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Extension > Family > Parents Forever™ > For families > Resources for families > Taking Care of Yourself > The Legal Side of Family Transition > Controlling Attorney Costs

The Legal Side of Family Transition

Controlling Attorney Costs

Madeleine Alberts, Children, Youth and Family Program Leader; M. Kathleen Mangum, Sandra Syverson, and Barbara Radke, Extension Educators; and Minnell Tralle, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency


Working with an attorney on your divorce can get expensive fast if you’re not careful. Read on to learn how attorney fees work and get some tips for keeping attorney costs under control.

Fees, retainers, operational expenses — these are all costs of hiring an attorney for your divorce or legal separation. You need to know what these terms mean — and more — in order to minimize attorney costs and get the most value for your money.

Start With the Retainer

Understanding the costs involved with paying an attorney starts with the retainer. A retainer is a contract between an attorney and a client (you) that sets the terms of the legal relationship.

A retainer spells out the hourly rate, or fee, an attorney charges for consultation with you, including time spent on the telephone discussing your case. Note that most attorneys round up and bill for time spent on phone calls to one-fifth, or 12-minute increments, and bill accordingly. For example, a 5-minute call would be billed at 12 minutes.

The retainer also identifies operational costs (associated with your case) that you will be expected to pay. Those costs may include court filing fees, long distance calls, photocopies, process serving (notification of legal action), travel, computer-assisted research, express mail or delivery service, certified and registered mail, and extra postage for multiple mailings or bulk mail.

Be sure you read the attorney's retainer contract very carefully before you sign it, and get a copy for your records.

What About Fees and Rates?

After signing a retainer, you must pay a retainer fee. The retainer fee will vary according to the attorney’s hourly rate and may be fully refundable, partially refundable, or nonrefundable. Attorneys’ hourly rates vary from city to city and state to state. Attorneys’ billing rates can range from $150 to $500 or more per hour.

Part of the retainer fee you pay will be placed in a trust account to be billed against for future fees and costs. In other words, you pay your attorney in advance for some of the work. The money that is not put into the trust account pays your attorney to start work on your case; this amount is nonrefundable. You also will be billed extra charges for any services your attorney performs beyond those outlined in the retainer.

Your final bill will depend on two main factors: the going rate for attorneys in your area and the complexity of your divorce. You’ll pay more to your attorney to resolve issues you cannot work out with the other parent, such as custody arrangements and division of assets.

Additional Costs to Consider

Besides attorney fees, you may need to pay other expenses as part of your divorce or legal separation. Those expenses may include property appraisal fees, child custody reports, and services of individuals to assist with parenting plans. If you use a mediator, this will also cost money.

You may also incur "expert fees” in the divorce process. You will need to pay for any experts consulted regarding parenting time or custody evaluations, for example, as well as other aspects that may arise in your divorce.

Note that you could end up spending more on your divorce if you take advice from family and friends versus trained professionals. Bad advice, even if well intended, might lead you down a path that is not legally advisable, requiring additional time and money to resolve. Finally, extraordinary issues, such as mental illness and substance abuse, also can increase the cost of divorce.

How to Minimize Attorney Costs

You can minimize your attorney costs by making wise use of his or her services. Remember that you’re paying your attorney to provide advice and assistance about legal issues only. Seek help elsewhere from other professionals for non-legal concerns. If you are experiencing emotional difficulties because of your divorce, don’t expect your attorney to help. Instead, ask a friend, relative, religious advisor, support group, or appropriate professional for assistance.

There are more cost-effective ways to make decisions about divorce or coparenting than working through an attorney. If you and the other parent are able to negotiate decisions together or use others’ help, such as a counselor or mediator, in making decisions, you will have more control over the situation and minimize attorney involvement.

Remember that time equals money, so another way to reduce attorney costs is to reply promptly to his or her requests for documentation, such as deeds, registrations, loan agreements, and insurance policies. Regarding documentation, let your attorney make copies for his or her use, but always keep the original documents in your possession. You may need these documents again in the future and replacing them may be difficult — and cost money to replace.

What to Do if You Can't Afford the Costs

If you cannot afford an attorney to handle your divorce or legal separation, consider calling your local legal aid office. If you qualify financially, a legal aid attorney will, at minimum, hold an initial consultation about your case with you. Some legal aid attorneys might also continue to advise you while you represent yourself during divorce proceedings.

Also look into "pro bono” services offered by private attorneys. Legal aid offices often keep lists of private attorneys who are willing to take on cases (referred by legal aid) at little or no cost. If you don’t qualify for legal aid services or pro bono help, try appealing to private attorneys to reduce their fees.

It is also worth noting that if you cannot afford to pay the filing fee or other court-related costs, you can apply for in forma pauperis (IFP) status. If the judge grants you a court order for IFP, this will waive all court-related costs including mandatory parent education courses like Parents Forever™. See more information on the Minnesota Judicial Branch's Fee Waiver (IFP) website.


Office of Minnesota Attorney General. (n.d. ). Hiring an attorney. (2013). Getting a divorce: A basic guide to Minnesota law.

Related resources

Deciding Which Attorney to Hire — There is a lot to consider before hiring an attorney. Get tips to ensure that you hire the right attorney for you and your family.

Fee Waiver (IFP)Minnesota Judicial Branch — Understand the basics of legal fee waivers, get the forms needed to apply for a waiver, and more. Note, if you are granted an IFP, you can register for a Parents Forever™ course for free! See more at Applying for a Reduced Fee.

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