Preparing for an Intake Appointment with a Divorce Attorney

Preparing for an intake appointment with a divorce attorney is difficult when you’ve never met with an attorney before, you don’t know what to expect, and/or you don’t know what happens at an intake appointment with a divorce attorney.

appointment with a divorce attorney
Sometimes your divorce attorney will want documents at intake.

 Intake Appointment with a Divorce Attorney: What to Bring

1. Current Court Documents

This refers to any and all court documents you’ve received before your intake appointment with a divorce attorney. For example, if you’ve been served by your spouse or s/he has filed for a divorce in Minnesota, you should have received two documents known as, the Petition and Summons.

It’s essential that you bring these documents (such as, the Petition and Summons) to avoid missing the deadline to contest your divorce and thus, forfeit your right to express your opinion regarding significant aspects of your divorce (such as, property division, child custody and child support).

To illustrate, in Minnesota you only have 30 days to respond after you’ve been served and your reply must be properly formatted into a legal document called, the Answer, which typically also includes one’s Counter-Petition

2. Previous Court Documents

It’s also helpful for you to bring any other court documents from previous divorce and/or family law cases that you were involved in (if any) before this divorce.

For example, if applicable, you’ll want to bring the following documents listed below:

Court documents from any/all previous divorces, such as the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgement and Judgement and Decree.

The judgement and decree is the final Court document that is signed by the Judge, establishes the divorce between the couple, and spells out the duties and responsibilities of each party regarding such matters as, property and asset division, child custody and child support.  

Other family law related court documents, such as Orders For Protection, Recognition of Parentage (ROP’s), Child Support and/or Child Custody Modification Arrangements, etc.

3. Financial and Other Important Documents 

If you have any original financial documents such as, you and/or your spouse’s paystubs, 401k statements, pension plans, tax returns, etc… it’s in your best interest to start collecting these immediately so that you can give them to your divorce attorney.

appointment with a divorce attorney
Pay Stubs are often a key financial document

Although we don’t require original financial documents right away, some law offices like to collect these documents immediately. It’s best if you find out exactly what documents your divorce attorney will require from you at the intake appointment by asking during the consultation or when you’re scheduling the intake appointment.

Also, although most divorce attorneys will ask for such financial documents, if you don’t have access to any of these financials, your divorce attorney can help you get access. In Minnesota, both parties are required to disclose any and all information to one another.

4. Retainer Payment

Most divorce and family law firms require some form of an initial retainer before working on your case. You can think of the retainer as an initial, good-faith deposit that demonstrates you’re ability to hire a divorce attorney and that you’ll use to pay for his/her legal services.

It’s expected that you’ll bring the retainer to the intake appointment when you meet with your divorce attorney. As mentioned in our previous post, you should use the consultation to request information about retainer amounts, payment methods, and fee agreements.

appointment with a divorce attorney
Credit cards are typically accepted for retainers

One last thing about the retainer payment, if someone other than yourself will be paying on your behalf, it’s best that you inform your divorce attorney of this ahead of time (such as, during the consultation or when you’re scheduling the intake appointment).

Some divorce and family law firms will only take checks from a third party. Some divorce and family law firms require the third party to appear in person to confirm identity and to obtain permission; while other divorce and family law firms will take a third party’s credit card number over the phone.

The point is, if a third party will be paying the retainer, you’ll want to know if there are any additional procedures that are required ahead of time to ensure you’re prepared for the intake appointment.    

5. Driver’s License and/or State Id Card

Your driver’s license and/or state identification card will be used by the divorce attorney to confirm your identity at the intake appointment. Identity confirmation is a very important practice because it ensures your safety and confidentiality by preventing someone from obtaining private information about you and your case by pretending to be you.

In addition, if you’re paying the initial retainer with your credit card, your driver’s license or state identification card will prove that you own the account. Lastly, if you’re working with a small law firm or solo practitioner for your divorce, you most likely won’t need to show your I.D. card again to the divorce attorney after the initial intake appointment. 

6. A Guest, such as a Friend or Family Member
appointment with a divorce attorney with family member
You can bring someone with you, but often it’s not a good idea.

We’ve added a guest to the list of things to bring to an intake appointment with a divorce attorney not because you necessarily should or shouldn’t bring someone with you, but because it’s something that you should decide before the  intake appointment with the divorce attorney.

In addition, it’s something that you should discuss with the divorce attorney either during the consultation or when you’re scheduling an intake appointment. Before you decide, know the pros and cons of bringing someone with you to an intake appointment with a divorce attorney.

