I Can't Afford a Family Law Attorney. What Can I Do?

By: Matthew Smurda, Esq.
Last Update: December 19, 2017

Divorce is expensive and not everyone can afford it. This article addresses three strategies that can be utilized by anyone who is unable to afford legal representation in connection with a family law issue.

3 Strategies to Consider If You Can't Afford a Family Lawyer

1. Limited Scope Representation 

Divorce cases involve a number of legal issues, including division of marital property, spousal support or alimony, child support, child custody, domestic violence, etc. Each of these issues can become very complex depending on the individual facts and circumstances of each case.   

Legal or factual complexity in a family law matter will require significant preparation and work efforts by a family law attorney before the matter can be resolved (either by settlement or by trial). However, many cases are not quite so complex. In such cases, an attorney may only be needed for a specific issue or even just for a single court appearance.  

Unfortunately, everyone going through a divorce could use an attorney to represent them, but only a fraction of family law litigants are able to afford to retain a lawyer (or lawyers) to represent them from the start to the end of their family law matter.  

In California, the Judicial Council has addressed this by establishing what is known as “limited scope representation”. This type of representation allows a lawyer to become involved in a case in connection with a specific issue, task, or proceeding in the case. This is beneficial to both the attorney and the client because it narrows the amount of issue(s) and work necessitated, which in turn reduces the amount of attorney’s fees and costs that will be incurred.  

As a result, attorneys are often wiling to take on a limited scope representation for a much smaller amount than they would require to be retained to represent a family law litigant on every single issue that comes up in his or her case. 

2. Need-Based Fee Requests

If you do not have enough cash in the bank or credit on a charge card account to hire an attorney, you still may be able to get one. And, the other party can even be required to pay the bill!

In California, Family Code Sections 2030 and 2032 provide the Family Law Court with the ability to order one party to pay a reasonable amount of the other party’s attorney’s fees. This can include unpaid fees that are owed to a lawyer, prospective fees and costs that are anticipated to be incurred in the future, and even the initial retainer payment that may be required to retain an attorney. The payment can be made from a number of sources, including income,  liquid assets, and even real property. 

It is imperative that anyone who is facing a family law issue must research and inquire into their state’s rules and procedures pertaining to a contribution towards a party’s attorney’s fees from the other party that is based on the recipient party’s individual financial circumstances.

3. Free Consultations

Even if neither of the above options are available, there still may be a number of free resources for a family law litigant who cannot afford an attorney. 

The first step to take would be for the litigant to research licensed attorneys in his or her area and to contact them to determine whether or not they offer free consultations. If so, the litigant should take advantage of that opportunity because they could end up acquiring a tremendous amount of knowledge from a consultation with a lawyer (even if it only ends up being half an hour).


If you are facing a family law issue, you should look into each of the options identified above.   

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