The Average Cost of Child Custody
By Claire Gillespie
Updated October 15, 2018
A child custody battle can be emotionally draining – and it can also take its toll on your wallet. The average court cost for child custody cases varies greatly depending on your individual circumstances, but may be anything from $3,000 to $40,000 or more. As well as paying for a child custody lawyer, you have to cover court fees and the cost of any specialists and/or mediators involved in your case. At any point during a child custody case, parties can agree to settle and not proceed with further court action, which greatly reduces the overall cost.
Custody Lawyer Cost
Generally, each party in a child custody case is responsible for paying her own legal fees. However, most states have exceptions to this rule and the court has the power to order one party to pay legal fees. For example, this may happen if there is a disparity in the financial status of the parties, or if one party can't afford adequate legal representation.
Child custody lawyers typically bill a flat fee or by the hour. A flat fee may be in the region of $3,000 to $6,000. The amount is based on the work the lawyer expects will be involved, which depends on the complexity of the case. This means a relatively simple custody case requiring minimal court attendance is likely to incur a fee on the lower end of the scale. On the other hand, a case involving complex legal issues and several court appearances will cost more.
Hourly fees also vary greatly – from around $75 to $400 per hour. A lawyer who bills by the hour may also require a retainer, which is an upfront payment to cover a certain amount of her time. An hourly fee structure is common when the case is particularly complex, for example, when the parties cannot agree to custody or visitation, or one party is trying to move the child to another state.
Whatever fee structure your lawyer uses, you should always receive a quote for retaining her to represent you in court, based on the particular circumstances of your case. Read all paperwork thoroughly before making your decision.
Other Child Custody Costs
Lawyer's fees are not the only professional fees included in the average cost of a custody battle. Mediation is a less expensive alternative than a trial, but mediators are still paid around $100 to $300 per hour. Custody cases often involve a custody evaluation, which includes tests, interviews and assessments from child psychologists and other experts. The cost of a custody evaluation can quickly escalate, depending on how complex the legal issues are and how cooperative the parties are. The total cost of a custody evaluation may range from $1,500 to $6,000 or more. Court fees involved in a child custody case include paying the sheriff to serve the other party any charges involved with filing papers with the court. Contact the clerk's office at your local court to find out what fees are payable.
Pro Bono Family Lawyers
Pro bono family lawyers are available in every state to provide legal representation for those who cannot afford legal fees. Websites like StateBarAssociations.org let you search for a pro bono family lawyer by state. There are also legal aid offices throughout the United States, which provide free legal assistance to those on low incomes. Visit LawHelp.org and select your state to get the details for your local legal aid office, then contact it to check if you qualify for free legal help. Alternatively, you can ask the judge in your child custody case to appoint a legal aid lawyer to represent you in court.
If you do not qualify for legal aid or cannot get a pro bono lawyer, some private law offices offer initial consultations at a reduced rate. Your local law school may host free legal clinics where law students – supervised by law professors – provide free legal advice.
- Law Office of Bryan Fagan: How Much Will My Texas Child Custody Case Cost?
- State Bar Associations: United States Pro Bono Legal Services
- LawHelp.org: Legal Aid and other Low-Cost Legal Help
- Gevurtz Menashe: How Much Does a Child Custody Case Cost?
- Thumbtack: How Much Does a Child Custody Lawyer Cost?
- Mass.gov: Probate and Family Court Filing Fees
Claire Gillespie writes about health, science, home and parenting. She has bylines on SELF, SheKnows, The Washington Post, Vice and more.