The process of obtaining or changing child custody can range from $100 to $500 for an uncontested case and $1,000 to $35,000 or more for a contested case. Typical costs for custody proceedings include fees for filing, service, attorneys, specialists and miscellaneous expenses. Amounts can vary widely depending on where the case is filed.
If your custody case is "uncontested," it means both parents sign an agreement and file it with the court. These cases are quicker and far less expensive. You usually only pay filing and copying fees. If your custody case is "contested," it means there is a disagreement. Contested cases can be complex and lengthy, costing thousands of dollars with attorney and specialist fees.
Every legal action must be filed with a court, meaning that you must take the papers to the clerk, pay a fee and receive a case number. Filing fees vary according to the type of action and location. As of July 2009, fees for filing a new custody case in California start at $355. In Alaska, a similar action costs $150.
Once a case is filed, you must serve a copy of the papers on the other person. In uncontested cases, you can sign a waiver to accept the papers and avoid service fees. In a contested case, you can use a private process server or your sheriff's department. According to Serve-Now.com, private process servers charge $35 to $100 depending upon how far they drive. The Napa County Sheriff's department in California charges a flat fee of $30 for its services.
If you hire an attorney, the costs of your case will be higher. Legal fees in simple custody cases are typically $3,000 to $5,000, while fees in more complex cases range from $5,500 to $35,000 or more. Some attorneys charge a flat fee, but most of them charge by the hour at the rate of $75 to $400 or more. Time in court is usually charged at a higher rate.
In contested cases, either the court or the parties can request specialists such as a guardian ad litem or custody evaluator to interview parents and children. Costs can be shared or paid by one party. A guardian ad litem is someone who represents the children's needs and wishes. The cost for a guardian ad litem in New Hampshire is normally limited to $1,000, but might increase in complex cases. A custody evaluator is a trained psychologist who interviews parents and children to make recommendations to the court. For doctorate-level psychologists, the cost can be $750 to $1,500 per person depending on the amount of time required to complete the evaluation.
Legal proceedings can require miscellaneous costs for copying, postage, phone calls, travel and notary fees. These costs are not necessary in all cases, but preparing for them can prevent document rejection, hearing postponement and other complicating issues.