The average nationwide case cost for a child custody lawyer is between $1200 and $4500. Type of dispute, a need for third-party experts, and the attorney selected all affect the total cost of legal fees.
If you’re ready for legal support for your child custody concerns, here are the factors that affect the average cost of hiring an attorney and tips on how to hire one.
What's in this cost guide?
- What does a child custody lawyer do?
- Cost of a Trial
- Hourly Rate vs. Flat Fee
- Changing a shared parenting plan
- Custody agreement and parenting schedule
- Contested custody
- Complex custody cases
- How to Hire a Child Custody Lawyer
What does a child custody lawyer do?
Family law attorneys are able to provide a wide range of child custody services. "Child custody is ordered in several types of actions: dissolution of marriage (divorce) and legal separations, paternity (establishing who is the legal father), modifying previous custody orders, guardianship, and adoption," explains child custody attorney Kristen Thurmond of C&T Law Offices in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Bulger Firm, PLLC in Jacksonville, Florida, provides full legal representation dealing with all aspects of child custody — including time sharing (visitation), extended-family custody matters, paternity, parental responsibility, parenting conflicts, child support, adoptions and dependency, and more. To keep costs down and prevent your attorney from focusing on less important issues, figure out as early as possible in the process what your primary concerns and priorities are, recommends Gerald Wirsch of the Law Office of Gerald M. Wirsch in Hamilton, Ohio.
Contested vs. Uncontested Child Custody Cases
The complexity and seriousness of the case help determine legal fees, says Wirsch of the Law Office of Gerald M. Wirsch. Many lawyers determine this information during an initial free consultation. Fees are determined by whether or not the case will be contested, says Thurmond of C&T Law Offices. If the involved parties have a solid agreement on issues such as parenting time (weekly and holiday schedules), child support, division of property, etc., then the matter is uncontested. In this case, explains Thurmond with C&T Law Offices, a flat fee is usually appropriate. If the matter is contested, C&T Law Offices bills per hour and requires a minimum deposit of $1,500 to begin representation. Contested and complex child custody cases are much more costly due to the added depositions, mediators, and court time.
Cost of a Trial
Additionally, contested cases often go to trial. If a case goes to trial, that means more than one day in court, says Thurmond with C&T Law Offices. An attorney must gather and prepare evidence, create and refine questions for all parties involved, and prepare for what the other attorney or party is going to present, says Thurmond. The time required for preparation depends on how many issues need to be decided by the judge. For example, C&T Law Offices typically charges a trial deposit two months before the court date to help cover the costs of preparation. Many lawyers then charge per hour for cases that go to trial. Here is one example of a trial deposit:
- Trial deposit: $1,500-$3,000 depending on the complexity of the case, from C&T Law Offices.
- It’s important to note that the amount of the deposit is not an estimate of the total cost of the trial, which will likely incur additional cost.
Hourly Rate vs. Flat Fee
Fee structure can determine the overall cost of hiring a child custody attorney during a custody battle. Each party is responsible for paying their own legal fees, though if one party is unable to afford the fees, the court may intervene in some states. If the case is uncontested, a flat fee is usually charged. When parties can't reach an agreement and time investment in the case is unclear, attorneys may bill by the hour, usually with a separate retainer fee. Here are some examples of hourly fees and flat fees:
Examples of Child Custody Cases
Top-rated child custody lawyers shared cases to showcase the range of fees. Note that each case is unique, and the similarity of your case to the cases shown here does not mean your legal fees will be the same.
Changing a shared parenting plan
Total legal fees: $1,200 (including filing fees) from Law Office of Gerald M. Wirsch. Case: Client needed services because child’s father was not following the shared parenting plan previously put in place. Client wanted to change the shared parenting plan or get custody as a result. Services provided: Meeting with client, making phone calls to discuss case and answer questions, drafting legal documents (motions), filing motions, getting motions served to opposing party, representing client during settlement negotiations, holding discussions with opposing counsel, and making a court appearance to confirm final agreement (case did not go to trial). Length of case: Six hours over course of four months.
Custody agreement and parenting schedule
Total legal fees: $2,500 (including court costs) from The Bulger Firm, PLLC. Length of case: Two months.
Total legal fees: $4,300 from Law Office of Gerald M. Wirsch. Case: Client needed services because child’s father was trying to get custody and move child out of state. Services provided: Meeting with client, making phone calls to discuss case and answer questions, negotiating parenting time with opposing counsel, preparing for trial (reviewed evidence for client’s case and that of opposing party, outlined trial strategy, double-checked testimony topics with client, subpoenaed and interviewed witnesses, prepared exhibit books), requesting interrogatories, conducting email correspondence, taking part in pretrial hearing, and representing client during two full days of trial. Length of case: 21.5 hours over 6 months.
Complex custody cases
Costs can be: $20,000 or more, says Cydney Bulger of The Bulger Firm, PLLC. Case examples: Complex cases may include special needs children, parental criminal history, domestic violence, substance abuse, parental alienation and multi-state separation. These types of cases may necessitate hiring experts, calling many witnesses and obtaining third-party records, which can significantly affect cost.
What Else Affects the Cost of Child Custody Lawyer?
- In addition to a case being contested, the following factors affect the total cost of hiring a child custody attorney.
- Length of trial, if the case goes to trial
- Number of witnesses and/or expert witnesses
- Location of the court, including varying costs to file motions, travel time, etc.
- Ease of getting parties served with filed motions, including need to hire a process server or publish a notice in a local newspaper if opposing party cannot be located or will not sign for the certified mail delivered by the court
- Appointment of a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) in the case of alleged abuse or neglect or an otherwise highly contentious case. Each parent is required to pay the fees of the GAL.
- Deposition of expert witnesses, with fees for the expert, court reporter, attorney and GAL
- Bad-faith conduct or failure to meet court requirements, which could result in one parent being ordered to pay the other parent’s attorney fees
- The nature of any case history or prior agreement between the parties
How to Hire a Child Custody Lawyer
Consider Your Resources. Complex custody cases can seriously drain your savings, so ask about estimated costs up front. If you cannot afford legal fees, look into legal aid options in your state.
Look Into Past Cases. Before you hire a lawyer, look into their case history and check to see if they've had success with past cases similar to yours.
Ask Questions. Ask potential lawyers about your options. Can you settle your situation out of court? What is the likely outcome? This will give you a better sense of how the lawyer approaches a case, and gives you an idea of what the road ahead looks like.