Surprises in bankruptcy are stressful, and mistakes are costly. An experienced bankruptcy lawyer can tell you what will happen in your case before you file—a benefit most people find well worth the $1,200 to $2,000 cost.
But you already know that retaining a Chapter 7 lawyer is a smart move. The real question is whether you can afford it. How much you'll pay will depend on:
Our estimate of $1,200 to $2,000 isn't a hard and fast rule—but it's a reasonably reliable average for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. You might find someone to represent you at a lower price, or you might pay more. Ultimately, it will depend on the going rates in your area, your lawyer's skill level, and whether your case will be easy to prepare.
You know that the cheapest isn't always the best. Instead, take all of these things into account.
Attorneys in some states charge a lot more for bankruptcy services than others. For example, you'll pay more for a bankruptcy attorney in Maine, Nevada, and New Hampshire—as much as three times more than in North Dakota, the state with the most affordable bankruptcy fees.
Most clients believe they have an easy case. In fact, they'll often start the bankruptcy conversation saying that very thing.
But even though you know which problem you'd like to file bankruptcy for—you can't pay bills each month, or you need to stop collection actions or litigation—that particular problem isn't what will determine the complexity of your case.
What increases complexity are procedural things you probably aren't aware of—the bankruptcy documentation needed for your business or side hustle, property value justifications, potential creditor objections, marital status issues, separate property losses, and so on. Bankruptcy lawyers assess these types of irregularities and determine whether the problem can be solved. If so, the lawyer will factor in additional preparation and Chapter 7 trustee interaction time.
These two examples will give you an idea about how cases can differ:
An experienced bankruptcy attorney would identify all issues raised by each scenario. After asking for additional information, the lawyer would explain whether filing for bankruptcy would be in your best interest. It isn't always a good idea, and you'll want a lawyer who knows when you should avoid filing for bankruptcy.
You won't want to evaluate this factor by counting how many years the lawyer has been out of law school. Instead, consider how many people the lawyer has represented in Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
A lawyer with three years of bankruptcy experience straight out of law school will likely be more competent than a twenty-year litigation lawyer with no bankruptcy experience.
Bankruptcy is a rule-driven area of law and the rules don't always work in a commonsense manner. The more cases the lawyer has completed, the more rules the lawyer will have seen in action in different factual situations. And, because it's easy to make a financially devastating mistake, most lawyers without bankruptcy experience won't accept bankruptcy cases.
The key takeaway? Make sure your lawyer knows Chapter 7 bankruptcy law. Here are some questions to ask a potential bankruptcy lawyer.
Bankruptcy is an unusual area because it's essentially a qualification process. The laws provide instructions for completing a 50- to 60-page bankruptcy petition, and because all rules apply in every case, you can't skip a step.
One way to keep track of your research is to use the bankruptcy forms as an outline. You'll find links to resources in the chart below. You can also look at the list of Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy forms to see where this topic fits in the bankruptcy scheme. And this bankruptcy document checklist will help you gather the things you'll need to complete the petition.
We want to help you find the answers you need. Go to TheBankruptcySite for more easy-to-understand bankruptcy articles, or consider buying a self-help book like The New Bankruptcy by Attorney Cara O'Neill.
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 consulting with a local bankruptcy lawyer.