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The Bottom Line Divorce Case Evaluation

Review your list, "adding up" the number of problem areas that you have noted in the left margin. If you don’t have any, it looks like it might be a smooth proceeding. If you see any problem areas at all, you probably do not have an easy case. A case never gets easier when you get into it; if anything, more problems start to pop up. If you have already discovered several problem areas, you probably have a difficult case.

Nice work! You have prepared your first estimate of the relative cost of your case: low, moderate or high. You should expect to pay the reasonable cost necessary to protect your rights. The actual ending of your marriage is the simplest task of all. The amount you have at stake financially or the difficulty of your factual situation increases the cost. Attorney’s fees and court costs increase in proportion to the difficulty. You may need expert witnesses on earning ability or the value of an asset, consultants such as accountants or pension plan evaluators and a lot of discovery, incurring expenses for deposition reporters, subpoena costs and document copying.

If there’s nothing at stake, the cost should be minimal. For example, if you had a marriage of less than five years, no children, no need for spousal support, community property of less than thirty thousand dollars and liabilities of less than four thousand dollars, your state may even help you do it yourself. California’s Summary Dissolution of Marriage packet includes the necessary forms and an explanation for only a few dollars. That’s the only time to do it yourself: if you’ve got little or nothing to lose.

If you have little income or assets, I suggest that you investigate publicly funded legal aid clinics and panels of lawyers offering their time at reduced rates through your local bar association. The clinics require income to be at the poverty level income before they will accept your case. Special panels of lawyers available through the bar association handle cases above the poverty level but below the income level at which it’s reasonable to expect regular fees to be paid. The only problem category the reduced fee level of representation can accommodate is an uncooperative spouse, but then there’s not likely to be any other problem.

If you have just a few assets and special needs, the cost should be relatively low for a relatively simple case. Private mediation services and legal clinics are cost efficient in handling routine cases if there is cooperation. Legal clinics often provide a service for a flat fee. If trouble develops, additional charges are usually made for contested hearings and trials. If your case evaluation shows that you have no more than one problem area, you may want to check into these alternatives.

You’re in the mainstream of the justice system if your case appears to have two or three concerns. Expect to pay your attorney the hourly rate for the time necessary to do what you and your attorney agree needs to be done based on a review of the costs, benefits and alternatives.

You do get what you pay for, at least on a relative basis. An attorney with a high hourly rate that reflects a high skill level may save you a considerable amount over a less experienced attorney. However, beware of a few inexperienced attorneys who seem to believe they will attract more business if they have a high hourly rate. Don’t make your decision on hourly rate alone, one way or the other.