1/13/2016

The Flat Fee Divorce: Don't Be PennyWise and Pound Foolish

Divorce Attorneys

It is a difficult decision to permanently end a marriage, whether it was a one year marriage or a thirty year marriage.  One of the chief concerns is how expensive it will be.  With that in mind, a common question that family law attorneys here is, “is it possible to get divorced for a flat fee?”  With very rare (and deceiving) exceptions, the answer is NO.

Exception #1:  They do the easy stuff, you do the hard stuff.

Some attorneys will provide flat fee divorces but will only perform a certain “scope of work.”  If you decide to go this route, make sure you are aware of the scope of work that will be performed prior to retaining that firm’s services.  If an issue turns up in your case that is outside the “scope of work,” the attorney you hired for a flat fee will not address those issues.

A typical example is the “flat fee divorce” where the law firm will only do the “uncontested divorce.”   This means that the attorney will file your original Complaint for Divorce and/or attend the uncontested divorce proceeding with you.  This assumes you already have a signed divorce agreement.

An uncontested divorce is the most common way to obtain a divorce in New Jersey.  Only a very small percentage of divorces actually go to trial.  However, uncontested divorces occur after the parties spend a significant amount of time outside of Court settling all issues in their case, and will usually have a signed agreement that is incorporated into their Judgment of Divorce which addresses all issues in your case.

Such uncontested divorces are only for cases where there is no dispute on any issue.  Typically, but not always, when a person files for divorce, there are many issues that need to be addressed and resolved prior to obtaining a divorce.  The possible issues include alimony, child custody, child support, equitable distribution.  Many times, these are highly contested issues.  The “flat fee divorce” will not help you address them.    

For good reason, Ruvolo Law Group, LLC does not endorse a “Flat Fee Uncontested Divorce.”  In such flat fee divorces, the parties involved have not had the benefit of obtaining legal advice prior to entering into their divorce agreement.  The most important part of a divorce is ensuring that the parties have entered into an agreement that is fair, voluntary and with the benefit of knowing the legal rights afforded to them.  The flat fee divorce does not provide for this. 

Moreover, the hardest part of the divorce is reaching an agreement.  In many cases, after that is done, the parties can contact the court to determine the necessary forms they must file to get a final divorce judgment (the legal document formally divorcing you).  Why would you pay someone to do the easy stuff, leaving you to do all the hard work?

Exception #2:  The Deceiving Billboard

Another question that family law attorneys are often asked is to explain the billboards that say:  “Get Divorced for $399.  Your spouse’s signature is NOT needed.”  These billboards are very misleading. 

The companies offering these deals are considered a “non-lawyer filing and typing service.”  They are not practicing attorneys.  They do not provide legal advice.  All they do is fill out the court forms for you.  You are responsible for making sure the information contained within the forms is accurate.  Your spouse’s signature is “not needed” because you are only filing your Complaint for Divorce.  Your spouse then has an opportunity to file their own Answer and/or Counterclaim.  If your spouse does not respond to the Complaint, you then have to deal with the court to try to get a default.  If your spouse does respond, you still have to negotiate and draft a proper divorce agreement without any legal advice. 

Exception #3:  The Unethical Attorney

Attorneys are required to comply with rules of ethics (believe it or not).  An attorney’s failure to do so may result in, among other things, the lawyer paying monetary sanctions or losing his/her law license.  One of these ethical rules is that a lawyer’s fee must be “reasonable.”  Moreover, in family law matters, a lawyer is not permitted to enter into a fee arrangement with a client where the payment or amount charged is contingent on the attorney securing the client a divorce. 

With that said, it is considered ethically “unreasonable” for an attorney to charge a flat fee for a divorce, where the attorney’s hourly billable services and the costs charged total less than the flat fee charged.  It is also unethical for an family law attorney to charge a client a flat fee based on getting that client a certain deal, even if it’s as basic as getting that client divorced. 

Knowing that, why would you retain and trust an attorney who is acting unethically?  You should think twice before putting you and your children’s future in the hands of an unethical attorney.

Getting a divorce is emotional and stressful.  You want to make sure you have an attorney who is qualified and capable of addressing every issue in your case.   You want to make sure you have entered into a divorce agreement knowing what your options are and what rights you have.  You want to limit your risk and avoid any regrets because once it is final, it is very difficult to revise the terms of the divorce. 

Don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish.  At Ruvolo Law Group, all of our attorneys focus their practices solely on family and matrimonial matters and are dedicated to settling your case in the timeliest and cost efficient manner.

Blog authored by Michelle A. Levin and Melissa M. Ruvolo, Esq.