If you can’t afford to pay a bankruptcy attorney, you might be able to:
- file your case without an attorney
- get help from a legal aid society or other free legal clinic in your area, or
- find an attorney who will take your case pro bono (free of charge).
To learn more about filing for bankruptcy without an attorney, see our topic area on Getting Help With Your Bankruptcy.
File for Bankruptcy on Your Own
You are not required to have an attorney to file for bankruptcy. Whether it would be in your best interest to hire a lawyer typically depends on:
- whether you are filing for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy
- how complex your bankruptcy is
- whether you can afford an attorney, and
- how comfortable you are with researching the necessary legal information and representing yourself.
In many cases, if you have little or no income or property, you may be able to file a successful Chapter 7 bankruptcy on your own. But filing for bankruptcy without an attorney may require conducting extensive research on federal bankruptcy laws, state exemption laws, and the rules and procedures of your local bankruptcy court. In addition, you must complete a lengthy set of forms and represent yourself at all mandatory hearings. A good place to start is with a comprehensive do-it-yourself manual, like Nolo's How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, by Stephen Elias & Albin Renauer.
If you don’t put in the time and effort into researching all necessary laws, rules, and procedures, you risk having your case dismissed without a discharge or losing your property.
(For more information, see Personal Bankruptcy: Pro Se or With an Attorney?)
Complicated Chapter 7 Cases and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
If you have a complicated Chapter 7 bankruptcy or if you are thinking of filing a Chapter 13 case, it’s typically in your best interest to hire an attorney. In general, these types of bankruptcy cases have many pitfalls for self-represented debtors (or even inexperienced bankruptcy attorneys) and are a lot harder to successfully complete on your own.
If you want to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy but don’t have a lot of money to pay for attorney fees, many attorneys can file your case with a small amount upfront and build the remainder of their fees into your repayment plan.
To learn more, see How Do Bankruptcy Lawyers Get Paid?
Talk to a Bankruptcy Attorney Before Filing Your Case
Even if you can’t afford an attorney, it’s in your best interest to talk to a knowledgeable bankruptcy lawyer before filing your case. Most attorneys provide free consultations and can provide you with valuable information about the bankruptcy process, the type of bankruptcy you should file, and the pitfalls surrounding your case.
For more information, see What Are Some Good Questions To Ask a Bankruptcy Attorney?
Get Help from a Legal Aid Society or Free Legal Clinic
If you can’t afford a bankruptcy attorney, you may be able to receive help from a legal aid society or a free legal clinic in your area. In certain jurisdictions, bankruptcy courts offer free legal information or clinics to help debtors filing without an attorney. If the court doesn’t have a clinic for self-represented debtors, it can still provide you information regarding other free services that may be available to you in your area.
Legal aid societies have both staff and volunteer attorneys to help meet the legal needs of low-income individuals in the community. If you have a legal aid society in your area, check to see if it has a bankruptcy department or attorneys who are knowledgeable in bankruptcy law.
Find an Attorney to Take Your Case Pro Bono
It’s very common in the legal profession for attorneys to provide a certain amount of free (pro bono) services to low-income individuals. If you qualify, you may be able to find an attorney who will handle your case free of charge. To find a local pro bono attorney, consult with different lawyers in your area or contact your state bar. Or visit the American Bankruptcy Institute's Bankruptcy Pro Bono Resource Locator at http://probono.abi.org/.