I might run out of money paying for a divorce lawyer. How to prepare?
July 10, 2018 1:47 PM   Subscribe

A relative is in a marriage that seems to be on its last legs, despite years of effort at repairing the relationship. It's lawyer time and I'll probably be paying one of the lawyer's fees. But I may run out of money in the course of doing so; what should I do in anticipation of that possibility?

After extensively reading through past divorce-related AskMes and other online resources, and based on specific child custody related legal-sounding threats and demands for money made by the spouse (S) and decisions they're making unilaterally which should involve my relative (R) I believe we're definitely at a "Get a lawyer, now!" point. R, whose time and attention is completely red-lined from working at a demanding job and caring for the couple's young children, reluctantly agreed when I volunteered to do the research to track down an attorney. Part of R's hesitation was based on concerns about the expense involved and I overcame that by promising to pay the legal fees. R and S, their kids, their jobs, and their real estate are all in a single U.S. state as far as I know.

Using the taxonomy of divorce attorneys from the MeFi Wiki Get a lawyer page I've narrowed the options down to what I think is probably the pre-eminent law firm specializing in family law in our rural state. After a conversation with the office staff I've determined that if I tap into savings I can afford several dozen hours' worth of any of the individual attorneys' time; most of the family law specialists are on vacation right now, so currently I'm badgering R to call the office staff and set up an appointment for a post-vacation initial consultation.

I actually really like S, personally, and think they're a very caring and attentive parent as is R, and so my hope is that the involvement of a top-notch professional with experience and connections as an advocate for R will result in whatever is the best possible outcome for both R and S and my little cousins, whether or not a divorce is in the cards. (I realize I'm only peripherally involved here and that it's R who will be the client of the attorney, and may decide for privacy they don't even want me to attend appointments I'm paying for, and I'm okay with that.)

But here's the sticking point: S's extended family, from a nearby much-higher-population state, is considerably wealthier than me and R's side of the family and they have a business in which they regularly hire and interact with legal counsel. So if everything ends in divorce and S decides to carry out a war of attrition I'd anticipate that they can easily generate an amount of work for this top-notch attorney that would rapidly exceed my modest ability to pay.

My question is: if that were to happen am I right to expect that the top-notch attorney would help us find another lower-cost attorney to slog out the long tail of a protracted legal battle, and are there any questions we need to ask or preparations we need to make for that eventuality? And is my overall plan to start off with the highest-quality legal help we can afford, in hopes of getting the best advice and laying the best groundwork for future legal action, a sound one?

Throwaway email throwaway@7nd.me
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
At least in my state, the wealthier spouse has to partially pay for the other spouse’s lawyer. You could call the bar association to find out about that.
posted by kerf at 1:57 PM on July 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

One issue is that if you do find yourself in a war of attrition, the most expensive and most important parts in a divorce case may happen late in the process, rather than early. If you meet with top-tier firm, make it clear what your budget looks like, and ask for potential solutions. Many attorneys may be willing to work under a fee agreement with a "capped" maximum fee or a flat fee. It's possible a straight-hourly representation from the best firm in town is beyond your means.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:02 PM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Escalating to a legal battle against wealthy opponents may not be the best option, feels like contentious divorces are normally lose-lose for all but the lawyers. Is binding mediation an option in your jurisdiction instead?
posted by JonB at 2:21 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

At least in my jurisdiction many divorce lawyers do not expect payment upfront, especially if there is an equalisation (we also have a system where the most unreasonable party pays the legal fees for both parties but I don’t know how common that is in the States). These are things to enquire of the lawyer. Also, get your relative into therapy. Often people pay their divorce lawyers to be therapists (and ask legal advice of non-lawyers...) when it is cheaper and more efficient to just use the lawyer for legal advice on issues that have already been researched.
posted by saucysault at 3:37 PM on July 10, 2018

Your relative should just go for the consult. The attorney can tell your relative how payment for legal bills in a divorce normally works. Your relative should NOT tell this attorney they have a relative with a checkbook they are willing to run dry.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:41 PM on July 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

Lawyers vary a lot. look for one who can work with R to limit hours. R can start right now by documenting everything financial - copies of taxes, bank statements, retirement savings, etc., as well as any debt - mortgage, car loans, credit cards. Keep track of who cares for the kids, and who does the default parenting of buying clothes, making dental appts., remembering the inhaler, whatever.

