What Are My Options If I Can't Afford a Bankruptcy Attorney?

Learn about your options if you cannot cannot afford a bankruptcy lawyer's fees.

A knowledgeable bankruptcy attorney can provide you with legal advice, prepare your bankruptcy paperwork, and guide you through the bankruptcy process. But these services come at a cost. If you can’t afford to pay a lawyer's fees, you may be able to:

  • represent yourself as a “pro se” debtor
  • negotiate a reduced fee
  • pay your fees through your Chapter 13 repayment plan
  • seek help from a free legal clinic or legal aid society, or
  • find a pro bono attorney who will take your case free of charge.
  • Represent Yourself in Bankruptcy

While you don’t have to have an attorney to file for bankruptcy, whether it would be in your best interest to hire one will depend on:

  • the type of bankruptcy you want to file
  • the complexity of your case
  • whether you are willing to put in the necessary time and research to file on your own.

Filing a simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If you have a very simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy (typically meaning that you have little or no income or assets, and there are no other matters that might complicate your bankruptcy), you may be able to successfully file on your own. But even a simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy requires that you put in a significant amount of time and research. If you are not willing to make the necessary commitment, you risk having your bankruptcy dismissed or putting your property in danger. At a minimum, if you want to file without an attorney, get a good self-help book such as Nolo’s How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.

Difficult Chapter 7s and Chapter 13 bankruptcies. Complex Chapter 7 cases and almost all Chapter 13 bankruptcies require extensive knowledge of bankruptcy law and have many pitfalls for inexperienced filers. For these reasons, it would be in your best interest to hire a lawyer to handle your bankruptcy. In many cases, you may be able to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and pay your attorney fees through your repayment plan with little or no fees required upfront. If you absolutely can’t afford a bankruptcy lawyer, at least consider talking to an attorney (many attorneys provide free consultations) to learn about the hidden dangers your case might present.

Negotiate a Reduced Fee Amount

If you can’t afford the quoted fees, you can simply explain that to the attorney and try to negotiate a reduced fee. If there is a fee amount that you are able to pay, you can propose it to the attorney to see if he or she will accept your case for that amount.

In most areas, there are many bankruptcy attorneys. You might be able to find a lawyer that you can afford (or negotiate a lower fee) by shopping around and seeing what other attorneys are charging in your area.

Talk to a Free Legal Clinic or Legal Aid Society

There are several free legal clinics and legal aid societies in the U.S. that assist low-income individuals with their legal needs. In addition, some bankruptcy courts have clinics or information centers that are designed to help self-represented debtors with their cases or provide further information about the free legal services in their area. Check with your local bankruptcy court to learn whether there is a legal clinic or legal aid society around where you live that may be able to help you. Use the U.S. Courts' Court Locator to find your local bankruptcy court.

Find a Pro Bono Attorney

Many attorneys take on a certain number of cases pro bono (meaning free of charge or at a significantly reduced rate) each year. If you don’t have the means to pay for the services of a bankruptcy attorney, you may be able to find a lawyer to take your case pro bono. You can typically find more information on pro bono attorneys online, through your state bar (or a local bar association), or by talking to lawyers in your area. Or start with the American Bankruptcy Institute's Pro Bono Locator, at http://probono.abi.org.

Fee-Only Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Plans

If you can’t afford to pay your attorney fees upfront, your lawyer might suggest filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy (even if you want to file a Chapter 7) for the sole purpose of paying your attorney fees through your repayment plan. This is commonly referred to as a fee-only Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

While some courts don’t allow fee-only Chapter 13 plans, others consider the totality of your circumstances when determining whether or not to approve a fee-only bankruptcy. Talk to a bankruptcy attorney in your area to learn whether a fee-only Chapter 13 would be in your best interest or even allowed in your jurisdiction.

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