The ideal lowest cost option for any child support or child custody case is always to be able to come to an agreement. Imagine showing up in court all smiles and walking out with a court order with no attorneys or extra costs associated with the case. However, where child custody is concerned, that isn’t always possible and going to court can become a costly necessity.
How much court costs can really be all over the board depending upon your individual case. There are 3 main court cost components : court fees, attorney fees, additional related service fees. This post will talk through what to expect, and some ways to reduce or eliminate your court costs.
- Try To Agree
- If You are Going to Court to Establish a Long Distance Parenting Court Order
- What the Court Will Charge You
- Paying for an Attorney
- Additional Court-Related Costs
- Cost/Benefit Analysis – Should you go to Court?
- Summary : How Much Going to Court Costs
Try To Agree
I don’t think I could write about court costs without starting with the obvious. The closer you and your co-parent can get to agreement on the terms of whatever the thing is, the less it will cost. Navigating disagreements can be trickier the more complicated your relationship with your co-parent is.
Although I won’t rehash them here, I previously posted about some foundational co-parenting tools that are worth taking a look at. All of the effort you put into them will only help reduce your court costs. These co-parenting strategy books come highly recommended. You might also consider some of the tools presented in this post on smoothing out the relationship and in this post on co-parent communication.
You will note that both of the posts on co-parent communication reference the Nonviolent communication book. I highly, highly recommend this process as a method of communicating through even the toughest topics.
If You are Going to Court to Establish a Long Distance Parenting Court Order
It would be well worth your time to start with the process outlined in this post on how to create a legally binding long distance parenting plan . If you do wind up going to court for a long distance parenting court order, having this lined up first will reduce your cost. It will walk you through the entire process, including links to sample long distance parenting plans, information on visitation and travel, child support and custody.
And without further ado, on to how much court will cost you! I have had experience with several custody related court cases as well as a few other types of court cases. In one of my custody related court cases, I spent $3,000 in total court fees and attorney fees and my co-parent spent over $40,000 for the same case. What I am sharing here comes from my own lessons learned. The strategies here for reducing costs are all things I’ve done.
What the Court Will Charge You
The court will have set fees for certain types of activities. For example, they generally have a fee for filing something and a fee for a hearing. When you file something, you are either creating a new case or submitting paperwork for an existing case. A hearing is when a judge hears your case. Courts may have other fees for actions particular to your case for example, an emergency hearing or ex parte action. The clerk’s office of the courthouse your case is with can tell you what those fees are, if they are not on the court system’s website.
Courts often provide a fee waiver for some (or all) fees. The fees are generally waived on a sliding scale based upon your income. To get a fee waiver, you will fill out a form with information about your income and expenses. The fee waiver, once approved, may apply to your entire case. However, you may need to fill out multiple forms throughout the case so get familiar with the court rules. In my experience, not all court fees are waivable. Your local court district website may have information on which fees can be waived and how to get a waiver. You may also check with the clerk’s office.
Make Your Own Copies
When you file something with the court, the court stamps the document to indicate the filing status and date. Generally, you should keep a copy of the document with the original stamp. The court will generally stamp multiple copies as part of the filing fee. However, my experience in several courthouses is that the fee for running a document through a copy machine is pretty incredible. Like a dollar a page incredible.
Although this sounds like a small amount (and useless advice) : Trust me, this adds up quickly over multiple page documents and multiple filings. At the end of one of my cases, I had boxes of documents. Thousands of pages. Who wants to tack that onto everything you are already paying for? A copy shop will often charge far less. Or if you are printing the forms at home, print extra copies.
Paying for an Attorney
Attorney fees for a custody case can be all over the board. An attorney will typically charge a retainer in the thousands up front, which applies to your initial hourly bill. Then they charge an hourly rate that is somewhere between $100 and $500 an hour (in the US).
How to Keep Attorney Fees Down in a Child Custody Case
You are billed an hourly rate for every phone call or email you have with your attorney as well as, of course, the actions the attorney takes on your behalf. What can seem like a friendly phone call where not a lot happened can wind up costing you hundreds of dollars.
- Go into each phone call and email with a list of questions or information prepared to ensure that you make the best use of the time.
- Take thorough notes on any meetings and phone calls with your attorney to avoid needing to have follow up calls to repeat the information they provide.
- Avoid contacting your attorney with every twist in your story. What I mean is if your coparent calls and says something ugly, make a note of it with a date and time and keep it for your next meeting, call or email instead of firing an email off to your attorney.
- When your attorney requests information or follow up from you, give them the date they can expect it from you. Make sure you get it done by the date you committed to. This will prevent them from needing to call or email multiple times for the information.
