funds are insufficient because the attorney’s legal fees and costs have used it up? You may be required to replenish the retainer funds with a similar amount. In particularly, lengthy or time consuming cases may require you to replenish the retainer account several times. A few offices will not require you to completely replenish the retainer funds, especially if your case is drawing to a close, but will allow you to pay subsequent monthly statements reflecting activity and disbursements during the preceding month(s). In any event, your written fee agreement with the attorney should define which method for additional payments will be required and should always require that the attorney obtain your permission before paying for any out-of-pocket expense (not including legal fees) in excess of $250.00.
The basic Filing Fee required in all divorce cases (except those meeting poverty thresholds) is currently $215.00. Occasionally, the Court may waive the filing fee if the filing party is at or below certain poverty thresholds. The filing fee is always in addition to the legal fees charged by the attorney.
In addition, if the services of a Deputy Sheriff or Constable is required to serve the other party with a Summons and a copy of the Complaint, you can expect to pay an additional $25.00 to $75.00 or more, depending upon where the other party is located. Serving the other party with a Summons and copy of the Complaint is required to show the court that the other party is aware they are being “sued” for divorce. For divorce actions, this service is required to be made “in-hand,” or by publication (if the other party disappeared).
Other costs might include:
Publication Costs — where notices must be made through publication in a local newspaper (a rare circumstance);
Deposition Costs — where a deposition is used in the discovery process; these can run into several hundreds of dollars — keep in mind that you are paying your attorney his or her hourly rate in preparation for and during the deposition, you are paying the court stenographer, and will pay for a copy of the written transcript; a deposition is where one attorney requires the opposing party to appear (usually at the lawyer’s office) for questioning, under oath and in the presence of a court-authorized stenographer. The purpose is usually to gather information which is not readily available and/or to get the opposing party to admit certain facts or commit themselves to certain testimony, all of which may be used against that party during the divorce trial.
GAL (Guardian Ad Litem) fees — a GAL is a person appointed by the Court to investigate family circumstances and report and make recommendations to the Court; often the guardian is appointed to represent the interests of children; and often the Court will require the parties to share the costs.
Investigator Fees — where the Court appoints an independent investigator; to serve as the eyes and ears of the Court in investigating domestic situations; and
Subpoena Fees — again, paying a Deputy Sheriff or Constable to serve a Subpoena (similar to a Summons) on a third-party. This is usually required to have someone, who is not a party in the case, to come to court and testify or to bring certain records to court during a trial. For example, a subpoena might be served on the opposing party’s employer — requiring the employer to bring the payroll records to court and/or to testify at trial.
Additionally, most offices will charge for photocopies and postage and mailing.
In the average, simple divorce, one should expect to spend at least $215.00 as a filing fee and $25-$75 in Sheriff’s/Constable’s fees.