Find the Legal Aid program in your area; they are very under-funded, but they may have useful information. If there's any sort of Do Your Own Divorce in Yourstate book, get a copy. With kids & custody, you need a lawyer, but this is a good way to get informed. Spend some time on the Attorney General's web site to see if there's any useful info. The less time the lawyer has to spend explaining, the better.

The children will be best served by the parents being as cooperative as possible. This is difficult, but but try anyway. If you can come up with a good custody plan, a judge will accept it.
posted by theora55 at 3:57 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm helping someone similarly now. Mediation has helped prevent part of the most expensive costs, but also the lawyer knew up front what our funding was and outlined ways to maximize what could be done with billable hours. I like this lawyer and don't feel that she is trying to get extra money, and have lawyer friends who reviewed the bills for me. The other side is being billed a lot for minor things because they choose a fancy large law firm, but they have deep pockets.

First, do as much of the prep paperwork as possible. Prepare, file and draft documents so the lawyer only has to edit or review them. Do all the legwork, your time is cheaper.

Find out if calls, meetings or emails are faster for questions and compile them so you don't waste time.

If you can self- represent for minor things in court like a date change filing, is the lawyer ok with that to save on court appearance costs.

Do your own research and background prep - don't expect the lawyer to spend billable time explaining basic divorce custody law to you, come in with advanced questions already.

Especially have all your financial stuff ready. Have a budget planned, bank records, asset lists, mortgage documents, insurance, etc.

Find out if there are state required parenting classes etc and enrol now.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:00 PM on July 10, 2018

Here in Georgia, plaintiff has to get judge to order that defendant pay for part of plaintiff's att'y fees, I don't know if it works the other way, not my situation.

My att'y let me run a tab when I got poor and pay over time. If my family had not helped it would have been bad.

Couple of tips:

If you consult with an atty, the other party cannot hire them. I used this to my advantage in my medium sized city. I found out who were the best, and had a consult with each. Spouse was furious. Spouse should not have picked this fight.

R is going to have to realize that they are going to have to put time and energy into this. I put 6 months of "I'm not at work and not sleeping" time into it. I won custody. I'm the father.

DO NOT put all your energy into tearing the other person down. I was headed down this path and realized I had found out about all I could find out.
At that point I put my energy into "why I am the better choice for custody". Where will child go to school for example.

Stability was very big with my judge. The child is exposed to enough uncertainty and chaos, how can I show that life with me will be more stable. Having a relative supportive enough to help pay for the divorce - how will that person help with the raising of the child?

Graphics help. I did photo albums, which could have no captions. One for her, one for me.
Album 1: Photo of child in bar with mother and friends.
Album 2: Photo of child lighting candle before worship at church with pastor, who came and testified at court.

Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by rudd135 at 7:04 PM on July 10, 2018

One other point, the whole process took about a year and a half, which I am told is normal. So the expense was spread out over some time.
posted by rudd135 at 7:07 PM on July 10, 2018

Note from a lawyer, not your lawyer, on this oh-so-clever-sounding “strategy”: If you consult with an atty, the other party cannot hire them. I used this to my advantage in my medium sized city. I found out who were the best, and had a consult with each. Spouse was furious. Spouse should not have picked this fight.

