Worried About How Much It Costs to Get a Divorce?
Here’s A Lawyer That Wants to Help Control Your Expenses
Meaghan Carey is a divorce attorney in New York City, practicing at O’Reilly Stoutenburg and Richards LLP. Meaghan offers a range of legal services in family law from full litigation to consultation during divorce mediation. Meaghan is known for her practical and efficient approach to advocacy.
Meaghan was interviewed by Divorceify Co-founder, Casey Shevin.
Casey Shevin: Divorce is a huge expense that is incurred during a time of financial insecurity. How does that inform the work you do for your clients?
Meaghan Carey: I try to sit with my clients very early on – sometimes even in our first meeting – and go through what a reasonable financial outcome of divorce could be, and what the worst-case outcome could be. I find that people do want to hear about the worst-case scenario because even though it’s terrible, the worst is not unknown anymore. I can’t know for sure what the absolute worst could be, but I can give a pretty good estimate. A scary known is something we can work against, and that’s easier than dealing with the unknown.
Shevin: Do you try to give your clients a landscape of the possible outcomes?
Carey: It’s really important that my clients give me a complete picture of their finances before I can give them an idea of the possible outcomes. Divorce lawyers get a lot of questions at cocktail parties and I find that when asking for my advice most people give me some information, but they keep an important piece of information to themselves and that can really change the outcome. Having a really good knowledge of the finances is very important.
For example, if a client were to say to me ‘I earn $100,000 a year and my husband earns $250,000 per year’, then that’s one conversation. But if the full picture is that they did earn $100,000 last year, but they had stayed home with a new baby most of the year and gone back to work in September – well you actually earned $100,000 in four months and that’s a very different financial analysis for me to make.
Being forthright about things, being comfortable enough with your attorney to tell them the truth is SO important.
Shevin: One of the reasons clients like working with you is you are honest and explain things very well. What are some of the most common misconceptions that you have to dispel when clients first come to you?
Carey: I find clients that frequently work with attorneys in other areas of their life can be a challenge. Because yes, a marriage is a contract and you are governed by the same rules and regulations that govern contracts in other areas, but it is also an intimate, familial relationship and the same rules don’t apply in the same way.
I have no problem being really aggressive when I need to be but being aggressive just for the sake of it is not going to get you what you want. You need to think about being strategic with aggression because you don’t want to come off as a big bully when you also have to continue to raise a child with the person you are negotiating against. In other negotiations, you might be able to be more aggressive because you’ll never have to see that person again.
Shevin: Cost is a major concern for most clients when they hire a divorce attorney. What is your advice to a client who is trying to control the cost of their divorce?
Carey: My first piece of advice is to recognize if your inclination is to go and hide and be in denial, and then fight actively against that. Missing deadlines costs money. Being rushed costs money. Forgetting important facts costs money. Facing divorce head on is really important.
Also, doing as much organization as you can for your divorce attorney saves you a lot of money. When your attorney asks you for financial documents, rather than bringing in a shoebox full of things that are unorganized and saying “here you go”, hand them a memory stick with labeled and organized files. Then your attorney doesn’t have to sort through everything and try to figure out how it fits together. That is going to save you thousands and thousands of dollars.
Shevin: Is it helpful for a client to give you a document that overviews all of the accounts explaining how each account is used?
Carey: That tends to come up naturally because I am big on doing a Statement of Net Worth early on, so I can understand the full picture. I always ask my clients to do the first draft on their own, because then I can go through it and ask follow-up questions. Then we really have a good sense of everything. Doing that and doing it very well in the first go around is very helpful.
[Editor’s Note: A Statement of Net Worth is a sworn financial disclosure required by the New York courts during divorce litigation. Clients that are not in active litigation may not be required to prepare a Statement of Net Worth, but some attorneys, like Meaghan, think this is a very valuable and efficient start to representation, even when it is not required. Whether or not you are in New York, your attorney will want to understand the complete financial picture — completing Divorceify’s clickable Basic Budget and Basic Information About Me And My Family worksheets prior to your first meeting with your divorce attorney will streamline the collection of this important information. ]
Shevin: So people should give their attorney a full view of their finances as early on as possible?
