What Can I Do If I Can't Afford a Bankruptcy Lawyer?

Find out how to file for bankruptcy when you can't afford a lawyer.

By , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

When you're facing bankruptcy, you might not believe you can afford a bankruptcy lawyer to help you through your case. However, even low-income individuals find it well worth the expense, especially when "discharging" or wiping out far more debt than paid in attorneys' fees.

Here are some of the ways many people who can't afford to pay a bankruptcy lawyer find funds surprisingly fast:

  • asking friends and family
  • getting help from a legal aid society or other free legal clinics in your area
  • finding an attorney who will take your case pro bono (free of charge), or
  • filing your case without a bankruptcy lawyer.

These are a few ways to file for bankruptcy when you're low on funds. Keep reading for more details.

How Bankruptcy Lawyers Get Paid

Everyone faced with filing for bankruptcy is strapped for cash, yet most find a way to hire a bankruptcy attorney. The cost is relatively inexpensive because, in most cases, you'll pay a flat fee of $2,000 or less, an amount most people can find.

Paying for a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Lawyer

If you're planning to file for Chapter 7, don't expect to file now and pay later. Many people hope this will be an option but are surprised to learn that a bankruptcy attorney won't file a Chapter 7 case until you've paid the legal fees in full.

Why? Bankruptcy wipes out outstanding legal fees, so your lawyer wouldn't be able to collect the remaining balance owed after you receive your discharge.

Paying for a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Lawyer

By contrast, it's possible to finance a Chapter 13 case. Many lawyers will file your matter after receiving a down payment because you can pay the remaining amount in your repayment plan. The good news for you is you'll pay a small part of your legal fees each month.

But don't file for Chapter 13 for the installment plan alone. Everything considered you'd pay far more than you would if you waited to file for Chapter 7. Find out more about how bankruptcy lawyers get paid.

Alternate Ways to Afford a Bankruptcy Lawyer

Most qualified bankruptcy filers stop paying the bills the bankruptcy court will discharge and use the money for legal fees. While this might seem sketchy, the court understands and expects filers to use this approach. But it's essential to be sure that you're qualified because it can be difficult, if not impossible, to catch up on bills if you find out you don't qualify later.

If you're still short after trying this approach, or you stopped paying dischargeable debts long ago, here are a few suggestions.

Ask Friends and Family to Help Pay for a Bankruptcy Lawyer

A debtor who doesn't have money for legal fees will often start by asking friends and family for help. Many are willing to pitch in because they know filing for bankruptcy will be a long-term solution, and you won't need bailout loans in the future.

Using Free Legal Clinic Attorneys and Legal Aid for Bankruptcy

If you can't afford a bankruptcy attorney, you might find help at a local legal aid society or a free legal clinic. Legal aid societies have staff and volunteer lawyers to help meet the legal needs of low-income individuals in the community. If you have a legal aid society nearby, check to see if it has a bankruptcy department.

Also, some bankruptcy courts offer free legal information or clinics to help debtors file without a lawyer. Or your court might provide information regarding other free services in your area.

Learn more about finding bankruptcy lawyers.

Finding Pro Bono or Low-Cost Bankruptcy Lawyers

It's common in the legal profession for attorneys to provide free or "pro bono" services to low-income individuals. And many bankruptcy attorneys cut fees drastically for clients who qualify for a bankruptcy fee waiver.

To find a local pro bono attorney, consult with lawyers in your area, contact your county or state bar, or visit the American Bankruptcy Institute's Bankruptcy Resources webpage.

Filing for Bankruptcy Yourself

You don't have to have a lawyer to file for bankruptcy. But it isn't always a good idea to go it your own. 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
  • the level of complexity
  • whether you can afford a lawyer, and
  • how comfortable you are with researching the necessary legal information and representing yourself.

The official bankruptcy forms' instructions are straightforward, making them relatively simple to complete if you have little or no income or property. However, the forms don't explain what will happen in your case. Find out if you need a lawyer to file for bankruptcy.

Know Your Property Rights

The bankruptcy court will expect you to understand the ramifications of filing, such as whether you'll lose property in bankruptcy or whether a previous transaction, such as a car sale, might be unwound.

As a result, filing for bankruptcy without an attorney requires extensive research. Many filers start by learning how to protect property using state and federal exemption laws.

Learn Bankruptcy Law and Procedure

You'll need to learn about federal bankruptcy laws and your local bankruptcy court's procedures. For instance, Chapters 7 and 13 have different qualification requirements and benefits that you must understand if you're to the best chapter for you.

Also, you must turn over supporting documents, like tax returns, paycheck stubs, and bank statements, and represent yourself at all mandatory hearings. If you don't put 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.

Even so, it's still possible to represent yourself in Chapter 7. If you'd like more information on filing on your own, an excellent place to start is with a comprehensive do-it-yourself manual, like Nolo's How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, by Cara O'Neill & Albin Renauer.

Meet With a Bankruptcy Lawyer

Even though it's possible to handle your own Chapter 7 bankruptcy, bankruptcy is a complicated area of law, and many filers find it challenging to avoid unexpected pitfalls. 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 problems you could face.

If you're considering filing for a Chapter 13 case, representation is a must. The courts strongly recommend hiring a lawyer because most filers can't complete a Chapter 13 plan without help.

Navigating Your Bankruptcy Case

Bankruptcy is essentially a qualification process. The laws provide instructions for completing a 50- to 60-page bankruptcy petition, and because the rules apply to every case, you can't skip a step. We want to help.

Below is the bankruptcy form for this topic and other resources we think you'll enjoy. For more easy-to-understand articles, go to TheBankruptcySite.

More Bankruptcy Information

Bankruptcy Forms and Document Checklist

You'll find fillable, downloadable bankruptcy forms on the U.S. Courts bankruptcy form webpage.

Chapter 7 and 13 Bankruptcy Form List

Bankruptcy Document Checklist

More You Might Like

Typical Lawyer Fees in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

What Are Some Good Questions to Ask a Bankruptcy Attorney?

What Happens to Your Property in Bankruptcy?

How to File for Bankruptcy Without Losing a Car

We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all bankruptcy issues or the facts of your case. The best way to protect your assets in bankruptcy is by hiring a local bankruptcy lawyer.

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