According to the Missouri Bar, you're liable for your attorney’s fees whether you like the result your divorce lawyer gets for you or not. Your legal costs can skyrocket if you find yourself in the middle of a bitter divorce fight, and if you go to trial because you and your spouse can’t reach a settlement, a judge makes the ultimate decisions regarding custody, property and support. The overall cost of a divorce in Missouri is usually commensurate with how quickly and easily spouses can agree on the terms of the divorce.
According to Lawyers.com, the average hourly rate for an American attorney is $284 as of 2011. It’s slightly less in the Midwest: an average of $264 per hour. Generally, a solo practitioner or a lawyer with few partners charges less than a lawyer practicing with a large firm. It's illegal for divorce lawyers to work on a contingency basis. They usually require a retainer agreement and bill their time against your retainer fee, or down payment, in either six-minute or 15-minute intervals. A complex divorce involving pretrial motions can require 100 hours or more of your attorney’s time. At $264 per hour, that’s more than $26,000.
Very few lawyers pay the costs of your case out of your retainer fee. They generally treat the retainer as their money, earned in increments as they perform work for you, and ask you to pay filing and service fees separately. According to DivorceNet.com, the filing fee for a dissolution of marriage petition in St. Louis County was $225 as of 2011. You may also have to pay the sheriff to serve your divorce papers on your spouse, an average cost of about $25.
In divorces where a great deal of property is at stake or custody is an issue, your attorney may want to enlist the aid of experts. For instance, she might want a custody evaluation, which can cost several thousand dollars as of 2011, according to the Law Offices of Carla J. Zolman in St. Louis. She might also want real estate appraisals, which Adams Realty in Centralia indicates can run from $200 to $300 for each property. You have to pay these costs, too, over and above your attorney’s fees.
If you don’t have $30,000 or more to pay for a divorce, Missouri offers free legal aid if your income is low enough to qualify. If your divorce is uncontested, certain lawyers may charge a flat fee rather than by the hour, ranging from $350 to $1,500 in Missouri. If your divorce is contested, however, expect to pay more.
If you do pay your attorney on a retainer basis, keep note of the time you spend with him on the phone, in person and in court, then compare it against your monthly bill. If you speak to him on the phone for 15 minutes, he should bill you at most for 18 minutes of his time, if he bills in six-minute increments; lawyers always round their time up to the next increment. If you find a discrepancy between the actual time and what he has billed you for, especially if it happens more than once, talk to him about your concerns before the cost of your divorce gets out of control. For court appearances, certain lawyers charge you for their travel time to the courthouse. This is normal — not a sign that you're being charged too much.
- Missouri-Divorce.net; Uncontested Missouri Divorce Low Flat Fee; 2009
- Laywers.com; How and How Much Do Lawyers Charge?; 2011
- Attorneys.com; How Much Does a St. Louis Divorce Lawyer Charge?; 2011
- ReliableDivorce.com; Information on Filing for Divorce in Missouri; 2011
- DivorceNet.com; Domestic Relations General Information; 2011
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.