Our goal is to make legal fees simple and understandable, as well as affordable. We also try to make most cases be on a flat fee basis, so you know exactly what the costs will be. Unfortunately, this is rarely true with other attorneys.
Most attorneys charge by the hour, and it is unfortunately the norm for your actual cost to be way more than originally estimated. Plus, hourly charges add up very quickly. An example is when you go to court for your finalization hearing, which is required in every stepparent adoption. The attorney will charge you for: 1) the preparation of the many documents required for court that day; 2) his or her travel time to court; 3) the time waiting for your case to be called (often more than an hour); 4) the time for the hearing itself; and 5) his or her travel time from court back to their office. This is likely a total of about 5-6 billable attorney hours, so if the attorney's hourly fee is $250, the fee for that final day of the year-long stepparent adoption process, would be $1,250-$1,500. Not even included in this total is the work done in the year or so leading up to the final hearing, so you can see how quickly legal fees can add up. With Randy's flat fee schedule, you know that can't happen to you.
Another option you have which is often very unsatisfactory is hiring a legal document preparation service, often found on the internet. They often charge between $350-500, but beware... these are not attorneys. As a non-attorney, they can't give legal advice or represent you in court. You are forced to file your documents "in pro per," meaning as your own attorney. Often these businesses are out of the area (perhaps even out of state, serving the entire nation) and the forms they provide you are frequently not accepted by the court as being outdated or completed incorrectly. These services normally make you personally bring your papers to the courthouse, and being forced to find the right location, the right clerk, and then wait in line, often to be told you are missing a required component of the filing and you need to come back. A great deal of time and frustration is avoided by not using these services and instead using an attorney who limits his practice to the adoption field and is located right in your area.
Our retainer provides more details, but here are the basic fees for our services:
Consultation. A 15 minute consultation with Randy is free. This gives you and Randy the chance to get to know each other and for you to be sure he is the right person to help legally create your expanded family. Randy will explain the stepparent adoption process, and answer your questions. You then have the choice to retain Randy to handle your stepparent adoption, or end the consultation and owe nothing for his time.
Uncontested Adoption. If the absent parent is deceased, or is willing to sign a consent and can be located to do so, the legal fee is $1,500. This even includes the Superior Court filing fee for the Adoption Request (the form which we file with the court to start the process, previously called the Petition for Adoption). It also includes our office costs (copies, faxes, domestic long distance, mileage to court and parking). "Office costs" is another area many attorneys use to pad a bill, frequently totalling several hundred dollars.
Included in the flat fee of $1,500 is everything normally required in an uncontested adoption (preparing the required legal documents (Adoption Request, ICWA-010, ICWA-020, Certificate of Assignment if required by your county, Consent to Adoption forms, Request to Set Hearing, Adoption Order, Adoption Agreement and VS-44), routine communication with you, routine communication with the absent parent to ask to sign a consent, preparation of the Consent to Adoption for the absent parent, interaction with the social worker doing your home study, setting the court hearing and appearing with you in court for the final hearing. The $1,500 flat fee covers the central courts for Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Orange Counties, and even most of their satellite regional courts. For cases in the rare cases that must be filed in more distant courts (i.e. Indio, Victorville) there will be an additional fee due to the extra time going to/from court (usually about $350). For many courts in Los Angeles County there is no extra charge for travel to a more distant court, but there is an additional $120 fee to cover the fact that the Los Angeles County Superior Court charges $140 for the filing fee, rather than $20 as does the other counties.
