How much does it cost to go through a custody proceeding? Do I need a lawyer?
The amount that a custody case costs varies from case to case. Much of the cost involved in a custody battle can be attorney fees. Often the attorney will ask for what is called a retainer. A retainer is a lot like a down-payment or a deposit. It is money you pay your attorney up front to secure his or her services. Usually, the attorney deducts the hourly rate for each hour spent on the case from the retainer. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may be able to find representation through a legal services organization. However, these organizations do not have enough attorneys and resources to accept every case. Even if you meet the financial requirements of that organization, it does not mean that they will definitely handle your case. To find legal resources in your area, go to our ND Finding a Lawyer page.
While you have the right to represent yourself, it is usually best that you try to get an attorney since custody cases can be very complicated. For tips on interviewing lawyers, go to our Choosing and Working with a Lawyer page. If you have to represent yourself, check out our Preparing for Court - By Yourself section.
In addition to lawyers’ fees, other costs may depend on things like whether the judge:
- assigns an investigator to help examine the parties to decide who would be better suited for custody;
- requires the parties to go to mediation and to pay for it themselves;
- assigns a guardian ad litem, which is someone hired to represent the child’s best interests in the custody dispute.1
Each parent will have to pay court costs (like filing fees and serving the papers on the other parent). If you cannot afford to pay the costs, you apply for the fees to be waived and the judge will decide whether to grant it or not.2 You can find the fee waiver application on the North Dakota Courts website.
If the judge assigns an investigator or a guardian ad litem to your case, the judge will decide whether one parent, both parents, or neither parent will pay for their services.3
However, if a judge finds that one parent has committed domestic violence, which resulted in serious bodily injury or involved the use of a dangerous weapon, or if there has been a pattern of domestic violence within recent history, then the judge can order that parent to pay all court costs, attorney’s fees, evaluation fees, and expert witness fees related to the parenting time court proceeding. However, if those costs would place an undue financial hardship on that parent, the judge may not order him/her to pay them.4
1 N.D.C.C. §§ 14-09-06.3; 14-09-06.4; 14-09.1-02
2 N.D.C.C. § 27-01-07
3 N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.3
4 N.D.C.C. § 14-09-29(4)
If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.