Understanding Retainer Fees in Divorce Cases

  •   |   Meghan Freed

Retainer fees in divorce cases presented by freed marcroft ct family law attorneysUpdated November 30, 2023

When choosing and working with a divorce attorney, you’ll want to understand the retainer fee.  But what exactly is it, and how does it work in divorce cases?  Today we will break down what you need to know about retainer fees in divorce proceedings.  We will help you understand their purpose, and explain the benefits of having a divorce attorney on retainer.  We will also discuss the potential pitfalls of a “too low” retainer.

Remember, legal fees are only one piece aspect of the financial picture in a divorce.  Hiring a highly experienced divorce lawyer is an investment in your future.  Whether you are contemplating hiring a divorce attorney or already have one, understanding retainer fees is crucial to understanding the legal fee component of the financial aspects of your divorce.  Please read on.

What Are Retainer Fees?

Retainer fees are upfront payments clients make to a law firm to secure their services until they complete the defined services.  Think of it as a down payment or a deposit that ensures your attorney’s availability and commitment to your case.  It is critical to remember that a retainer fee is not the same as the total cost of legal representation.  Instead, it is a prepayment.  Then, your law firm deducts their legal fees from the retainer as your attorney renders services.

In divorce cases, retainer fees are common practice, as they benefit both the attorney and the client.  By paying one, you secure your attorney’s dedicated time and attention, ensuring they will prioritize your case and be available to continue working on your behalf during your divorce.

Unless your case is very straightforward, you will likely have to add to your retainer throughout your matter.  Your written free agreement with your divorce law firm will explain how this works.  If retainer funds remain at the end of your matter, your law firm returns them to you.

Read: What Is an Evergreen Retainer?

Why Are Retainer Fees Used in Divorce Cases?

Law firms use retainer fees in divorce cases for several reasons.  Firstly, divorce cases can be lengthy and unpredictable, with various issues and disputes that may come up.  Paying a retainer fee ensures that your attorney has the necessary resources to handle your case efficiently and effectively.  This helps to streamline the legal process and minimizes the risk of delays or complications due to inadequate funding.

Secondly, retainer fees provide a sense of commitment and mutual trust between the attorney and the client.  An upfront payment confirms that both the client and the lawyer are invested in the case.  This arrangement also allows the attorney to allocate their time and resources accordingly, knowing they have a dedicated client who values their services.

Lastly, retainer fees help attorneys manage their caseload effectively.  With a retainer fee, attorneys can ensure they have a manageable workload and can provide the necessary attention to each case they accept.  This benefits both the attorney and the client, allowing for a more personalized and focused approach to the legal aspects of your divorce.

Read: How Do Legal Fees Work in a Connecticut Divorce?

Understanding the Purpose of Retainer Fees

The primary purpose of a retainer fee in divorce cases is to secure the services of a divorce attorney and ensure their availability throughout your case.  This financial commitment guarantees the attorney’s dedication and availability, allowing them to focus on your case without interruptions or distractions.

Additionally, retainer fees cover your divorce case’s initial legal work and expenses.  This may include meeting or communicating with you, conducting research, drafting legal documents, and preparing for court appearances or negotiations.  Paying a retainer fee enables your attorney to start working on your case immediately, saving time and allowing for a more efficient legal process.

Retainer fees also provide a level of financial security for the attorney.  As divorce cases can be complex and time-consuming, responsible, well-run law firms must ensure they will be compensated for their services.  Clients demonstrate their financial commitment to the attorney by paying a retainer fee, reassuring the lawyer that they will receive payment for their work.  This helps to mitigate the risk of unpaid or overdue fees, allowing the attorney to focus on providing high-quality representation.

Read: How Much Does a Divorce Cost?

How Law Firms Determine Retainer Amount

What retainer fee the attorney requests in divorce and family law cases can vary depending on several factors.  These factors may include, for example, the complexity of the case, and the law firm’s experience, reputation, and quality and level of service they provide.  Again, retainer fees are neither a fixed price for the case, nor an estimate of the total fee for the case.

It is worth mentioning that retainer fees can vary significantly depending on the law firm’s experience, reputation, and geographical location.  Highly experienced and reputable divorce attorneys often charge higher retainer fees due to their experience and sophistication.

Read: What Is the Average Retainer Fee for a Divorce Lawyer?

Factors that Can Affect the Amount of a Retainer

Several factors can influence the amount of a retainer fee in divorce cases.  Understanding these factors can help you anticipate and plan for the financial commitment associated with hiring a divorce attorney.

  • Complexity of the Case: The complexity of your divorce case can play a significant role in determining the retainer fee.  Cases involving high net-worth individuals, complex property division, child custody disputes, or high-conflict cases may require more time and resources from the attorney, resulting in a higher retainer fee.
  • Divorce Law Firm’s Experience and Reputation: Highly experienced and reputable divorce attorneys may charge higher retainer fees due to their experience, training, and focused knowledge.  Their background and reputation can give them a competitive edge, reflected in their fee structure.
  • Potential Workload and Hours: The potential workload and number of hours required to handle your case will directly influence the retainer fee.  Attorneys will consider the complexity of your case, the amount of legal research, document preparation, negotiation, and court appearances that may be necessary.
  • Urgency and Time Sensitivity: If your divorce case requires immediate attention or falls under time-sensitive circumstances, the attorney may charge a higher retainer fee to prioritize your case and allocate the required additional resources.  For example, if a divorce law firm may quote a higher initial retainer if you have scheduled trial dates then if you haven’t yet filed your divorce.  Again, this doesn’t mean the total fees will necessarily be lower.

