The Cost of My Child Custody Case

Last year when my ex sued me for child custody, it was like my psyche was hit by a truck. My mind created all of these nightmare scenarios of having our children removed from my primary care; of them being used as pawns through which he would control me forever. Instinctively I knew that I would fight tooth and nail for that not to happen. But I had understanding, at all, about what that would cost me financially.

At first, it was not on my radar to hire an attorney. I responded to the initial docket schedule and remitted whatever paperwork that I needed…and showed up to court whenever I needed (which is something that me ex strangely failed to do, and he had an attorney). I arranged for some free consultations…and even set up an appointment with legal aid. But I ran into roadblocks with both of these methods quite quickly.

1. Free Consultations

I was desperate, and to be truthful I wanted to hear as much good news as I could. I probably spoke to at least 5 attorneys for free and even paid $300 for a ‘paid’ consultation with 1 attorney (looking back, she did give me more insight then the others did for free, but it was not $300 worth of insight).

So understand, a ‘free consultation’ is many times a sales call, with the intention to convert you to a paying client. This isn’t all bad – I mean they will not necessarily be lying to you. But they also are not going to dip too far into the details either, and accentuate the positive in that first 30 minute conversation.

Free legal consultations are used as a tool to get your business. That doesn’t make them worthless, but keep this in mind – always. Ask questions that will make the consultation worthwhile.

That doesn’t mean that these free consultations are not worthwhile. On one of them, the attorney even pointed out, early on, the obvious mis-steps made by my ex and his attorney. But some also gave me downright incorrect information (like one woman who advised me that since I was an unmarried mother with no custody agreement, I could relocate with no issues).

I had to learn through trial and error, what questions to ask on free consultations. In the end, they were:

  • (If the suit has already been filed) Did you take a look at the docket on file with the court? What is your general assessment of the situation?
  • Do you need a retainer or do you charge an hourly rate? How much do you charge to just file paperwork? How much do you charge to appear in court?
  • Do you have a history of working with either my ex’s attorney or the judge assigned to the case?
  • Do I have to come into your office? If so, how often and when?

Personally I didn’t find it worthwhile to ask if they’ve ever worked on a case like mine or how many cases they’ve ‘won’. Family court doesn’t work like any other court and no one really ‘wins’ — it’s rather you deal with different degrees of compromise.

2. What About Legal Aid?

All I can speak about is my experience — and quite frankly, it was not good. First and foremost, due to my income, I did not qualify for completely free representation. What I did qualify for was to be set up with students from the local law school to assist on my case (what was called a ‘legal clinic’). The hours of availability were very narrow as well….in that the legal clinic closed at 3pm every day.

To me, the process wasn’t very clear at all in that I wondered if I did need some sort of representation in court, how would that be arranged (even if I had to pay)? I really could not get any more additional clarification outside of what they gave you in printed materials. The director’s ongoing response to me over and over again was, “We can’t advise you on your case. You would have to open a file with us and then we could tell you.”

I grew up watching “The Young & The Restless”. I thought I would be getting Christine Blair in the legal aid office. But nope – far from it. I utilized legal aid for my PFA, and that was a heartbreaking result (I withdrew it). And they were marginally available for my child custody case. So they dropped off my list as a resource pretty early on. 🙁

Anyway for me, it seemed to be more trouble then it was worth. And I sure didn’t want to take time off of work, only to have them do paperwork on my behalf.

Which leads to my next topic….

3. What About Going About it Yourself?

Well, in all honesty, my response to that is:

Ok, so I don’t mean to insult your capabilities or anything, but seriously, it is not what it seems. On all of the paperwork and brochures from the court, they give you instructions of what to do if you want to represent yourself. And I guess that would work if:

  • The other party in the child custody suit is AWOL or for sure won’t do anything to fight the proceedings.
  • You are currently (or maybe were) a family law attorney

And boom – that’s it. Anyone else, you’re going to need a lawyer in my corner. I started out trying to go at it alone. I filed my relocation petition – which ended up having the wrong plaintiff and defendant on file because my ex’s paperwork got filed before mine. My ex got a BS emergency petition for custody filed and approved since I had no notification of the court date. Once that happened, I knew I needed help.

Fighting for Custody – Broke Single Mama Style

So I knew I could not produce a $2,000+ retainer; not without putting the well-being of myself and the boys in peril. I reached out to National Family Solutions, and they were fantastic. They were very honest with me, and said if I wanted my dollars to go the furthers, get a local attorney from off of Thumbtack or Avvo, and pay them hourly.

I ended up going with an attorney I found on Thumbtack. He never gave me his hourly rate exactly, but rather would identify what had to be done, and give me a price. I contacted him after my ex got his ridiculous 50/50 custody motion on file, and then his attorney called me a month later to threaten me with contempt of court because I hadn’t abided with it (actually, I knew about the motion, and reached out to my ex 3 times in order to work out the details, given we lived 200 miles apart, but he never responded so I gave up).

His initial charge to sort that out (which included talking to the other attorney): $300.

Over the course of a year (the initial child custody suit was filed in March 2019, the custody trial was on February 2020), I spent $2400 on legal fees. This includes the $800 base fee for the trial that my attorney charged. I walked away on the very, very cheap end of things (given the current averages out there for child custody cases). But here’s what came into play regarding my final costs:

  • The children were very young – 2 years old and 3 years old respectively. So no need for counselors or assessments or any input from them (so no Guardian Ad Litem needed)
  • My ex flaked out. He missed court dates and deadlines throughout the duration. By the time of the trial, he had no input (because he didn’t show up to court) and his attorney withdrew.
  • I didn’t file the suit, so I didn’t have to pay the $300 fee to start the case (which is the fee in Allegheny County – Pennsylvania)
Ugh – Allegheny County Courthouse – home of tons of stress, anxiety and heartbreak for me. Good riddance!

Ok, so there it is — my real life experience. Thank God for tax returns and the fact that I had one to pay for my trial when it popped up in February {applause}. But my heart goes out to anyone in a contested custody battle. It really is a hell on Earth type of experience. It can be a money pit. If you are the poorer party in the battle, you have the very real risk of bowing out due to just running out of money (that ‘may’ have been what happened to my ex, who knows). Best piece of advice I can give to save you money: Settle it out of court. Work out a parenting schedule and plan; then file it with the court. It will save everyone thousands upon thousands of dollars in the end.