Carey: Yes. And you should be organized about it. Don’t say “well I think we spend ….” Go back and look at the last six months of statements and tell me “I spend this amount month per month on food for the kids.” And this isn’t as hard as people think it is. If you sit at your computer and pull up your recent credit card and bank statements it just won’t take as long as you think. But it is going to take my client much less time than it is going to take me.
Shevin: Let’s say a client is interviewing two attorneys with similar billable rates – what can a client ask those two attorneys to find out who is going to be more efficient with their money?
Carey: I think you just ask straight up – ‘I’m sure you aren’t surprised to hear that I am concerned about the cost, how do you think I can make this less expensive?’ And then listen to what they say. If they have ideas and are offering creative solutions then that means that they are cognizant of that fact. If they say “oh I don’t know” or “we’ll have to see later” that’s something to be worried about. Being frank about your concerns is the important thing. I can’t predict exactly how much a divorce will cost, but I can help my clients control their costs.
Also, I’m leery when an attorney is willing to take a very low retainer for a divorce case. Let’s say two attorneys are billing at the same rate and one attorney says they want a $10,000 retainer and the other says they want a $1,000 retainer on a credit card – I would be a little concerned about that. You want your attorney to be concerned about whether or not you can afford to pay their fees – that means they are thinking about your costs. They shouldn’t have you start paying for something you can’t afford in the long term. I think some people focus on the size of the retainer when really, they should be focused on the hourly rate.
Shevin: Some clients think they can get divorced without any legal advice from an attorney. Are there ways that foregoing legal advice can actually cost money?
Carey: Here are some of the things I see … People don’t address their retirement funds. They just sit there because they didn’t know they had to deal with it or how to deal with it. They don’t divide their property in a way that prevents it from being a taxable event. And then there are serious tax consequences that they weren’t anticipating.
People don’t draft their child support agreement in a way that the courts will accept and then their agreement gets rejected – that’s especially true in Brooklyn where they are very precise about that language.
And people don’t think about all of their assets – they only think about the obvious things like their house.
Or they confuse marital and separate property and end up dividing property that was actually not marital.
Shevin: And is there any remedy for that?
Carey: It depends on when the mistake is discovered. If the divorce [is finalized] and they said in their agreement that they divided everything and they are satisfied with the terms of the agreement, then they aren’t getting the money back. Even if you think you have a chance at getting the mistake corrected making a motion like that is going to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Whereas, if you have had legal advice you could have avoided it.
I had one client that came to me after paying way more child support than any judge ever would have ordered him to pay, and he had been paying at that level for many years because he didn’t want to hire an attorney to advise him while they were negotiating child support. By the time he came to me looking to modify the amount of child support, he had spent far more overpaying child support than he ever would have paid to an attorney in even the worst-case scenario of divorce litigation. And there was nothing we could do to get him that money back.
A lot of lawyers are willing to do limited representation to help with minor things. If you really think that you have an uncomplicated divorce, you might need help on some small issues. And that help won’t be too expensive, but you will get peace of mind that you are doing it correctly.
I have had plenty of clients this year that have spent maybe five to seven thousand dollars to get the entire thing done. I realize that’s not a small amount, but it might be much less than the cost of a mistake.
Shevin: Do you give independent legal advice to clients who are participating in divorce mediation?
Carey: Yes. I will serve in the role of consulting attorney during mediation. I think that works best when the client has a brief consultation with their lawyer at the start of divorce mediation, and then their lawyer comes back in at the end to help finalize the agreement. I think that works better than only bringing the lawyer in at the end. The worst thing as a divorce lawyer is to be brought in to a mediation at the very end and then blow up the entire mediation because you say, ‘well haven’t you thought about this?’ And that’s just demoralizing for your client’s spouse and you can understand why, but it’s my job to make sure my client understands how much they may be deviating from what a judge would do.
Shevin: Do you have any other tips that you think are important to pass on to clients?
Carey: It’s important to feel comfortable with your attorney, to feel like this is someone you can actually talk to because this is a very intimate relationship. If you aren’t comfortable with that person, even if you think this person is a tremendous litigator and really knows the law well, I just really don’t think that’s the right person for you. You need to feel like you aren’t afraid to call them, and that you aren’t afraid to ask what you perceive to be a stupid question. If you don’t feel that way, it isn’t the lawyer for you.
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