For other divorce or family law questions, please consult the list to the left or the FAQ page.  If you’re interested in retaining an attorney to help you, please feel free to contact my office for a consultation using the contact information on the left or the contact form on the Majeski Law home page.  For Court rules, please click here.

Divorce Retainer in Minnesota

Minnesota Divorce Retainers
Retainers can be a large up front cost

When you’re thinking about divorce expenses or looking to hire a divorce attorney, it’s important that you take into consideration a divorce retainer and understand retainer fee agreements. If you’ve never hired a lawyer before, you may be wondering, “What’s a Retainer?” This article explains what a retainer is, how a retainer works in divorce and family law cases, and what you need to know before signing one.

Legal Retainer Definition

A retainer (also sometimes referred to as a, retainer fee) is a good-faith, advance payment made to a lawyer for legal services. The retainer can be a single advance payment or reoccurring, depending on your situation. (We’ll talk more about single vs. reoccurring payments later in the article).

Retainer Purpose

In addition to signing an engagement letter (or representation contract), the retainer establishes a client-attorney relationship between the individual and the lawyer. Without the retainer, an attorney will not work on your divorce or family law case, provide legal advice or representation. Thus, the retainer provides the individual with legal services and ensures that the attorney will be paid for such services. 

How Does a Retainer Work?

First, the retainer is typically collected during the intake appointment with the attorney. There are a number of different payment methods available to you. Learn about the different retainer payment options by reading: How to Pay for a Divorce Lawyer. Additionally, in some cases, your spouse can be ordered to pay your attorney fees. To learn more about when you can don’t have to pay attorney fees, read: Attorney Fees

After intake, the lawyer puts the retainer into a separate trust account for the client. The retainer belongs to the client. No money from the retainer can be collected by the attorney unless it has been earned.

Then, as the lawyer works on the divorce or family law case, s/he charges the client for legal services provided. The client pays for such legal services with the retainer (the money in the trust account). As services are rendered, the lawyer withdraws money from the retainer for payment. Once earned, money from the retainer is deposited into the firm’s account and no longer belongs to the client. Any unearned portion of the retainer is returned back to the client. (We’ll talk more about retainer refunds later in the article).

Divorce Retainer: How it Works

Typically, divorce and family law attorneys in Minnesota require an initial retainer somewhere between $3,000 – $5,000 and charge on an hourly rate basis. Minnesota laws, specifically Minnesota’s Rules of Professional Conduct Regarding Fees, guide what attorneys can charge, when they can charge, how they can charge and their responsibilities to the client-attorney relationship.

For example, in Minnesota, it’s illegal for an attorney to charge contingency fees in family law matters. However, Minnesota divorce and family law attorneys can legally seek reimbursement from the client for in-house costs and materials, like: paper; printing; coping; telephone charges; postage; etc…

TIP: In-house costs quickly add up and can exceed people’s expectations. Therefore, it’s important that you ask the attorney how additional case costs and expenses are handled. For example, at Majeski Law, we do not charge the client separately for such in-house expenses listed above.

Initial Retainer vs. Replenishing Retainer Fees

The initial retainer is the amount your divorce or family law attorney believes is reasonably necessary to start working on your case. As your case proceeds, you may need to replenish your initial retainer to continue working with the attorney.

Thus, the initial retainer may cover all legal services during your divorce or family law case or you may have reoccurring retainer fees. Whether you’ll have a single retainer fee or reoccurring retainer fees will depend mostly on you, your attorney and the specifics of your case. (We’ll talk more about replenishing the retainer later in this article).

TIP: Don’t be afraid to bring up money concerns with your divorce or family law attorney. In fact, it’s best to address any financial issues right away with your attorney. Generally, the more you, as the client, do yourself, the more money you can save. Therefore, it can be helpful to identify tasks that you can do yourself, and tasks that you will need an attorney to complete for you.

Retainer versus Additional Expenses

Typically, the retainer is only used to pay attorney fees. However, you’ll have additional case expenses, such as court filing fees. Court fees are set by the court, collected by the court, and paid to the court. You pay court fees regardless of whether you have an attorney or not as they are mandatory in the state of Minnesota. For example, it costs about $400 to file for divorce in Minnesota.