Termination of Parental Rights. If the absent parent cannot be located, or can be located but won't sign a consent, his/her rights must be terminated by a court. This can be a complicated issue as the rights of the absent parent varies and is determined by their relationship with the child and custodial parent. The following fees apply in addition to the Uncontested Adoption fee above. Luckily, most adoptions are only the Uncontested Adoption fee, but sometimes there are problems with the absent parent:
- If the absent parent is the father, and he falls into the category of what California law calls an "alleged father," and no court hearing is required, the flat fee for the legal action, including a California "due diligence" search fee, is $1,450. Speaking very generally, a birth father is "alleged" when he was never married to the mother of the child, is not named on the birth certificate, and has never had the child in his home. In other words, if he was a very short relationship, or an old boyfriend who disappeared before the birth or who wanted nothing to do with the child and was completely absent, he will likely fall into the "alleged" category.
We are required to give an "alleged father" legal notice of any action to terminate his rights, and if he can't be found, we have to show "due diligence" in trying to find him. Often these men can't be found, or don't want to be found, and the court can rule in our favor without a hearing, just based upon our legal paperwork and our showing that either he was given notice but did not file an objection (normally within 30 days), or that he can't be located. The $1,450 flat fee includes all that is normally required: preparing the court paperwork to terminate his parental rights (the Petition to Terminate Parental Rights, Declaration and the two required Court Orders); filing the documents in court; serving the signed Orders on the social worker doing your investigation/home study; and any calls and correspondence to you related to the matter. The only other fees which can normally occur in a proceeding like this is if we do know the whereabouts of the birth father, we hire a neutral third party to do a due diligence search (normally $45), and/or use a process server to serve notice upon him (about $70). This means the total cost of this type of action is usually between $1,450 and $1,565. As discussed above, however, none of this is required if he is willing to sign a consent.
- There is a level of birth father with stronger rights called a "presumed father." This is usually a man who was married to the mother of the child, is named on the birth certificate, or has had the child at any time in his home and held out the child as his own. (The issue can be complicated so these are just the basics.) To terminate his rights without his consent, or if he can't be found, the most common way is to prove "abandonment" in a court hearing. This involves proving he had no contact with, or provided no support to, the child for a period of one year, and that the stepparent adoption will be in the best interests of the child. We must give him notice of the hearing, but if he can't be found, the court can terminate his rights after we show we failed to find him and gave notice via "publication" in the legal section of a court-approved newspaper. In our experience, most cases we see involving "presumed" fathers are those who can't be found, so that makes the legal process simpler (meaning no litigated trial). There is no flat fee for this proceeding (rather hourly), but the typical total legal fee if the presumed father won't sign a consent is about $3,800.
- If the absent parent is the mother, her rights are similar to those of a presumed father, as discussed above, and if she won't consent or can't be found, the same "abandonment" proceeding is the norm.
- The least frequent type of stepparent adoption case we see is where a father (either in the alleged or presumed category) actually goes to court to fight requiring a trial to determine if the stepparent adoption should be granted over his objection so he can maintain his parental rights. When these cases do occur, however, they are charged hourly due to the impossibility of knowing how long each unique case will take. Luckily, in our experience less than 5% of birth fathers actively object. The vast majority either consent, can't be found, or elect to simply do nothing and let us terminate their rights without their objection.
Other services for which we have to charge hourly. As much as we try to make our fees a simple fixed flat fee, sometimes that is impossible when the number of hours required is impossible to anticipate. For example, if we are seeking to terminate the rights of the absent parent and he or she is found and wishes to litigate in court, a trial will likely follow, which could be lengthy, or he or she could end up giving up before reaching trial. (We find only about 1% actually end up fighting in court, even when they initially indicated they would do so.) Either way, the legal hours can't be predicted. Another issue which can involve extra legal fees is the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which is applicable when one of the birth parents is, or may be, a member of an American Indian tribe, or the child is, or may be, a member. The ICWA requires notice to certain Indian tribes, increases the rights of the birth parents, and completely changes the legal process.
There are other potential complicated situations that would require hourly billing, but they are rare. Randy's legal fees for such contested actions is $275 hourly, but only with the advance approval given by clients. (The above is a basic informational overview and does not constitute a full review of fees, as that is provided in Randy's Fee Agreement / Retainer.)
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