It’s a common complaint. Attorneys are too expensive. What are all these fees for anyway? Shouldn’t this process be more affordable?
We’re not going to hide this: hiring an attorney to represent you in a custody trial is a costly endeavor. Good attorneys are not cheap. And the good ones will tell you that they are worth it. Most of the time they are, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s expensive to fight custody in court with an attorney by your side.
Any custody battle is expensive, but a custody case involving a relocation is even more so. If some or all of the evidence may be in a state other than where the case will be heard, the fees can increase almost exponentially for a variety of reasons.
What Are the Typical Costs in a Custody Trial? How Do They Differ in Relocation Cases?
As with most legal trials, the costs can pile up. The following are common tasks your lawyer may need to do, each of which will add to your costs:
- preparing and responding to pleadings,
- drafting interrogatories,
- preparing requests for admissions,
- requesting production of documents,
- preparing for and conducting depositions,
- creating and filing subpoenas,
- preparing exhibits for trial,
- preparing witnesses for trial,
- consulting with and preparing expert witnesses, such as doctors, and
- preparing legal arguments.
Discovery is typically the most expensive trial cost. Discovery is the gathering of information to prepare your case for trial. Many of the tasks above relate to discovery methods in North Carolina.
The costs vary in each case, as every item above is not necessary in every case. It depends on what facts must be established and what methods are most effective for proving those facts.
Let’s go through each of these items and examine how these costs may or may not increase in a relocation matter.
For any court case to begin, one party must file a lawsuit with the necessary allegations to start the ball rolling for a claim of custody. In a relocation matter, the pleading typically filed is the motion to modify an existing custody order. Also, complaints, answers, and responses are all types of pleadings that may need to be filed.
Pleadings in North Carolina are usually straightforward. They simply give a general outline of a party’s contentions. Pleadings do not have to be pages and pages long.
Each party pays his or her own attorney to either prepare or respond to the other party’s pleadings. Pleadings must be accurate, as the parties sign their pleadings under oath, asserting that their statements are true. Pleadings are a necessary part of all court matters, but they are not usually the most expensive part of your case.
This cost would not necessarily increase for relocation cases.
Interrogatories are a useful discovery tool that allows parties to obtain baseline information such as past addresses, birthdates, past employers, and employer addresses. They are simply a set of questions that your attorney prepares and mails to opposing counsel. The other party has to answer all of those questions.
In North Carolina, you are limited to 50 interrogatories, restricting how much information you can gain by sending them. In most cases, you will get more information from a deposition than you will from interrogatories.
The answers to the interrogatories must be signed and verified, just like pleadings.
Interrogatories would not be more expensive in a relocation case.
Requests for Admissions
Requests for admissions, like interrogatories, are written questions mailed to the opposing counsel for the opposing party to answer. They ask the other party whether they admit to certain facts. For example, you might ask, “Do you admit or deny that you had an affair with your neighbor?” Unlike interrogatories, though, there is no limit to requests for admissions. You can send as many as you like.
You typically don’t gain a tremendous amount of information from requests for admissions, because they are yes-no questions. However, they do force the opposing party to answer difficult questions or explain why they won’t answer, which can be helpful.
If a party does not answer requests for admissions within the time frame allotted under the court’s rules of civil procedure, then they are deemed to have admitted every allegation. If you had asked the question above in an alimony dispute, an admission would be quite useful. Requests for admissions are always worth doing in case the opposing party misses the deadline. It doesn’t happen often, but attorneys—and more importantly, their clients—get lucky every now and then.
This cost mostly depends on the number of requests sent. Some attorneys use this discovery tool to bombard the other side, since numerous questions can take time to evaluate and answer. Writing or responding to extensive requests for admissions can drive up costs.
This cost would not be higher in a relocation case.
Requests for Production of Documents
A request to produce documents is very common in most family law cases. This discovery tool allows you to request any documents that you believe may have information pertinent to your case. If the opposing party has those documents, and if they contain relevant information, your opponent must produce them for you to review.
The primary expense associated with requesting and producing documents is the time needed for your attorney and his or her staff to review those documents and identify information that is pertinent to your case.
This would not be more expensive in a relocation case.
At a deposition, a witness testifies under oath and answers questions from one or more attorneys. Depositions take place outside of court, but they are typically recorded. The video or transcript may be used later in court. The usual costs of depositions include time for the attorneys to ask questions and time for the court reporter to record or transcribe the questions and answers.
