The Cost of a Custody Dispute


Engaging in any kind of lawsuit is often an expensive endeavor. Child custody disputes tend to have more components than other types of civil litigation, so costs can quickly add up and even get out of hand, but you can count on some expenses that are pretty standard.

Attorney’s Fees

  • Although it’s possible to wage a custody war on your own, your odds of a successful outcome increase when you enlist the help of an experienced lawyer, particularly if your ex has done so. Some attorneys will charge you by the hour, billing you for increments of time spent working on your case. Family law attorneys often ask for a retainer fee at the beginning of the case, then bill their time against that. Others might work for you for a flat fee. Unless your attorney agrees to a flat fee, you’ll spend more money the longer your case takes and the more complicated it gets.

Custody Evaluations

  • Many state courts order evaluations when custody is contested. This involves a professional – often a psychologist – who performs a series of investigative tasks and ultimately makes a parenting plan recommendation to the court based on her findings. She’ll meet with you, your ex and your children, and possibly their teachers, doctors or other individuals who are actively involved in their lives. Sometimes psychological testing is involved. Evaluators are often court-approved or appointed so you may not have the option of scrolling through the Yellow Pages to find one who charges less. In one California county, the custody evaluation fee is $1,200. In other areas of the country, and particularly if the fees are not set by statute, fees can run to $3,000 or more. If you want the evaluator to testify on your behalf at trial, this usually costs extra. Typically, the court orders parents to divide the cost of an evaluation, but if one party greatly out-earns the other, the bulk of the fee might be assigned to him.

Guardian Ad Litem Fees

  • Some states assign guardians ad litem instead of ordering custody evaluations. The role of a GAL is similar to that of an evaluator in that he investigates your family dynamics and makes a custody recommendation to the court, but he may also represent the best interests of your child. In New Hampshire, for example, fees are capped at $1,000, but if your case is particularly complex, a GAL can file a motion with the court asking for more.

Other Costs

  • You can usually plan on paying some other nuts-and-bolts costs as well, in addition to the big ticket items like lawyers and evaluations. It costs money to file lawsuit documents with the court, often more than $100 for the initial complaint or petition that begins the custody case. If you must subpoena information from third parties who have information pertinent to your case, you’ll have to pay to have them served with official requests. If you want an expert witness to provide testimony at trial, such as a child psychologist whose opinion differs from that of the evaluator, you must pay him by the hour for his time preparing his testimony, time on the witness stand, and often the time he spends waiting to testify as well.

Defraying Costs

  • You might be wondering how anyone but the wealthiest parents can afford to fund a custody dispute, but many states make provisions for parents who simply don’t have the resources. For example, if your custody battle is part of a divorce in North Carolina and you’re a “dependent spouse” – your ex has largely supported the family during your marriage – the court may obligate him to pay your costs to allow both of you to prepare your cases to the best extent possible. New Hampshire has a state-run fund that will pay for a guardian ad litem if you can’t afford that fee. If you can’t afford a lawyer, contact the Legal Aid office in your area. The attorneys or staff there can usually guide you to cost-saving measures and some will represent you if you meet income qualifications.


  • Photo Credit Johnny Chih-Chung Chang/iStock/Getty Images
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