Options If You Can't Afford a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Lawyer

Here's what to do if you can't afford the legal fees of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy attorney.

Many debtors are unable to afford the fees charged by attorneys for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. While many attorneys offer payment plans, they will not file your case until all fees are paid in full. This means that you will not have bankruptcy protection against creditors while you are trying to pay your attorney fees. If you can’t afford a Chapter 7 bankruptcy attorney, consider:

  • filing on your own
  • obtaining assistance from a free clinic or legal aid society in your area
  • finding a pro bono attorney, or
  • filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy to pay attorney fees through your repayment plan.

(For comprehensive information about Chapter 7 bankruptcy, see our Chapter 7 bankruptcy area.)

Filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Without an Attorney

Bankruptcy laws don’t require you to have an attorney to file for bankruptcy relief. Whether you should hire a bankruptcy attorney depends on the complexity of your case and how comfortable you are filing on your own. In general, if you have a simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy (meaning your income is below the state median, you have little or no property, and your creditors are not likely to allege fraud against you), you have a greater chance of successfully completing your case and obtaining a discharge on your own.

However, keep in mind that bankruptcy laws are complex and even simple Chapter 7 cases require you to complete extensive forms, research exemption laws, and follow all local court rules and procedures. If you are not willing to put in the necessary time and research, you risk losing your nonexempt assets or not getting all of your debts discharged. As a result, consider using a good bankruptcy self-help book and consult an attorney if you are not comfortable filing on your own.

To learn more, see Filing for Bankruptcy Without an Attorney. For step-by-step instructions on how to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, get How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, by Stephen Elias, Albin Renauer, and Robin Leonard (Nolo).

Free Clinics and Legal Aid

There are many resources available to debtors who can’t afford a bankruptcy attorney. Some bankruptcy courts have free clinics to help debtors file for bankruptcy relief on their own. Contact your bankruptcy court to find out about the services it offers. Even if your local court does not have a free clinic, it may provide you with a list of free services or programs available in your area.

In most states, there are legal aid societies that have attorneys who provide free legal services or assistance to low-income individuals. However, the services provided vary by each office. Contact your local legal aid society to find out whether it offers assistance to debtors who wish to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy but can’t afford an attorney.

Pro Bono Attorneys

In addition to free clinics and legal aid societies, many attorneys take on a certain number of pro bono (no fee) cases. If you have little or no income, contact local bankruptcy attorneys in your area or your state bar attorney referral service to find attorneys who provide pro bono services to low income debtors.

Filing for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows debtors to pay all or a portion of their attorney fees through their repayment plan. If you can’t afford to pay all attorney fees upfront for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you may be able to stretch them out by filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. (Learn about Chapter 13 bankruptcy.)

However, filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy may not work for everyone. In general, Chapter 13 bankruptcy is for debtors who can afford to pay back a certain amount of their debts (such as mortgage arrears, car loans, or unsecured debts). If you don’t have enough income to afford your Chapter 13 plan, you will not qualify.

Further, certain bankruptcy courts don’t allow Chapter 13 cases designed to pay only attorney fees through the plan. Other courts don’t automatically prohibit fee-only Chapter 13 bankruptcies but consider any special circumstances surrounding the case before making a decision.

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