Quality, independent legal advice is important when you go through a separation or divorce. Because when a relationship breaks down, you have a lot to navigate, including working out a property settlement and making parenting arrangements when children are involved. From what questions to ask a divorce lawyer to how to pay for legal advice, let’s help you get the support you need in this tricky time.

What questions to ask a divorce lawyer

It’s important to shop around to find a lawyer to suit you and your situation. When deciding on a lawyer, you should ask them about their:

  • Services
  • Experience
  • Team (will anyone else be working on your case?)
  • Costs and how they charge
  • Payment requirements
  • Approach to family law (and if it aligns with best practice)
  • Specialist accreditation.

Also, many solicitors have a free first appointment. It’s a good way to meet them and decide if you feel comfortable working with them. You can also ask them about what options are available to you, what are the possible outcomes of your case and how successful they have been with cases similar to yours.

Finding a lawyer

To choose a lawyer, you of course have to find one first. You can search online for terms like ‘separation lawyer’, ‘divorce lawyer’ or ‘family lawyer.’ You can ask trusted friends and family for referrals. Or you can search for a family lawyer in your state through your state or territory law society or association.

Family law is vast and complex so you might like to consider hiring a family law specialist. State and Territory law societies and bar associations even offer specialist accreditation in family law. You should be confident that your lawyer has the experience and expertise to deal with your case, especially if it is complicated.

Legal costs

Lawyers can charge either by the hour or offer a fixed fee for their service. There are rules setting out exactly how much a lawyer can charge for work done under the Family Law Act, however they can charge more (with conditions). Your lawyer should be able to give you an estimate of costs involved in your case and when payment will be due. Your agreement with them should outline:

  • How much the fees will be
  • When the fees will be due
  • The basis for any variation in the fees
  • Whether you can defer the fee, pay via a payment plan, or a combination of both

They should also regularly update you about your fees so that you always know exactly what the cost will be.

How much you pay ultimately depends on how you proceed, the services you require and the agreement you make. As a rough guide, solicitors commonly charge from $350 to $650 per hour and barristers (if you go to court) charge between $1,500 and $6,000 a day.

You may pay as little as a few hundred dollars for a lawyer to review a DIY agreement or you may pay between $50,000 and $100,000 or more if you choose to litigate. Alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, is usually quicker and cheaper than going to court. In fact, most Australians don’t need to go to a family law court.

If you can’t afford a divorce lawyer, the Family Relationships Advice Line (FRAL) can help you with free legal advice. Information about other legal assistance services is also available from the Attorney-General's Department.

How to pay for a family lawyer

As well as finding the best family lawyer for you and your circumstances, you need to consider how you’ll pay their fees. Here are 3 ways you can consider.

  • Paying outright
    If you have the money available, you might choose to pay your legal fees upfront. However, you may want to use your funds for other things, or your money may be tied up in your property settlement. If this is the case, you may be able to seek an interim (short-term) order from the court to be given a lump sum of funds from the property pool prior to the final settlement.
  • Personal loans
    If you decide to borrow money, a personal loan allows you to access the money now and repay it over time. It can be a good option if you don’t have a settlement to worry about and you’re confident you can meet the loan terms. Lenders usually offer loan terms between 1 and 7 years. When getting a personal loan, remember you’ll likely have to pay an up front fee to establish the loan and you’ll need to start making your monthly repayments straight away. You may also be charged penalty fees (say, if you miss a monthly repayment) or an early repayment fee (if you repay the loan in full prior to the end of the loan term).
  • Legal loans
    A legal fee loan is a form of asset-based lending, helping you unlock cash tied up in your assets by securing them against your loan. A special type of personal loan designed specifically to help you pay for family law matters. You can usually borrow up to 30% of the expected property settlement, and you don’t need to draw down the full amount upfront. You can borrow what you need, and you only pay interest on what you use. You’re also not required to make regular repayments – you simply repay the loan in full once you’ve received your property settlement.
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