Even though domestic relations and juvenile cases represent less than 10% of all cases filed in state trial courts, these cases are often more complex and resource-intensive than other types of cases, and they generally require a sound knowledge of family law. This is where a good family law attorney near you comes in. Family law attorneys are attorneys that specialize in handling family-related legal issues, which include divorce proceedings, drafting prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, adoptions, child custody and child support issues, alimony matters, and much more. Some of these attorneys may also further specialize in a particular aspect of family law, such as divorce law or adoption law.
Approximately 83.8 million cases were filed in state trial courts across the United States in 2018. About 5 million of these cases were for domestic relations matters. It is estimated that divorce or dissolution and civil protection order cases made up about 50% of the domestic relations cases filed in 2018. During this time, more than 800,000 juvenile cases were also filed, and over 70% of these cases involved allegations of child abuse or neglect.
Instances where you should retain the services of a family law attorney include:
- Handling divorce issues
- Handling child custody and child support agreements
- Handling child abuse and child neglect cases
- Drafting prenuptial and postnuptial agreements
- Handling estates and wills
- Handling alimony and spousal support issues
Your family law attorney should be skilled enough to ensure that the legal matter at hand ends in your favor. As such, before retaining the services of a family law attorney near you, you should ask the following questions:
Where Are You Licensed to Practice Family Law in the State You Are?
Always make sure that your family law attorney is licensed to practice law in your state of residence and in a federal court where necessary. You can confirm your attorney's state licensing status through the American Bar Association's lawyer licensing webpage. You can also verify whether your family law attorney is admitted into the practice of law before a federal court by contacting that court through this online directory.
Before a family law attorney near you can practice in any state, the attorney is required to pass the Law School Admission Test administered by the Law School Admission Council, attend an American Bar Association-accredited law school located in the state, and then sit for the state's bar examination. The specific requirements for sitting for this bar examination vary by state. Many states generally require attorney applicants to have a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree before sitting for the bar exam. In New York, applicants that graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from unapproved law schools are required to have spent at least five of the past seven years practicing in another state. Missouri allows applicants that have not yet obtained a Juris Doctor degree to take the bar exam provided that they have met all requirements for the degree. However, if the degree is not obtained within a year of passing the exam, then the applicant's examination scores are voided. In California, all applicants are required to submit a moral character determination application.
After passing the bar examination, an attorney must be sworn in by the state's bar association before being legally allowed to practice law in the state. Note that attorneys that wish to practice in a federal court are generally required to be sworn in by that particular court. This is regardless of whether or not they have already been licensed to practice law by the bar association of the state where the federal court is located. For example, a family law attorney that wishes to appear before a Southern District of Texas Federal Court must already be licensed by at least one state bar association in the country, while the Northern District of California Federal Courts requires state licensing with California's bar association. Although family law cases are mostly heard in state courts, federal courts still have the authority to try some of these matters, especially if the case involves the welfare of a child.
The United States judicial system consists of federal courts and state courts, and these courts have certain key differences. Federal courts are established by the United States Constitution and they typically hear cases that involve the constitutionality of a law, matters involving the United States, bankruptcy cases, and matters between two states. On the other hand, state courts are established by state laws. Although each state determines the specific structure of its judicial system, state court systems are generally divided into appellate courts and trial courts, and these courts have jurisdiction over most family law cases filed in the United States.
What Kind of Family Law Work Do You Handle?
Family law encompasses a wide range of legal issues. Therefore, before hiring a family law attorney near you, you should always make sure that the attorney is capable of handling the type of family matter that you are involved in. The most commonly practiced branches of family law are:
Divorce â€“ this is the most common branch of family law. At least 40% of all marriages in the United States end in divorce and more than 20% of these divorces happen within the first five years of marriage. Divorces can be quite complicated, especially when factors like children, alimony, and shared assets and debts are considered. Divorce attorneys specialize in handling the divorce process. In many cases, this involves coming up with suitable settlement plans that can be agreed upon by both divorcing parties to avoid a trial.
- Adoption â€“ many states have strict laws and regulations concerning adoption. Adoption attorneys specialize in helping parents navigate these laws and ensure that they properly complete any necessary paperwork.
- Child Custody â€“ child custody is considered the most delicate branch of family law. Although child custody is usually included in divorce matters, some of these types of cases also involve unmarried couples. Family law attorneys are typically required in these cases to facilitate any child visitation and child support agreements.
- Paternity â€“ this branch of family law deals with father-child relationships. Paternity cases are usually filed by either a father trying to claim custody of an alleged child or a mother trying to secure child support payments from an absentee father.
- Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements â€“ prenuptial and postnuptial agreements are simply agreements reached by a couple either before or after their marriage that pertain to matters like the division of property if they split up. The specific terms of these agreements typically depend on the couple involved, and they are usually drawn up by a family law attorney.
- Child Neglect and Dependency â€“ this branch of family law involves cases where a parent has been accused of abusing or neglecting their child or children. These types of cases are often intertwined with child custody cases.
- Domestic Partnerships â€“ this branch of family law deals with the separation of individuals that were not legally married but were in an officially recognized relationship.
- Domestic Violence/Protection Orders â€“ family law attorneys that specialize in this branch of family law help victims of domestic violence get restraining orders that limit the contact their aggressors can have with them.
How Long Have You Been in Practice?
Always find out how experienced the family law attorney you wish to hire is. Although all licensed attorneys have a working knowledge of the law, it is a good idea to hire one near you that has years of experience in the branch of family law that concerns you. Experienced family law attorneys have more firsthand knowledge on matters like the negotiation tactics used by opposing attorneys, the leanings of different family court judges in the state, and the proper procedure for filing any necessary paperwork. These are all necessary to ensure that your family-related issue is resolved as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Many law firms typically have the number of years of their combined legal experience clearly stated on their websites, as well as the areas of law in which they specialize. The American Bar Association also recommends that you request a breakdown of the types of cases your attorney's practice handles. If an attorney handles a high volume of the type of family law case you are involved in, then it is very likely that the attorney is experienced in that particular practice area. Note that in many cases, the more experienced the attorney, the higher the attorney's fees.
Do You Charge Fixed or Hourly Fees?
Family law attorneys typically charge either an hourly fee or a fixed fee.
- Hourly fees - With hourly fees, your attorney bills you for the total time spent on your case. This includes every single minute and hour that the attorney spends making phone calls, sending and reading emails, reviewing documents, appearing in court, and any other activity related to your case. In many instances, you will have to pay an initial retainer from which these fees will be deducted. If your retainer is exhausted before the case is concluded, then you will have to pay another one. In most cases, it is not to your advantage to hire a family law attorney that charges hourly.
Since your attorney charges you for time spent on your case, there is usually no incentive for the attorney to get the case speedily resolved. However, in matters where you are sure that a lot of time will not be spent, then it is advisable to hire a family law attorney that charges an hourly rate. Examples include uncontested divorces and family-related matters that require just a quick review of documents. Hourly fees charged by family law attorneys typically cost an average of $150 - $400 per hour.
- Fixed fees - With fixed-fee billing, your attorney charges you a flat fee. Many times, your family law attorney will provide you a list of activities related to your case that they will have to perform and provide you an estimated cost for performing each of these tasks. An advantage of this type of billing is that it gives you a clear idea of what retaining the services of your family law attorney will cost you, thereby reducing the possibility of any billing disputes at the end of the case. Flat fees typically depend on the type of case and they can be as low as $500 or as high as $5,000.
In addition to hourly and fixed fees, some family law attorneys may also utilize other methods of billing. These include:
- Sliding-scale fees â€“ this method of billing is usually dependent on income and it is mostly used to provide legal services to low-income families. With sliding-scale fees, family law attorneys may charge you either an hourly or fixed fee that is lower than the usual rate they typically charge.
- Capped fees â€“ with capped fees, a family law attorney charges an hourly rate that is capped at a predetermined number of hours. Although this method gives you an idea of the amount of money you may have to spend on the services of your family law attorney, it still has the other disadvantages of hourly fees. It also leaves room for disappointment if your case is not resolved within the predetermined hour limit.
- Unbundled fees â€“ with this method, your family law attorney charges you a fee to perform a specific service.
Always make sure that your attorney informs you of the method of billing that will be utilized for your case. It is also a good idea to confirm a method of payment for your attorney's services. Some attorneys near you may prefer traditional methods of payment like checks, while others accept digital methods of payment like credit and debit cards.
Do You Charge for an Initial Consultation?
Whether or not you will be charged an initial consultation fee usually depends on the family law attorney near you that you intend to hire. This consultation is usually necessary to determine whether or not you and the attorney can work together on your case. Some attorneys charge an initial consultation fee to weed out individuals that are shipping for free legal advice. Also, once an attorney hears your side of a case, the attorney may no longer be ethically able to represent your opponent. This is usually the case in divorce matters. As such, the attorney may have to charge an initial consultation fee as a way to compensate for the loss of any future potential legal work, especially if you do not end up retaining this attorney's services.
