Child custody cases are the most complicated to handle. Apart from being time-consuming and nerve-racking for all the parties involved, they are also very costly. The overall cost depends on many factors, including the conflict level between parents and the need for a child custody attorney. With all the legal fees and side costs, the price of a child custody case can start around $3,000 and reach tens of thousands of dollars.
Let’s look at what makes the child custody battle so expensive and what you should be ready to pay.
Factors that influence the cost of a child custody case
Some custody cases are less expensive than others. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to calculate how much financial resources you will need to go to court with a child custody case. But several factors affect the overall cost and make it lower or higher, depending on the circumstances.
1. The type of the case.
Uncontested child custody cases are less costly than contested ones. First, they don’t require much time to finalize since both parties agree on most terms. And second, they can be completed without a lawyer. On the contrary, contentious cases when the parties struggle to resolve disputes cost significantly more. If an amicable child custody case costs around $3,000, a contested one can sometimes skyrocket to $50,000-$100,000.
2. The attorney’s involvement.
The more complex the child custody case is, the more court time it will take. Since a child custody lawyer often charges by the hour (approximately $100-$500), the cost of their legal services grows along with the amount of time spent on the case. In addition, each party has to hire its own child custody attorney to avoid conflict of interests.
3. The need for mediation.
In some states, mediation is a mandatory procedure for couples with kids. In total, it might cost around $1,000-$1,500. Often, mediators are former or practicing custody lawyers, so they know all the nuances that the parents need to go through. Yet, they can’t give either parent legal advice. That’s why it’s acceptable to either come with a child custody lawyer to the sessions or consult them afterward.
4. The Need for Third Party Experts
You may need to hire a child custody evaluator, guardian ad litem, a mental specialist, a child psychologist, and other third-party experts.
5. Other miscellaneous fees
Court filing fees, serving the paperwork, etc.
Do you always need an attorney for a child custody court case?
Family law doesn’t require a person to have legal representation. It means that you may attend a child custody hearing by yourself. Yet, going to court with a complicated custody case without a family law attorney is generally a bad idea.
The only time when it is more or less safe to represent the case on your own is when you and the other parent have already gone through settlement negotiations, agreed on the terms, and made a parenting plan (sometimes called a custody agreement). Different states have different rules on what to include in the agreement, but some requirements are universal.
For example, a typical parenting plan should include:
- the type of custody that the parents agreed upon – joint or sole custody;
- who will get the decision-making responsibilities (legal custody) concerning a child;
- the parenting schedule showing which days a child will spend with each parent;
- who will pay child support, etc.
Note that if the parents choose not to hire family law attorneys, they will have to spend time (sometimes even off-work) to figure out what court papers they need to collect and file before the final court date. So, while cutting down on child custody lawyer costs, the parents will lose income from work.
In the real world, most people can’t handle their contested child custody cases on their own because of their complexity. It means they need to hire a child custody lawyer to win the battle.
What to expect from a child custody case hearing in court?
Every child custody case has the primary purpose of determining where a child will live after the parental separation. It doesn’t matter whether the parties are married or not. Regardless of their relationship status, they can ask the court to resolve their child custody dispute.
Depending on the state and county, the judge may require the parents to go to mediation and conclude a parenting plan. The child custody case hearing will resume when the negotiations are over. If the parties haven’t reached an agreement, the judge will decide on the following things.
- The type of physical custody, meaning which parent a child will permanently live with and which parent will visit a child on assigned days. Typically, the time spent with each parent is divided equally between the parties if it’s in the child’s best interests. If one parent poses a potential danger to a child, for instance, there’s a history of domestic violence, the other parent may ask the court for sole custody or supervised visitation.
- Decision-making duties, including the child’s education, medical decisions, religion, etc.
- Child support, its total amount, and each parent’s share.
The hearing will include testimonials from each party’s child custody lawyer (or the party alone if they don’t have a lawyer), the child if they’re of appropriate age, and witnesses, such as school officials, a child psychologist, child custody evaluators, etc.
A court appearance without a child custody lawyer can be scary and sometimes damaging to the chances of winning the battle. Plus, since the time of the hearing is very limited, each party has to be ready to speak in a short amount of time, which requires thorough preparation.
Usually, an experienced child custody lawyer knows the types of questions a judge will ask and prepares their clients to make the best impression in court. Otherwise, a person has to anticipate the questions related to:
- the child’s living and schooling arrangements;
- significant people that will surround the child (family members, friends, etc.);
- the quality of communication with the other parent;
- financial resources and the ability to provide for the child’s needs.
The structure of custody dispute costs:
1. Court filing fees:
Much like other interactions with the court system, custody cases start and proceed with paying the filing fees. Each state has different rates to file motions and petitions, request temporary orders, and pay for the service of papers. Below are a few approximate costs a person will have to cover.
- Petition for allocation of parental responsibilities ($250-$300).
- Complaint for paternity ($120-$300).
- Motion to modify or amend a particular decree ($50).
- Serving papers on the opposing party ($10-$30).
- The fee to upload the documents if you file online ($3-$4), etc.
The total cost of court filings can reach $700-$1,000.
2. Attorney’s fees
How much does a child custody lawyer cost? Of course, the more contested the child custody case is, the higher the legal fees.
- What is a flat fee? For uncontested cases, a child custody lawyer may charge a flat fee. It can start from $1,000 to $3,000 and vary depending on the attorney’s experience, location, and the unresolved issues after the parties worked on their child custody agreement.
- What is a retainer? Family law attorneys usually charge by the hour. They also typically ask for a certain sum in advance. It’s called a retainer. Depending on the complexity and conflict between the parties, the retainer fee can start from $3,000 and go up from there.
From the money paid upfront, child custody lawyers extract their hourly rate during their work. On average, they charge $200-$500 per hour. It includes phone calls, working on the papers, court appearances, and filing motions on their client’s behalf. In addition, an attorney will also have to pay at least $50 per hour for paralegal services. If some money is left after the case is over, it will be refunded to the client.
3. The cost of expert witnesses in child custody cases
Even the best child custody lawyer can’t do all the work related to custody matters. In contested cases, the court requires specific expertise to ensure the child’s best interests are met before making any decisions. One such procedure is a custody evaluation. It can be pretty expensive, starting from $1,000 and going up to $20,000 and higher.
4. DNA testing
The cost of a child custody case may also include a DNA paternity test. There are two types of tests – one for personal knowledge and one for legal purposes. The one done with court-admissible results is usually more expensive ($300-$400) than for individual needs ($100-$200).
Who pays attorney’s fees in a child custody court case?
Usually, each party has to pay for their own legal fees, including lawyer’s legal services and court fees. However, if one party cannot afford legal representation, the judge may order the other party to pay the attorney’s fees.
Of course, if the custody case is uncontested and the parties go to court alone, they will only need to cover filing fees and mediation. But even then, a person can ask to waive some costs if they can’t afford to pay them. It’s a standard procedure where a person fills out and files a fee waiver, which the judge then reviews.
Other options to save money on attorney’s fees include legal aid or hiring child custody lawyers for specific tasks, such as only assisting with a custody agreement.
Since the lion’s share of child custody court case costs is attorney fees, it’s very tempting not to deal with a lawyer in the first place. Yet, going to court alone is not for everyone. Only parents who can agree on splitting custody can save money on legal representatives.
For this reason, amicable cases are one of the surest ways to lower the expenses substantially. As for the parents conflicting about who gets the child, they should be ready to pay at least a few thousand dollars to get started and much more to finalize the case.