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How Do Fees Work in a Divorce? Can I just pay a little bit for divorce forms? What's the difference and why do lawyers cost so much?

Posted by Elizabeth Steen | Oct 06, 2020 | 0 Comments

Divorce on a television show used to be a full season's worth of dramatic twists and turns playing out in a courtroom. Now, literally almost every tv divorce is just one person handing paperwork to the other saying something like, "There's no need to fight. I had a lawyer draw up the paperwork." (Good Girls, FX, Season 1, Episode 6). Or if they are fighting, it's in front of a mediator and they eventually both sign a settlement agreement and then get their final paperwork later. (Sweet Magnolias, Netflix, Season 1, Episode 7) 

Like tv, divorce in real life is no longer a long, drawn out litigation where you both hire lawyers to yell at each other about your money and your kids. Most people work things out informally. 

If you've decided you want to do an uncontested divorce, however, it can be difficult to tell the difference between all the services available. What do you get from the $450 document prep service? What is the difference between a lawyer, a scrivener, a paralegal, and a mediator? 

This blog post explains some of the most common divorce services, and the reasons for the difference in cost. We also offer some cheaper options and some ways to think about what you need. 

First, you have a $450 or so document prep service. This service gives you court forms that you fill out and file yourself. There's no legal work. No advice (any paralegal offering advice would be breaking the law). And the emphasis is on having a form that you can file with the court without any delays. Here's the catch. If all you need is the paperwork, and no legal help at all, then really it makes the most sense to go through the $30 Family Court Facilitator in King County. They offer literally the exact same service as a $450 document prep firm, or a paralegal. And since they have such a high volume, and a close relationship with the court, you're actually getting better advice from the facilitator's office than if you go through a document prep service. Family Law Facilitators offer the exact same service, but they do it better.  The link is here

Second, you have a document review attorney service (sometimes called a scrivener). This is also cheap, usually $350 an hour for an hour or so of work. Here, a lawyer (and it HAS to be a lawyer) will review your forms for any legal catches. It's very possible to have forms that are correct for filing, but that don't do what you want at all. I've encountered people who did their own divorce and filed the child support backwards, so the wrong person was required to pay. Law turns on a number of fact-specific rules. You have to file the forms one way for a deviation if you're lowering the child support, and a different way for an upward revision of the child support amount. You have to use a complicated state support schedule, and the correct statutory language to explain the deviation or upward adjustment. There are 18 sections to a parenting plan, and each section involves a number of decisions that can hinge on specific case law and statutory requirements. You could try to teach yourself law in a few weeks to do this yourself. Or you can just ask someone who does it all the time to look at the forms and make sure you didn't leave out anything (like separate property that can become community property if it isn't listed in the divorce paperwork). This usually costs a few hundred dollars, and the emphasis is on making sure your paperwork is legally correct and that it does what you want it to do. 

Third, you have a paralegal. A paralegal can only do a scrivener's service and prepare forms. They're not allowed to practice law. But in Washington State, we also have a paralegal program called LLLT, or Limited License Legal Technician. The LLLTs are allowed to prepare your documents, but they can only provide limited representation in court. The LLLTs can be a good substitute if you want to litigate, but you don't want to pay the high fees normally involved in litigation. The LLT can make an appearance with you in court for a few hundred dollars. The problem here is that the LLLT's representation is limited. So there's not a huge advantage over appearing without a lawyer. And in Washington, the law is set by statute.. For the most part, the judge is going to follow the statute. Everyone gets almost the same deal in court, no matter what you've argued. There just aren't very many areas left for the judge to decide. And the judge's decisions are most likely to match all the other judicial decisions. Court ends up being a kind of sad fake drama where the lawyers (or LLLT) and the judge know how it's going to end, but the parties are in suspense, believing, wrongly, that their arguments will make a huge difference. At the end, both parties are disappointed because both of them asked for much more than the court could do. If you watch a courtroom for a few hours, you'll see many cases with fairly different facts come up in front of the judge for that day's court calendar. And all of these cases, with all of these different arguments, will end up the same way. Family law is mostly set by statute. It's very hard to game the system, and a low-cost LLLT isn't going to make a difference. Hiring an LLLT basically gives you all the stress of litigation, with a slightly lower cost, at the expense of being able to make your own decisions. The Washington State Bar Association is phasing out the LLLT program because the program unfortunately did not provide cost-effective services or increase access to affordable legal help. 

Fourth, you have informal mediation. Mediators are a neutral who does not represent either party, and will push for an agreement, rather than any one position. The main goal of informal mediation is to help you have difficult conversations in an easier way. You and your ex will usually meet together with the mediator and try to create an agreement. Mediators can either help you write thjat agreement, or write one for you and file it. Any paperwork that a mediator creates may be reviewed by a document review attorney service before it's filed in court. Mediation usually costs $300-$450 an hour. Some mediators will charge a higher fee for hourly services when you meet with the mediator, and then a lower hourly fee for meeting prep, emails, and other additional services. Some mediators also prepare and file the paperwork (if they are attorneys) and this is either an hourly fee or a flat rate. Generally the total is between $1800 and $3500. 

Fifth, you have a formal mediation required as part of a trial process in Washington State. In Washington, every family law court case must attend a mediation before they have a trial. This kind of mediation is more like a mini-trial. The mediator is hired by the parties and serves as a judge to review the paperwork presented by each party. Most people are represented by lawyers individually in these mediations. You and your ex will most likely stay in separate rooms, with the mediator going back and forth to present options. The cost is usually about $3500 to $6000 to start, with additional fees for extra sessions and extra services.

Sixth, finally, you have litigation, which is what most television dramas and movies used to show for their divorce scenes, and a really good example is the heartbreaking final scene in "Mrs. Doubtfire." Litigation requires each of you to hire an attorney who will fight with the other party's attorney in court. Basically you're paying someone to fight for you, like a champion or proxy in medieval days, or a Trial By Combat on Game of Thrones. The process is lengthy - in King County most trials are scheduled about 18 months after the petition for divorce is filed. The average trial involves two or three hearings before the trial. Each hearing will cost about $4500. And as I mentioned above, you're required to go through a formal mediation process as well, which also costs several thousand dollars. If there are concerns about your ex's safety, then the court will tell you to hire a parenting evaluator or Guardian Ad Litem to create a report - these reports are usually tens of thousands of dollars and sometimes as much as six figures. The average divorce attorney will ask for a retainer of $7500 to start, and then ask to refresh that retainer with $3000 to $4000 per month for as long as the case lasts. Most cases settle before trial. So you probably won't have to pay this much per month for all 18 months. But it's pretty easy for you and your ex to pay $15,000 to $75,000 each, making the total cost $30,000 to $150,000. 

Our firm, Divorce Without Court: Westside Collaborative Law PLLC, offers document review, informal mediation, and filing services as an add-on to informal mediation. Our services generally run from a few hundred dollars up to $3500 at the most. And we work hard to make the process as low-stress and easy as possible, whichever option you choose. We offer free consults. If you have any questions about the information in this article, we've provided sources and examples to help make it more clear. Feel free to call for an appointment at 206-747-3029. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Steen

Elizabeth Steen is licensed in Washington State as well as Washington D.C. After work, Elizabeth enjoys making her West Seattle renowned flan recipe with her daughter, which she’s willing to share with favorite clients. She also enjoys hiking, yoga and chasing her family’s fantasy football league title every fall.

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