What to Do When Your Lawyer Takes Your Settlement Money

Understanding who will be responsible for covering the legal costs associated with divorce proceedings is an important consideration when initiating the dissolution of a marriage. Given that the average total cost of a divorce often exceeds $15,000 per person when factoring in attorney fees, court costs, and more, being aware of the financial implications is vital.

This article will provide an in-depth look at the complex issue of who pays for divorce lawyers and how legal fees are handled during the divorce process. We’ll examine the general rule that each party pays their own way, as well as notable exceptions where one spouse may be required to cover all or some of the other spouse’s attorney fees. You’ll also learn about proactive strategies for reducing costs and gain insight into how courts determine fee awards.

Overview of Divorce Lawyer Fees

Hiring a divorce attorney to represent you during proceedings can be expensive. Most divorce lawyers charge an upfront retainer fee that serves as a deposit, combined with hourly billing for all work performed. Rates typically range from $200-$500+ per hour based on experience, location, complexity of your case, and other factors. The more contested the issues, the higher the costs will likely be overall.

Elements that often increase the total expense of the divorce process itself include asset division, child custody disputes, alimony negotiations, and obtaining experts like accountants. Understanding the potential costs involved allows you to plan and budget accordingly.

General Rule – Each Party Pays Their Own Fees

The default procedure in most states is that each party is responsible for paying their own attorney fees during a divorce. The costs for hiring legal counsel are treated as individual expenditures by those going through the proceedings.

In addition to attorney fees, the filing costs and court fees associated with the divorce paperwork and proceedings will also typically be paid independently by each party. However, individuals who meet low income requirements may qualify for fee waivers or reductions.

Exceptions – Ordering One Spouse to Pay Fees

While the standard protocol is separate payment of attorney fees, there are specific situations where the court may order one spouse to pay or contribute to the other spouse’s legal costs to ensure fair proceedings. These exceptions include needs-based awards and sanctions due to misconduct.

Needs-Based Fee Awards

If one spouse is considered a dependent who relied on the other for financial support during marriage, courts may order the moneyed spouse to pay legal costs. Criteria like income disparity, limited access to marital funds, and inability to pay without hardship may qualify a spouse for needs-based assistance for legal fees from the other party.

For example, a stay-at-home parent reentering the workforce may be granted an award of attorney fees from the primary breadwinning spouse in order to equitably access representation.

Conduct-Based Fee Awards

The court can also order one spouse to pay the other spouse’s legal fees as a penalty for egregious misconduct during proceedings. Actions like hiding assets, purposely delaying the case, disregarding court orders, or displaying unreasonable inflexibility may warrant sanctions in the form of paying the other party’s attorney fees.

This conduct-based award aims to deter and penalize unacceptable behavior that unnecessarily increases the costs for the other spouse. For instance, falsifying financial documents may force lengthy investigations and hearings, so the offender may have to cover those costs.

Petitioning the Court for Fee Awards

If you wish to petition the court to have your spouse pay your attorney fees based on financial need or misconduct, it’s strategic to request it early in the process. The longer the case drags on, the harder it becomes to recoup costs already paid to your lawyer. Presenting evidence of need or bad behavior from the outset can proactively award fees.

Making an official request or motion for one party to pay the other party’s divorce lawyer fees is typically straightforward. However, navigating the particular state laws and processes can be complex, so having an experienced family law attorney guide you is recommended.

Reducing Divorce Attorney Fees

Some proactive steps available to help minimize attorney fees and control costs include:

  • Opting for an uncontested or no-fault divorce if possible since there are fewer issues to resolve.
  • Considering a collaborative divorce process using cooperative mediators instead of litigated proceedings.
  • Being organized and prepared with all documentation needed to avoid delays or repeat work.
  • Minimizing attorney interactions for simple inquiries that waste billable time.
  • Making reasonable settlement offers instead of pursuing aggressive unrealistic outcomes.
  • Avoiding excessive use of attorneys for matters better addressed directly or in mediation.
  • Seeking regular invoice reviews and updates to enable budget adjustments as needed.