If an important witness resides in the state you would like to move to and you need to depose this person, expect that it will cost more than a typical in-state deposition. In most cases, an out-of-state witness could not be compelled to come to North Carolina for a North Carolina case. The deposition must be conducted in his or her state. You’ll have to follow the appropriate rules for out-of-state depositions.
Your in-state attorney may need to engage an out-of-state attorney, someone local to the witness, to conduct the deposition. This would drive up costs because you are employing another attorney. In the alternative, your attorney could travel to the state where the witness resides and take the deposition directly. This too could prove costly.
So, for example, a single in-state deposition can easily cost more than $2,000 when you factor in your attorney’s time and the costs of the court reporter. Now, add out-of-state travel expenses or employing an attorney in another state, and you’ve easily doubled your costs.
This cost could double for a relocation case. To keep your costs from skyrocketing, you will want to depose only the witnesses you truly need to prove your case.
Subpoenas are used to compel persons to appear in court or at a deposition or to produce documents. The average cost to serve a subpoena in North Carolina is less than $200.
To serve a subpoena to an out-of-state person or entity would likely be several hundred dollars because you’ll have to follow additional processes. You would probably engage an attorney in the state where the subpoena is to be served to assist you with serving the subpoena according to the laws of that state.
Subpoenas will cost more in a relocation case, but your attorney would probably not send many out-of-state subpoenas unless they were truly necessary.
Preparation of Exhibits for Trial
Exhibits can be anything that you want the judge to look at or consider during your trial other than live testimony. Exhibits that might be used in a custody trial include the following:
- pictures of the home where the child will live, including the child’s bedroom;
- copies of the child’s report cards, if any;
- custodial evaluations, if any were performed;
- deposition transcripts for out-of-state witnesses;
- text messages sent between parties;
- emails sent between parties; and
- Facebook and other social media postings that were legally obtained.
The attorneys offer exhibits for the court’s consideration. The judge ultimately decides which exhibits to admit into evidence.
You’ll incur costs as your attorney and his or her staff obtain, prepare, and label exhibits for trial. These costs include making copies of exhibits to distribute to the judge and to opposing counsel. Most attorneys will assemble an exhibit notebook to ensure that each exhibit is presented to the court at the right time and none is overlooked as the trial progresses. Court can be fast moving, so your attorney must be prepared and keep track of your exhibits.
For the most part, this cost would not be any higher in a relocation case than in any other case.
Witness preparation is critical in every type of case. Your attorney needs to know, as well as can be known, what testimony your witnesses will give. There is always a measure of unpredictability with witnesses, because you cannot know for certain what questions the opposing counsel may ask the witness.
Your attorney’s goal in preparation is to ask potential witnesses as many questions as possible so you know how they will help—or hurt—your case. This takes time, and time costs money.
If you’re calling witnesses at trial to testify on your behalf, it’s because you believe their testimony will benefit you. In reality, if your witnesses are coming from out of state, they are coming voluntarily, because they want to help you. You would therefore not incur any additional costs associated with their appearance in court.
The cost of witness preparation in a relocation case should be similar to the cost in any other case.
Expert Witness Consultation and Preparation
If you need experts to testify in your case, your costs will go up. First, you have to pay the expert witness for his or her time in court. You also must prepare that expert ahead of time to be sure your attorney fully understands the expert’s testimony and its impact on your case. In many cases, the opposing party will also want to depose your expert witness before the trial. Once your opponent gets a sense of what your expert might say, he or she may then seek out another expert to counter that opinion. All of these appearances take time and cost money.
Let’s consider an example. Say that your son has bad asthma. You take him to a doctor you know well and trust completely. Your ex-husband doesn’t know that doctor and believes that you are exaggerating your son’s condition. He contests the issue because your son’s medicine and treatments cost at least a few hundred dollars each month. Your ex-husband decides to take your child to another doctor for a second opinion.
Not only did you have to depose your own doctor, but now you may also have to depose the new doctor. Your husband also wants to depose your doctor. You’ve gone from one doctor to two and doubled the deposition costs. See how quickly your costs can increase?
In good news, you generally won’t use experts in custody cases. They’re only necessary in certain circumstances.
But say, for example, that you’ve relocated to another state with your asthmatic son. Your doctor is in the state where you want to move rather than the state of your trial. Your expert costs can easily double again because of the distance.
If your relocation case demands an expert witness, expect a significant cost increase.