Do it Without Attorney Costs
- It is an unfortunately reality that going to court and drawing out court cases can be used as harassment. If the other parent is at fault or frivolously brought the case, it might be possible to have the judge order that they are responsible for your legal fees.
- Self service is always an option. You do not have to have an attorney in family court. Representing yourself in court is called “pro se”. Most courts have all of their forms and processes on their website these days. If you have the time and patience to spend reading and understanding the processes and forms, you can represent yourself. This can be more challenging in high conflict cases and/or if the other side has an attorney. But it is still possible. Check out how to manage your court case for more tips on going this route.
- Explore mediation as a potentially lower cost attorney-free option. It can be an option in addition to attorneys that might decrease attorney fees in the long run. A mediator charges a fee and you may potentially need multiple sessions. However, going through mediation could be lower cost over-all than both parents fighting it out through attorneys.
Find Legal Assistance Without High Attorney Fees
There are options for getting legal assistance without high attorney fees, believe it or not.
- Find an attorney who works on sliding scale or flat rate. Although few and far between, they do exist. My personal experience is that you get what you pay for. Proceed with caution and expect to do some of the leg work and organization yourself.
- Find paralegal support. Paralegals cannot provide legal advice but they can help with things like filing documents and explaining process. You can sometimes find paralegal assistance in local listings.
- Court system clinics, workshops and assistance might be an option. Many court systems offer some version of legal assistance with family court cases. This can run the gamut between help filling out forms all the way through filing for you. These services are often first come first serve and have long wait times. Plan more time than you think you’ll need for a walk-up clinic.
- If you are the custodial parent, filing through your state’s child support services office will likely be lower to no cost. The state has an interest in ensuring child residents are supported financially and there are often legal services available. However, case loads with child support services can also be high so it may take more time for your case to be heard and finished.
Additional Court-Related Costs
Depending upon the specifics of your case, you may encounter other fees outside of court and attorney fees. These are fees for services such as court ordered mediation, training, evaluations or therapy, or fees for process servers. The individual or business that provides the service will charge you seperately. If you have an attorney, often the attorney’s office will pay for things like serving documents on the other party in the case and bill you for it as part of their fees.
If the judge orders something like mediation, training, therapy or evaluations and cost is an obstacle, speak up! Respectfully, ask if there are any options to make it accessible to you. The court might have lower cost options or might order your co-parent to foot the bill or split the costs.
Cost/Benefit Analysis – Should you go to Court?
Once you’ve decided how you will tackle your court case and roughly how much it will cost you, take a beat to make sure it’s worth it.
If the court case is about money – child support, travel expenses etc, it’s a simple issue of math. A $300 a month child support increase or decrease will net you a difference of $3600 a year. If it costs you $40,000 to get it, it would take 11 years to recoup your cost. In that amount of time your child could become an adult or, if you or your co-parent are the litigious sort, you will likely revisit this again in the mean time. Probably not worth it
If the court case is about parenting time, custody, visitation, parental alienation or other parent/child relationship issues, the analysis is more complicated. A parent’s relationship with their child is worth almost any amount of money. If only we all had any amount of money to fight for every moment with our kids.
Sometimes, what we think we need to have that relationship might not be what we actually need. For example : Your co-parent is blocking daily phone calls and that is what you are going to court for. In all honesty, the child is unlikely to stay engaged on the phone every single day over the long haul. You may be able to supplement with other activities that your co-parent does not block instead of fighting for daily phone calls. In this case, fighting it out in court might not be worth it.
However, if your co-parent is kidnapping or alienating your child on the other hand, going to court might be the only option. If funds are tight, consider some of the no or lower cost options.
Summary : How Much Going to Court Costs
There are low/no cost options and some options that might run you into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the case. In my experience, the very same case handled two different ways could go either direction cost-wise.
The happy path is : you are able to create a legally binding long distance parenting plan and negotiate the specifics with your co-parent so that you can file an agreed upon plan. You will both pay court filing fees – and that’s it!
However, even the most contentious court cases can be lower cost. For lower income folks, with fee waivers and access legal advice through the court system or local clinics, court costs can be manageable. For everyone regardless of income, by representing yourself, exploring mediation and doing what you can to negotiate peacefully with your co-parent.
In summary, going to court can range from low/no cost to very pricy depending upon the complexity of the case, the income of the participants and the willingness and ability to put in time and effort for the parts that can be diy or reduce conflict. Costs include court fees, attorney or mediator fees, court ordered service fees and filing and document serving fees.
You do not have to have an attorney and can represent yourself ‘pro se’. However, if your co-parent has an attorney, you may also benefit from legal advice. Low or no cost legal advice may be available through the court system or non profits in your area for low-income individuals. Mediation might also be a low or no cost option through the court system. Mediation is between you and your co-parent without attorneys.