Attorneys fees for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy can vary significantly by state and by district. However, most courts have guidelines in place for Chapter 13 fees which can help you determine what is average for your area.
Attorney's Fee Must Be Reasonable
Under the bankruptcy law, attorneys who file Chapter 13 bankruptcies must disclose their fees for the court’s review and approval. No matter what you have agreed to with your lawyer, the judge has the right to review the fee arrangement to determine whether the amount is reasonable. If the court finds that the fee charged is excessive, it can order the attorney to refund all or a portion of the fee.
Presumptively Reasonable or "No-Look" Fees
To avoid having to review fees in every case, most courts have local rules or fee guidelines which set a "presumptively reasonable" or "no-look" fee amount for Chapter 13. Different courts use different terms but the meaning is the same. The court will generally not review the fees if the amount charged by the attorney is equal to or less than the presumptively reasonable or no-look fee.
Review is still permitted. The guideline or local rule, however, does not change the bankruptcy law. The court can still review a fee which does not exceed the presumptively reasonable amount if the facts and circumstances of the case warrant. For example, if an attorney was unable to file a confirmable plan due to his own lack of knowledge of Chapter 13, it is likely that the court would refund even a no-look fee.
Most attorneys conform with the guidelines. While the presumptively reasonable fee is not intended as a fee limit, most attorneys set their fees based upon the court's guidelines to avoid the time and expense associated with a court review. Chapter 13 cases are particularly amenable to these types of fee guidelines in that many cases are similar in complexity. One reason most Chapter 13 cases are similar is because bankruptcy law imposes debt limits on Chapter 13 cases (if your debts are over a certain amount, you don't qualify for Chapter 13). Most complex bankruptcy cases exceed the debt limit for Chapter 13, so are not filed under that chapter. (To learn more about debt limits, see Are You Eligible for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy?)
Higher fees permitted but review is required. However, there may be times when a case does require more work than average. In this situation, the fee guidelines generally do not preclude attorneys from charging a higher fee. If this happens, attorney would have to follow the procedure set for their particular court to have the fees reviewed and allowed. This would involve the attorney providing the court with information on why the higher fee is justified in that particular case.
What Services Are Included in the Attorney's Fee
The services that are included in the flat fee for Chapter 13 bankruptcies also vary by district. In some districts, the attorney is expected to handle everything that comes up without additional charge. In other districts, additional charges are permitted as long as the attorney discloses to the court when he or she is charging the additional fees.
The additional services could include things such as defending motions by secured creditors for relief from stay (to continue with foreclosures or repossessions) and repayment plan modifications. Before you hire an attorney, make sure you have a clear idea what the fee does and does not include.
Paying the Attorney Fee Through the Plan
Unlike Chapter 7 cases, where the fees are generally paid before the case is filed, the Chapter 13 fee is often paid, at least in part, through the plan payments after the case is filed. Some courts allow the entire fee to be paid through the Chapter 13 plan while others limit this amount. If your court limits the amount you can pay through the plan, your attorney will probably require that you pay the difference up front, before the case is filed.
How to Find the Fee Guidelines for Your District
Virtually all of the bankruptcy courts have websites which have links to the court’s local rules and fee guidelines. Many Chapter 13 trustees also have websites containing this information as well as other information for Chapter 13 filers. Chapter 13 cases are generally assigned to only one or two standing trustees in each district. If you call your local bankruptcy court, they should be able to provide you with the names of the Chapter 13 trustees and their websites.
You can use the Court Locator tool on the U.S. Trustee’s website to find bankruptcy court websites.
For more information on using a lawyer for your bankruptcy case, see Getting Legal Help for Bankruptcy.
Statistics on Average Chapter 13 Attorney Fees
According to a recent study using data from 2005 to 2009, the average fee for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy was $2,564 nationwide. But when broken down by state, the average fee was as low as $1,500 in North Dakota and as high as $4,950 in Maine. Currently, fees ranging from $2,500 to $5,500 are considered ordinary, depending on your location.
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