While not always viable, pursuing lower-conflict options can significantly reduce legal expenses if both parties are cooperative and realistic. However, complex cases involving child custody, business ownership, or dishonesty may necessitate greater attorney involvement.

Reducing Divorce Attorney Fees

What Courts Consider When Awarding Fees

Judges aim to ensure both parties can meaningfully participate in the legal process when determining if one spouse should pay the divorce lawyer fees for the other. Key criteria include:

  • Income disparity and ability to pay the cost of legal representation.
  • Likely merits and settlement projections to gauge if one party is being unreasonable.
  • Misconduct during proceedings that unfairly drives up costs through obstruction or dishonesty.
  • Comparative levels of success related to requests and outcomes achieved.
  • Complexity of the divorce and issues involved that necessitate greater legal advocacy.

The court’s goal is to facilitate equal access to justice. So findings of excessive need imbalance or bad faith misconduct may warrant ordering one party to cover the other’s attorney’s fees.

Alternatives If You Can’t Afford Fees

If neither spouse can afford the significant costs of legal representation, alternatives do exist, including:

  • Finding a lawyer willing to provide limited-scope representation only for specific tasks needed.
  • Contacting legal aid organizations that offer free or low-cost divorce services for those who qualify.
  • Using court-appointed attorneys or volunteer lawyer programs available in some jurisdictions.
  • Requesting fee waivers from the court for filing costs and fees involved.
  • Considering arbitration, mediation, or collaborative divorce options led by neutral trained professionals.
  • Handling portions of the divorce independently through comprehensive legal guides and resources.
  • Asking an experienced family law attorney about payment plans or deferred fee arrangements.

While cost prohibitions can be challenging, options exist to secure helpful legal advice and services based on limited budgets and eligibility.

How Attorney Fees Are Calculated

Beyond the actual attorney fees billed, covering the divorce process also involves expenses like:

  • Filing fees to initiate a divorce case, which range from $100-$500 typically.
  • Process serving fees to formally deliver divorce papers to a spouse, ranging from $50-$200 on average.
  • Court appearance fees if hearings and trials require participation, around $100-$300 per appearance generally.
  • Fees for consultants like financial experts, psychologists, business valuators. etc., which can exceed $10,000 in some cases.
  • Costs associated with child custody evaluators, co-parenting classes, and guardians.
  • Charges for forensic accountants needed to appraise, track, and divide assets.

These common divorce-related costs demonstrate how the financial picture expands beyond just the hourly divorce lawyer fees billed. Understanding the full scope is prudent when budgeting wisely.

Avoiding Payment of Your Spouse’s Fees

To avoid getting ordered by the court to pay all or some of your spouse’s attorney fees, key advice includes:

  • Being honest and transparent with all documentation and disclosures instead of prolonging or obstructing the case.
  • Making good faith efforts to negotiate and compromise instead of taking unreasonable positions that drive up costs.
  • Avoiding unnecessary motions and hearings that waist time and money arguing trivial points.
  • Participating cooperatively in mediation and settlement proceedings and conferences.
  • Refraining from actions taken solely to inflict financial pressure like hiding funds, cancelling benefits or insurance, etc.

Fundamentally, maintaining reasonableness and taking the high road during the divorce process will help minimize the chances of a punitive order to pay the other party’s legal fees.


Divorce can be an extremely expensive legal process, so gaining familiarity with common practices surrounding attorney fee payment is imperative. While each spouse typically pays their own way, unique needs and misconduct can warrant orders to pay for the other’s representation. Weighing fee reduction strategies, affordable alternatives, and prudent negotiations against potential sanctions empowers you to control costs during a divorce. Remember to consult experienced local divorce counsel to understand state-specific laws and processes around legal fees. With proper planning and advice, you can budget wisely and avoid unwelcome surprises as you dissolve your marriage.