Our heart-to-heart on why it costs so much and takes so long to get out of wedlock.
1. You'll pay more than the advertised rate -- way more.
The U.S. divorce rate has nearly doubled since 1960, according to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and the number of divorce lawyers has grown apace. Though divorce rates leveled off during the recession, competition among divorce lawyers has increased -- and billboards flashing "Quick and Easy Divorce for $299" reveal how desperate for business they've become. Those teaser prices aren't a scam, says Randy Kessler, chair of the American Bar Association's family law section, but they usually apply only to parties who have already agreed on the terms and just need the lawyer to fill in the forms. It's clients who don't fall into that category who are likely to pay more. Of course, such come-ons are partly "just to get you in the door," warns Sari Friedman, a New York City matrimonial lawyer. The fine print, she says, will often reveal extra costs -- from initial court fees to eventual asset-divvying lawyer fees. A more realistic final price tag? Anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, with hourly rates typically running from $150 to $1,000.
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2. I get sued -- a lot.
San Diego resident Luwain Ng's 2008 divorce was tough, but it was nothing compared with the subsequent legal battle with her divorce lawyer, Patricia Gregory, who stole nearly $80,000 from Ng's trust account. (In January, Gregory pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sentenced to a year in jail; Ng says she has since recovered most of her money.) Ng isn't alone. Only personal injury and real estate lawyers get sued more than family law attorneys, a category that includes those who handle divorce and child custody cases, according to the American Bar Association. Indeed, lawsuits against family law attorneys more than doubled from 1995 to 2007, the ABA reports. One reason: In the past 20 years, the number of lawyers specializing in family law has increased. Plus, Kessler says, divorce situations can get pretty heated -- it's "the nature of their work." So while a lawyer who has been sued isn't necessarily bad, he suggests consumers check with their state's bar association before hiring a lawyer.
3. My lack of fiscal know-how will cost you.
Divorces often require complicated financial calculations, like projecting the long-term value of a 401(k). But finance isn't typically part of the law school curriculum. It's a huge problem, says Jeffrey Landers, a New York City financial adviser, "because outside of custody issues, divorce is mostly about financial matters." While many lawyers do tell clients to hire a financial professional, some don't -- and settlement mistakes can cost clients thousands of dollars. Still, the price of hiring a divorce finance pro can range from $4,000 to $25,000. And a forensic accountant -- who can identify and value assets -- generally charges at least $5,000, says Thomas Reck, an accountant and partner at WithumSmith & Brown in Paramus, N.J. That's why it's important for those going through divorce to do a cost-benefit analysis. Says Zachary Smith, president of Vox Law in Minneapolis: "People with fewer assets and little debt may not need to spend the money."
4. I make promises I can't keep.
Of course, it's unethical for lawyers to guarantee a certain settlement. Each state has its own rules of professional responsibility, and violating them can result in sanctions from the bar. But it still happens, because lawyers want to gain their clients' confidence, says Bari Weinberger, a matrimonial lawyer in Morris County, N.J. And by some estimates, up to 50 percent of all client complaints stem from a failure to meet their expectations. Even if a lawyer doesn't outright promise a specific outcome, strong hints can be detrimental to the client's wallet. When Minneapolis small-business owner Christine Clifford was in the midst of her second divorce, she says, her lawyer said things like "you have a very compelling case" and "a very good chance of getting a financial settlement." In the end, she ponied up $70,000 in attorney's fees and had nothing to show for it. (Her lawyer declined to comment.) It is appropriate for a lawyer to express the possibility of success, says Weinberger, but "if anyone guarantees you anything, run."
5. I've only handled a couple of divorce cases. Ever.
A lot of lawyers are general practitioners, handling everything from personal injury to estates to divorce. But a general practitioner may handle only a few divorce cases in his or her entire career. "Law is very vast with a lot of nuances," says Friedman, the New York lawyer. "You need a lawyer who knows the law and has seen a lot of these nuances." One place to find them: the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers' website, aaml.org. Lawyers in the association are required to spend at least 75 percent of their time on matrimonial law issues and have at least 10 years' experience in the subject (or with five years' experience, to spend at least 90 percent of their time on such cases). Matrimonial lawyers say clients benefit from their expertise. "You go to a cardiologist for your heart problems," says Weinberger.
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