Do not do this/suggest that R do this! It is a known and disfavored tactic, particularly in family-law cases, and in many jurisdictions of which I’m aware can lead to the perpetrator being sanctioned, including by having to pay some portion of the fees for the other side. R can of course interview multiple firms to find the best match within reason, but don’t try to block the other side from finding solid representation within a certain geographic range. No good will come of it.
posted by LadyInWaiting at 8:38 PM on July 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

If you are going to "run out of money" then maybe you can't afford to provide that much assistance?
posted by mccxxiii at 4:09 AM on July 11, 2018

I suspect OP means “I will run out of the amount I can reasonably earmark to help R with her legal fees without putting myself in financial distress,” but agree that s/he should not go into any sort of distress here. In addition to all the other sound boundary-based reasons to avoid this, R will have less ability to absorb future financial hits herself, and if you wish to be an ongoing help to her, exhausting your own resources right out of the gate will prevent that.
posted by LadyInWaiting at 4:47 AM on July 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
S's threats, some of which I've heard in person (passive-aggressive things like “Oh, I'll always let you and the rest of the family see the kids, even if R doesn't buckle down and properly commit to this marriage!”) and some of which I know of second-hand through R, sound like they could just be bluster. In which case it seems like getting a small amount of a lawyer's time and involvement might bring everything back down to Earth and avert a divorce, ideally, and/or direct them to the best options around for further therapy and mediation, hopefully with a sobering “Wisdom of Solomon” reminder that they're on the brink of a really terrible experience, damaging to the kids, if they can't arrive at a stable situation while treating each other respectfully and with regard to the other's parental rights.

Conversely, if S is making aggressive verbal/legal threats because they've already engaged an attorney's services, I think they need to know R isn't going to be alone in this and is going to put up a fight and insist on fair treatment. (And R, who is sad and despairing right now, needs to feel on better footing.) There are also some details of the threats and other statements from over the last year which sound strategic, so I would want a lawyer to help R not be blindsided and to anticipate any subterfuge, and be able to communicate clearly that they won't be pushed around.

I have lots of free time and if the outcome were to run the course of a “normal” divorce, if there is such a thing, I would hope to take the measures dorothyisunderwood and others describe - for R and myself to do as much of the preparation and paperwork as possible ourselves, only taking up the attorney's time as needed. There may also be other relatives on our side of the family who could help.

But S's extended family, while seemingly good-hearted people, have gone through some major unrelated misfortunes in the past couple of years and I don't have a good sense at all of whether some or all of them would take the same petty attitude S is projecting out of spite or fear or something and endorse and fund a scorched-earth campaign. R has expressed concerns along these lines; and while all of the answers in the thread and the emails I've received have been helpful and I'm reading each one repeatedly, I'm particularly trying to gauge the practical implications of the aforementioned worst-case scenario, even if the appropriate move would be to start off with a less-skilled or less-reputed lawyer or to change counsel partway through. I don't want R to feel like they have to concede to every petty demand and defer to S in all arrangements just because of the looming threat of what could happen if S - assuming they have their shit together legally behind the bluster which wouldn't be out of character - also somehow manages to convince everyone to direct the same level of viciousness and ire towards R.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:14 AM on July 11, 2018

“I’ll let you see the kids even if...” is horrendous enough when you break it down; perhaps reconciliation shouldn’t be a goal, though that’s of course R’s decision. I do want to say: use some of that available time to solicit lawyer recommendations from trusted locals, and don’t limit your search to high prestige/high price. Especially in family law, there are great practitioners working at less-than-top rates in many places, often in smaller or solo practices.
posted by LadyInWaiting at 9:26 AM on July 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

getting a small amount of a lawyer's time and involvement might bring everything back down to Earth and avert a divorce

To be blunt, it won’t. Getting a lawyer involved is escalating the animosity and increasing the likelihood of divorce - it is a “power move” and you know that, which is why you want it to happen. I do think your relative should have legal advice (without you in the room) but your plan of leveraging the lawyer to control the other spouse’s actions is going to backfire. Probably a better, cheaper use of your money is to give your relative an hour long legal consult (here the first half hour is free) and then dump a hell of a lot of money into professional therapy so they can respond appropriately to their spouse and negotiate their own relationship.

Right now you have put your relative in a hard place between what *you* want them to do and what their *spouse* wants them to do. It is understandable that you really do not like their spouse, but you should respect they are both adults that have a relationship that may be different to one that you would choose. I don’t see your role here as being very helpful; give your relative the access to professionals that will empower them without your biases getting in the way. Your relative is an adult and you “picking up this fight” on their behalf is not helpful to anyone actually in the situation, especially the children.
posted by saucysault at 10:43 AM on July 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

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