In addition, during your divorce or family law case, you may acquire additional services from a third party, such as a mediator, custody evaluator or a property appraiser. Like court fees, your attorney has nothing to do with third party fees, and retainer funds are not used to pay such third party fees. Instead, payment for services from a third party should be arranged between the third party and the client, directly.

An attorney may be willing to use money from the retainer to pay a court filing or process server fee on your behalf, but those tend to be the only (and rare) exceptions. If retainer money is used to pay a court or process server fee, the firm can provide you with a court and/or process server receipt. In addition, best practice would also be to have such items and services clearly accounted for on the firm’s invoice.

Thus, the retainer does not cover your divorce or family law case expenses. Instead, the retainer is only for attorney fees. We stress this point, because some individuals mistakenly take the initial retainer fee to be the total cost of their divorce or family law case.

Although attorney fees (and thus, the retainer) impact the total cost, they’re not the only expenses in a divorce or family law case. Instead, how much your divorce or family law case will cost, will depend upon your specific situation and several different factors. Therefore, it’s best if you can budget accordingly.

Minnesota Divorce Retainers

Retainer and Retainer Fee Agreement

The terms of your engagement letter or representation contract with your attorney should include a section regarding the retainer fee agreement. The retainer fee agreement or retainer agreement you make with your lawyer should not only be in writing, but should clearly state the firm’s procedures and policies regarding the following: Retainer amount; Hourly rates; Services provided; Scope of representation; etc…

Divorce Retainer and Accounting Practices

In addition, your lawyer should provide you with a regular invoice. A good invoice shows you what services were provided, who completed the work (such as, an attorney or a paralegal), and the amount withdrawn from the retainer.

Best practice would be that you receive a monthly invoice, unless no services were provided that month. In that case, depending on the firm, you may or may not receive an invoice that month. The firm’s accounting and invoice practices should also be explained and stated in writing in the retainer agreement.

Retainer Fee, Replenishing the Retainer and Legal Representation

As mentioned earlier, you may need to replenish the retainer. Some divorce and family law attorneys require the retainer to be replenished to the initial amount, while others require a larger or smaller amount. Inability to replenish the retainer usually results in the divorce or family law attorney withdrawing from the case. In that instance, the client would either need to represent him/herself in the divorce or family law matter or seek services from a free legal clinic. Again, the firm’s policy regarding representation and retainer replenishment should be clearly explained and stated in writing in the retainer agreement.

Divorce Retainer Refund

Once your case is completed and closed with the firm, you should receive your last invoice. At this time, you may still have money left in your retainer. As previously mentioned, the retainer money belongs to the client, until it’s earned. Therefore, any unearned portion of the retainer belongs to the client and must be returned.

In addition, you, the client, may fire your divorce or family law attorney at any time. Similarly, whatever balance is left in your retainer after closing out your case, would be returned to you. Therefore, whether you end up receiving money back, depends on the remaining balance of your retainer when your case is closed (regardless of whether your case is finished or because you fired your attorney).

Minnesota Divorce Retainers

Because the retainer money belongs to the client until earned and the client is not receiving the entire retainer fee, it’s not truly a retainer refund. It’s actually more accurate to call it an unearned retainer return.

However, because “unearned retainer return” is not commonly used or searched for by the public, “retainer refund” is used, and refers to the remaining (unearned) portion of the retainer that gets returned back to the client. Again, we emphasize that the client only receives the unearned portion of the divorce retainer at the end of the case.

Divorce Retainer Summary

  • The retainer is money that you designate up front to your lawyer to be used to pay for services provided during your divorce or family law case.
  • The retainer is put into a trust account and belongs to you. No money is collected from the retainer until it’s earned by the attorney.
  • As services are rendered, money from the retainer is paid to the firm. Once collected by the firm, that money no longer belongs to the client.
  • Depending on your case, you may need to replenish the initial retainer. Inability to pay for services, by not replenishing the retainer, dissolves the client-attorney relationship, legal representation and all legal services.
  • At any time in your case, you can decide to represent yourself or fire your current attorney and hire another attorney. At this time, the remaining balance would be returned back to you. Otherwise, any remaining balance is returned back to you at the end of your divorce or family law case.
  • It’s very important that you read the retainer fee agreement carefully to make sure that the firm’s policies and procedures are stated in writing and that you have a complete understanding before signing the contract.

For other divorce or family law questions, please consult the list to the left or the FAQ page.  If you’re interested in retaining an attorney to help you, please feel free to contact my office for a consultation using the contact information on the left or the contact form on the Majeski Law home page.  For Court rules, please click here.