Most times, your family law attorneys will inform you from the get-go whether an initial consultation will cost you or be offered free of charge. In situations where it costs you, this fee is usually a fraction of the attorney's usual rates, whether fixed or hourly.
How Do You Keep Clients Informed about Their Case?
Per the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, your attorney is ethically required to keep you reasonably informed about the status of your matter. This includes promptly informing you of any decisions or change in circumstances concerning your case, and responding to any inquiries you may have concerning it.
It is always a good idea to work out a method of communication with your family law attorney. In many cases, attorneys communicate with their clients via phone calls, emails, or text messages. Find out whether your calls and messages will be sent directly to your family law attorney, or whether they will have to be sent through an assistant or secretary. Schedule a specified time during which your attorney must provide you with updates on the status of your legal matter, whether there are any major changes or not. This can be daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on the type of case. You and your family law attorney should also have a clear understanding of what constitutes an emergency regarding your case, and who you should contact under these situations.
Who Will Actually Do the Work?
When you hire any family law attorney near you, a paralegal or a legal assistant will likely be involved in some aspects of your case. Paralegals and legal assistants are individuals that assist attorneys in performing several tasks like conducting necessary research, gathering facts and arranging evidence for a case, conducting interviews, and drafting legal documents. The specific duties of these individuals are usually determined by the law firm that hires them. Because paralegals and legal assistants are not licensed legal practitioners, they must work under the supervision of an attorney, who will be directly responsible for their activities and can be held liable for any misconduct on their part.
Always find out whether the involvement of a paralegal or a legal administrator in your case will affect your bill. Paralegals and legal administrators' rates are typically less than those of licensed attorneys and some law firms bill for their time separately.
Can You Provide References from Former Clients?
Any family law attorney that you intend to hire should be able to provide you with a list of references, including details of clients near you. This assures you that the attorney has a good reputation and can be trusted to properly represent you. Any family law attorney that cannot provide you with a list of references should have a good reason for not being able to do so. An example of this is if your attorney was very recently licensed and has not personally handled any cases before yours.
Contact any references that you are provided with and get their opinions on the attorney. It is a good idea to have a list of questions and concerns that you may have ready before contacting these individuals. Many family law attorneys have webpages dedicated to client reviews and testimonials available on the websites of their law firms. You can also get unbiased information on your family law attorney online through websites like Better Business Bureau. It is also a good idea to contact your state's bar association to find out whether there are complaints or disciplinary actions filed against your attorney.
What Is Your Success Rate?
This question lets you know the chances of your legal matter being resolved in your favor. The definition of success regarding a family-related legal matter typically depends on the type of case and the parties involved. For example, success in a divorce case can mean having to pay the least amount possible in spousal and child support or it can mean getting a settlement that is fair to everyone involved. Let your family law attorney know the outcome that you hope to achieve from the case, and find out how many times this attorney has achieved a similar outcome.
You can verify your attorney's claims by requesting a list of references and contacting these former clients. Family law attorneys usually work locally, so you can also find out the courthouse where most of the cases your attorney is involved in are filed. Contact this court and request copies of court records that involve your family law attorney. Note that although court records are usually public records, the requirements for accessing these records vary by courthouse. These records can give you an idea of the outcomes that your family law attorney achieves in cases, and whether they are in line with what your attorney has told you so far.
When Should I Hire a Family Law Attorney?
Even though it is not mandatory for you to hire a family law attorney when you have a family-related legal matter, it is always in your best interest to do so. Family law can be quite complicated and hiring an experienced family law attorney near you helps you expertly navigate these waters, from filing the proper documents to protecting you from potential strong-arming and bullying by the other party. Some instances where you need to strongly consider hiring a family law attorney to help you handle a legal matter include:
- The matter involves children
- Your spouse or any other party involved has already hired an attorney
- There has been domestic abuse or the threat of domestic abuse
- The matter involves complicated financial issues like contested prenuptial and postnuptial agreements or assets that you accumulated before marriage
Note that even if you have begun a family-related legal process without a family law attorney, you can hire one at any time during the matter.
What Are the Typical Qualifications Held by a Family Law Attorney?
Individuals that wish to become family law attorneys are required to complete four years of undergraduate study and three years of law school, usually in an American Bar Association-approved law school. After graduating from law school, these individuals must pass a bar exam administered by the bar association of the state where they intend to practice. Note that the requirements for these bar exams vary by state. As such, family law attorneys that wish to practice in multiple states are usually required to take the bar exam in each of these states.
In addition to these educational requirements, family law attorneys are also expected to be able to manage emotionally-charged situations and have good interpersonal skills.