Pros and Cons of Retainer Fees in Divorce Cases

Retainer fees offer several advantages and disadvantages in divorce cases.  Understanding these pros and cons can help you make an informed decision when it comes to hiring a divorce attorney and managing your legal fees.


  • Upfront Financial Commitment: Retainer fees require an upfront financial commitment from the client.  Ask your divorce law firm about your options for funding your retainer.
  • Less Concrete: The initial retainer does not tell you how much your case will cost.  Rather, many variables will impact this number.  To address this issue, Freed Marcroft invoices frequently so that you know where you stand.  We also discuss the potential impact of potential strategies on your legal fees.


  • Priority and Availability: You secure the attorney’s commitment and availability throughout your divorce case by paying a retainer fee.  This ensures that your law firm can prioritize your case and that your attorney is readily available.
  • Immediate Legal Assistance: Retainer fees allow your attorney to start working on your case immediately.  This can be particularly beneficial in time-sensitive situations or when prompt legal action is required.
  • Financial Security for the Attorney: Retainer fees provide financial security for the attorney, ensuring they will be compensated for their services.  This helps to mitigate the risk of unpaid or overdue fees, allowing the attorney to focus on providing high quality representation.  In other words, you don’t want your divorce attorney focused on getting new clients in to make payroll.
  • Flexibility: You have significant control over the total legal fees, for example, by reaching settlement agreements outside of court rather than having contested hearings.

Flat Fee Alternative to Hourly Billing in Divorce

While retainers with hourly fees are most common in divorce cases, some law firms provide a flat fee alternative arrangement for certain specific legal services.  This means you will pay a fixed amount for a defined scope of work, regardless of the actual time spent.  Flat fee arrangements provide clarity on legal fees — you know what you will pay.  However, flat fee services will rarely be available from highly respected divorce law firms other than for limited, discrete matters.  This is because divorce litigation is inherently unpredictable.  Boutique divorce firms will not want to either undercharge for their work or overcharge you if your case resolves in a more streamlined manner.

In other words, in many cases, the flexibility of a retainer fee coupled with hourly billing gives both client and lawyer the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.  Opting for a low retainer or flat fee can create issues.

Read: Understanding Hourly Billing

Common Misconceptions About Retainer Fees

Retainer fees in divorce cases are often misunderstood, leading to misconceptions and confusion.  Here are some common misconceptions and the realities behind them:

First Misconception: Retainer fees are non-refundable under any circumstances.

  • Reality: Any unused funds are generally returned to the client after the divorce, depending on the terms outlined in the attorney-client fee agreement.

Second Misconception: Paying a high retainer fee guarantees a favorable outcome.

  • Reality: Retainer fees are not directly linked to case outcomes.  They are used to pay for your time and expenses.  The ultimate outcome of your case will depend on various factors, including the specific details and complexities of your case, evidence, agreements you reach, and decisions made by the court.

Third Misconception: A low retainer fee or low flat fee is the best option to save money.

  • Reality: Opting for a low retainer fee can create issues and lead to unreasonable expectations.  In other words, a too-low retainer might set you up with an unrealistic view of the financial investment required.  When lawyers bill for their time, the hourly rate multiplied the time spent working on your behalf equals the total legal fee.  The retainer is not an estimate of your total legal costs.  Experienced and reputable attorneys often avoid setting low retainers to “get you in the door.”  They know what it takes to handle these critical matters.  Hiring a less experienced attorney with a lower retainer fee may result in a different level of representation and service.

Tips for Managing Retainer Fees Effectively

Managing retainer fees in divorce cases requires careful planning and communication with your attorney.  Here are some tips to help you navigate this aspect of your divorce with confidence:

1.  Understand the Fee Structure: Most importantly, don’t stick your head in the sand!  Take the time to understand your attorney’s legal cost structure, including how the retainer fee will be applied, when you will have to add additional funds, and how future fees will be billed.  Upfront, clear communication and transparency are essential to avoid misunderstandings and manage expectations.

2.  Discuss Expectations: Have an open and honest conversation with your attorney about your budget and financial situation.  This will help your attorney assess your case and provide you with updates, realistic estimates of ongoing legal costs as your case unfolds.

3.  Review the Fee Agreement: Carefully review the attorney-client agreement, including the provisions related to billing.  Understand the terms and conditions, including how any potential refunds or unused funds are handled after the case.

4.  Regular Communication: Regularly communicate with your attorney throughout the divorce process.  This will help you stay informed about the progress of your case and any potential changes or updates that may impact the retainer fee.

5.  Review Your Lawyer’s Invoices: Review your invoices and follow your retainer balance.  This will keep you updated on your case and help you monitor your legal fees.

6.  Reassessing the Retainer Fee: If your case’s scope of work or circumstances changes significantly, discuss the possibility of reassessing the retainer fee with your attorney.  This will help ensure the fee remains fair and aligned with the actual work required.  Understand that if your case is heading to trial, your attorney may request an increase in the retainer.

By following these tips, you can effectively manage your legal costs and confidently navigate your divorce’s financial aspects.

Read: Why You Should Read Your Legal Invoices

Next Steps

Retainer fees play a crucial role in divorce cases.  Remember, hiring a highly experienced divorce attorney is an investment in your future.  While they may seem like a significant upfront cost, they provide the assurance and experience necessary to navigate the complexities of divorce proceedings.  By understanding retainer fees and managing them effectively, you can confidently approach your divorce and secure the best possible outcome.

Freed Marcroft LLC

Freed Marcroft LLC