Family Law Attorney,
Q: How do I pay my lawyer’s retainer fee when my spouse controls the majority of our money?
A: This is a good question and one that arises fairly frequently.
Most divorce attorneys in New York City require a retainer fee, which can range from a few thousand dollars up to $50,000, depending on the lawyer or law firm you hire and the facts of your case.
In New York, there is a statutory rule that the “monied spouse” will pay the interim attorney’s fees for the “less monied spouse.” The idea is to create a “level playing field” so that your rich spouse doesn’t hire a top tier firm while you must resort to calling “1-800-LAWYER.”
In practice, how you pay the retainer often depends on whether your spouse knows about the divorce. If your spouse wants the divorce and has hired one of the most powerful firms in the city, you may receive a letter from your spouse’s counsel advising you to hire your own counsel. In that situation, it is completely reasonable and expected to ask your spouse, or have your prospective attorney reach out to your spouse’s attorney, to pay your retainer fee. It is a little trickier when your spouse has the money, but does NOT know you want a divorce. Perhaps you don’t want him or her to know until you have your counsel lined up. For obvious reasons, it is unwise to put a $25,000 charge on your spouse’s credit card or write a check from your joint account. In this situation, my clients will often borrow the money from a trusted family member or friend, memorializing it with a signed promissory note. (When filling out your Statement of Net Worth later, be sure to list the loan as a liability). If you don’t have someone to borrow the money from, speak with your attorney about accepting partial payment of the retainer until you are in a position to ask your spouse for the remainder. If that is not an option, there are businesses such as BBL Churchill, www.bblchurchill.com, which lend money for legal fees and living expenses during a divorce action.