Legal Argument Preparation
Your witnesses aren’t the only ones who have to be prepared for trial! Your attorney will also need to invest time in preparing the arguments he or she will use in court. Remember that each case is different—your attorney will want to take enough time to assess your case and develop its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.
This doesn’t cost more for a relocation case than for any other case, although more complicated cases tend to be more expensive.
So How Much More Does a Relocation Case Cost?
Depending on the case, your costs could increase exponentially or not much at all.
In many cases, much of the evidence will be testimony from the parties. You may not need any depositions or subpoenas.
For example, a recent relocation case we handled in Orange County, North Carolina, cost the same as a standard custody case with no relocation issues. No depositions were needed to prepare this particular case, and there were only a few subpoenas. There were no out-of-state witnesses. The case testimony was primarily from the parties themselves and a few relatives.
Keep in mind that it is impossible to accurately predict the total costs of any custody case; they all have the potential for unexpected twists and turns that can suddenly complicate matters. For example, you thought your ex was a fairly good dad until a friend told you that he now abuses prescription pills. You and your attorney believe you must make a motion to the court for a hair follicle drug test, followed by random drug screens for at least a few months if the follicle test is positive. That motion was not a cost that you anticipated at the outset. This is just one example of how costs in custody cases can increase quickly and without warning.
What Can You Do to Control Costs?
Good news: there are several things you can do to keep your costs down in your case. The common theme is that you want to help your attorney help you!
KEEP NOTES AND BE ORGANIZED
Keeping a thorough calendar and a notebook documenting day-to-day events related to your custody case is very helpful to your attorney. It can also help you remember important information as time passes.
Ask your attorney whether he or she prefers any particular format for your notes or whether there is a calendar that he or she finds especially useful.
When you meet with your attorney, bring all of your notes and papers. Have them organized and make sure they are easy to read so that your attorney doesn’t have to spend a lot of time interpreting your scribbled notes. Highlight important points to quickly draw attention to them.
Instead of calling your attorney five times in one day because new ideas keep popping into your head, write down each question or issue as it comes up and make one call. Of course, if it’s an emergency, call right away. But for day-to-day events and questions, keep a running list and call once to save your attorney’s time and your money. Alternatively, your attorney might prefer that you send one concise email.
Realize that custody cases are usually emotionally and physically draining. You are not the first person to experience a flood of emotions and thoughts. You may feel compelled to call or email your attorney each time your emotions kick in. While this is normal, just remember that your costs will add up if you call several times a day. Consolidating your questions in one call or email is a favor you can do for yourself.
From time to time, you may need to meet with your attorney to discuss events. Sometimes a call or email just won’t suffice. If you schedule a meeting, come prepared to discuss the issues coherently and in a logical order.
ORGANIZE YOUR PRINTED DOCUMENTS
Many custody cases include voluminous emails, Facebook posts, bank records, and so forth. When you provide these to your attorney, don’t simply throw the whole disorganized pile in a box and hope he or she can make some sense of it.
Yes, it’s tedious and unpleasant to sort through the papers that document the demise of your relationship. But if you make your attorney organize them, you’ll be the one paying for it.
DO THE LEGWORK WHEN YOU CAN
Say, for example, that you want a subpoena served on your ex’s aunt to have her testify on your behalf at trial. Instead of making your attorney search for the address, do the legwork yourself. Find out and provide the aunt’s complete legal name and her address if possible. There may not be much you can assist with in certain cases, but if you can help, do it!
DON’T HIDE INFORMATION FROM YOUR LAWYER
Custody cases often involve embarrassing information. It’s just the nature of the beast. Personal information that you’d rather keep private always gets thrown in the mix. Some of it is relevant, but some of it isn’t.
Tell your attorney anything you feel might be relevant to your case. Answer all questions truthfully, even when you don’t like your own answers. Hiding information that could come out later will not help you. Not only can it increase your costs, but it might also cause you to lose your case completely.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
In most relocation cases, only one party wants to move, and no one has actually left town yet. Much of the evidence may revolve around the party who is trying to move away. That parent will have to testify about all the benefits that the move would produce for the child, such as better schools, a safer neighborhood, more access to family, and so forth. Alternatively, the party contesting the move might discuss all the benefits the child has in the current state and how a move would strip those advantages away while reducing time with that parent.
In that common situation, a relocation case will not cost any more than any other custody case. Of course, as we have said many times before, every case is different, and your costs will depend on the facts of your particular case.