Questions to guide you in determining the best legal options

by Mary Whipple

How do I find an attorney?

Ask your friends and family members about their experiences. The best way to find a good attorney is by asking someone about their first hand experience.
 Absent a referral from a friend or family member, your local bar association will have a Lawyer Referral Service that will provide you the name of a qualified lawyer in the area of law you need, a consultation with the attorney will be provided for a nominal fee. The LRS pre-screens the attorney to be sure that they have the requisite experience to handle the type of cases they are being assigned. The attorney usually pays an annual fee to the LRS to be part of the panel.

  • Contra Costa County Bar Association 925-825-5700
  • Alameda County Bar Association 510-302-2222
  • Bar Association of San Francisco 415-989-1616

• Court Costs: the court’s fee for filing a divorce in California is $435.00; when the other party files the response, he or she must also pay $435.00. This is known as the “first appearance fee” which must be paid when the party first “appears” in the case.

•There are only 2 grounds for divorce in California: 1) irreconcilable differences; 2) incurable insanity. California is what is known as a “no-fault” state.
7 Questions to ask when hiring an attorney

Have you ever been disciplined by the State Bar?

Go to: and search by the attorney’s name. A record of discipline is included along with pertinent information about the attorney’s education and the year admitted to the Bar.

How long have you been working in this particular area of law?

What kind of cases do you handle on a day-in day-out basis?
What is your track record?
Do you try cases in court? Or do you settle every case out of court?

Be sure you understand whether the attorney is experienced in court appearances should your case not settle.
How often do you appear in court? Are you familiar with the local judges? 
If your case is contested and requires court appearances, be sure that the attorney is familiar with the county’s local rules and it is always helpful when your attorney is familiar with the judge who will be hearing your case.
Who will actually be handling my case?

Many lawyers work with associates or other attorneys. Make sure you know who is doing the work on your behalf and who to contact with questions or concerns.
How is the attorney paid? Is a retainer required?

Be sure you understand the fee structure.
There are 2 types of retainer agreements

1. A nonrefundable payment that is made to secure the attorney’s availability for the client’s legal matter. The attorney may also charge an hourly fee in addition to the retainer when work is performed.

2. A refundable payment that is deposited into the attorney’s client trust account as    an advance for work to be performed.
»This type of retainer is fully refundable until it is earned by the attorney.

Aside from the attorneys’ hourly rate, what else does the client pay for? Are there flat fees in addition to the hourly rate?
Some attorney’s charge fees in addition to their hourly rates, such as “court    appearance fees” and “preparation of documents fees” – make sure you     understand exactly what it is that you are expected to pay for.

Is there any charge for photocopies and faxes? If so, how much per page?

Frequently Asked Questions about Mediation

What is mediation?

Mediation is a process where the parties to the dispute work together to resolve their    issue without court involvement. The mediator is a neutral who helps the disputing parties reach a mutually acceptable agreement to resolve the dispute.

How do I know if my case is right for mediation?
Not all cases are right for mediation. The parties to the dispute must truly wish to resolve    the matter, without that, mediation will not work.

Ask if the mediator has been trained or certified.
  There are no regulations with regard to who can call themselves a mediator. Be sure to find out if the mediator has been trained.
Is the mediator an attorney? 
Not all mediators are attorneys and not all attorneys are mediators. Make sure you find    out whether the mediator you are working with can also draft the necessary paperwork to finalize the divorce and make the agreements legally binding.
If the mediator is an attorney, is the mediator my attorney?
If the mediator is an attorney, he or she cannot represent either you or the other party as that would be a conflict of interest. If going through mediation, it is recommended that each party consult with an attorney regarding the agreements reached in mediation.
–Is it okay if I also hire an attorney to represent me even though I’m going through mediation?
Yes. Many people go through mediation and hire an attorney to consult with through the process. That attorney is the one who can give you legal advice and represent your interests.
–How much will the divorce cost? Is mediation less expensive than hiring an attorney and going to court?
There is no way to know exactly how much it will cost to get divorced because there are too many unknown variables. The amount a person will spend on a divorce is directly related to how much the parties can agree. The more the parties agree, the less expensive the process will be.
Potentially, mediation is less expensive because the parties are meeting together to work toward agreements rather than going to court to fight about the issues. However, if the mediation is not successful, it could turn out that it will be more expensive than not going to mediation.
–What is “collaborative law”? Is it the same as mediation?
Collaborative law is a new dispute resolution model where both parties retain separate, specially trained attorneys whose only job is to help them reach agreements and settle their disputes. If they are not successful in helping the parties reach a settlement, neither lawyer can continue to represent their client. All participants agree to work together and attempt to reach a good faith settlement. Neither party may go to court or even threaten to go to court. If that happens the collaborative law process ends and both lawyers are disqualified from working on the case.
Some things you may not know:

•Summary Dissolution: To qualify you must meet all of the following requirements:

You and your spouse or domestic partner:

  • Have been married or registered as domestic partners for less than 5 years on the date you file your Joint Petition for Summary Dissolution of Marriage or Notice of Termination of Domestic Partnership with the Secretary of State;
  • Have no children together either born or adopted either during or before the marriage or partnership (and neither of you is pregnant now);
Do not own or have an interest in any real estate
  • Do now owe more than $6,000 for debts acquired during the marriage or partnership (do not count auto loans)
Have less than $38,000 worth of property acquired during the marriage or partnership (do not count your cars)
  • Do not have separate property with more than $38,000
Agree that neither spouse or domestic partner will ever get spousal support
Have signed an agreement that divides your assets and debts
  • In addition, if you are married you and your spouse must have lived in the State of California for 6 months and in the county of filing for 3 months.
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