Need to file bankruptcy but don't think you can afford an attorney? Learn how to get free legal help to get your fresh start in San Francisco, California.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated September 17, 2020
If you’re hoping to make a fresh financial start and you don’t earn much income, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy may be a good option. This process is so straightforward that you’ll likely be able to prepare your bankruptcy petition without hiring a lawyer to help you.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
Chapter 7 bankruptcy allows individuals and families to achieve a fresh start by eliminating eligible debt in as little as 90 days. Bankruptcy courts purposefully keep this process straightforward, as most low-income filers aren’t in a financial position to hire an attorney. As a result, filers whose finances aren’t unusually complex, who don’t own a small business, and don’t own luxury property, can file their cases successfully without an attorney, if they choose to.
There are some benefits to working with an experienced bankruptcy attorney when preparing a Chapter 7 case. Most notably, it’s less stressful to have someone else prepare your bankruptcy forms for you than it is to prepare them yourself. However, filing on your own isn’t too tough and will save you money. If you opt to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you should choose whichever approach will work best for you and your circumstances.
Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?
Only filers who meet specific income limits are permitted to seek bankruptcy relief under Chapter 7. Individuals and married couples who don’t meet this Means Test are generally allowed to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead. Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a complex process that requires a lawyer’s assistance. Far too often, filers who attempt to construct a Chapter 13 repayment plan end up with bankruptcy cases that fail.
As you’ll likely be allowed to repay your attorneys’ fees within your repayment plan (using funds that would have gone to creditors anyway) there is no reason to avoid seeking legal assistance if you’re filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy relief.
Getting Free Bankruptcy Help Through Legal Aid
A potentially great resource for those who are eligible is legal aid assistance. Legal aid societies are non-profit entities that provide critical legal services for members of low-income households.
What Is It Like Working with Legal Aid?
If you’re eligible for legal aid assistance, you’ll be given the opportunity to develop an attorney-client relationship with a lawyer who works for legal aid or who volunteers their time there. Before you can receive legal advice from an attorney in a one-on-one setting, you’ll likely be subjected to an eligibility screening. You may also be placed on a wait list if the organization’s services are in high demand.
If you don’t pass the eligibility screening for one legal aid organization, reach out to another. Each organization operates independently and creates its own eligibility criteria. The same goes for wait lists. If one organization’s wait list is too long, consider contacting another to see whether it can accommodate your needs and legal issues faster.
How Do I Know If I’m Eligible for Legal Aid?
Because each legal aid organization has its own set of eligibility criteria, you won’t know for sure whether you’re eligible for assistance through a specific organization until you contact it. With that said, most legal aid societies set income limits to ensure that the most economically vulnerable households can receive assistance when they need it. For example, organizations funded partially by theLegal Services Corporation are required to, at the very least, provide services to members of households that report an annual income that doesn’t exceed 125% of the federal poverty line.
What Are the Legal Aid Organizations Near Me?
There are a number of legal aid societies in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area. You can connect with as many as you like, using the phone numbers and alternative contact information listed below.
Bay Area Legal Aid
1735 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA 94612
California Indian Legal Services, Inc.
609 S. Escondido Boulevard, Escondido, CA 92025
California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
1430 Franklin Street, Suite 103, Oakland, CA 94612
Central California Legal Services
2115 Kern Street, Suite 1, Fresno, CA 93721
Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc.
1040 Iowa Avenue, Suite 109, Riverside, CA 92507-2106
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
Getting a Free Evaluation from a Bankruptcy Lawyer
Anyone who is interested in exploring the bankruptcy process can ask a bankruptcy law firm for an initial consultation with an attorney (not a paralegal). Most law offices that practice consumer bankruptcy offer free consultations to prospective clients. You can schedule a no-cost consultation with one of these firms, even if you think you may file for bankruptcy on your own. These meetings are confidential and don’t obligate you to work with the firm or to take legal action. All you need to invest is your time.
There are many bankruptcy attorneys practicing in the Bay Area. You can start looking for an experienced attorney by visiting the NACBA website. The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys is a respected organization within the legal community. You can also find licensed attorneys by searching local bar association websites or by contacting the California State Bar Association.
Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney
Filing bankruptcy “pro se” means that you’re filing without a bankruptcy lawyer’s help. This is a legitimate option for Chapter 7 filers, although it isn’t the best approach for every filer. If you do choose to file bankruptcy pro se, you can use both electronic and printed resources to help you complete the process. Filing on your own doesn’t mean filing without directions and guidance.
Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own
If you’re thinking about filing for bankruptcy pro se, a great place to start is Upsolve’s Learning Center. Upsolve is a non-profit organization, so some of our offerings are limited to filers who qualify for them. However, the Upsolve Learning Center is accessible to everyone, at all times, without a login. This resource is also absolutely free.
The Learning Center features hundreds of guides and articles about filing for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy all over the United States. In addition to learning about pro se Chapter 7 filing, you can access articles about managing credit card debt, scheduling a no-cost credit counseling session, stopping wage garnishments, and bankruptcy law generally.
Additionally, Upsolve provides a free web tool for eligible Chapter 7 filers. This tool allows single filers (no joint filings allowed currently) to prepare their bankruptcy forms on a secure, streamlined platform at no cost. Although the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process is straightforward, keeping all the forms involved “straight,” and in one place can be challenging. Upsolve’s free web tool takes the guesswork out of this process. Once you’ve used the platform to prepare your petition, you can print out your forms and file your bankruptcy case with ease.
Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court
If you head to a bankruptcy courthouse in San Francisco, you’ll be able to pick up printed copies of self-filing resources for free. Generally, courts provide self-filing guides on topics as varied as preparing for the meeting of creditors, submitting a filing fee waiver request, and managing debt collector harassment after the automatic stay is in place.
Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and Courthouse
255 East Temple Street Los Angeles, CA 90012
21041 Burbank Boulevard Woodland Hills, CA 91367
Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse
411 West Fourth Street Santa Ana, CA 92701
3420 Twelfth Street
3420 Twelfth Street Riverside, CA 92501
Jacob Weinberger United States Courthouse
325 West F Street San Diego, CA 92101
Robert F. Peckham Federal Building and United States Courthouse
280 South First Street San Jose, CA 95113
Oakland City Center
1300 Clay Street Oakland, CA 94612
Phillip Burton United States Courthouse
450 Golden Gate Avenue San Francisco, CA 94102
Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse
2500 Tulare Street Fresno, CA 93721
1200 I Street
1200 I Street Modesto, CA 95354
Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse
501 I Street Sacramento, CA 95814
If you’ve determined that filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the best debt relief option for your situation and you’ve chosen to take the brave step of moving forward, you should use whichever filing approach works best for you. If filing on your own sounds too stressful, connect with a bankruptcy attorney or a legal aid society. The only “wrong” way forward is an approach that is wrong for your unique needs, financial situation, and preferences. Whichever approach you choose, there are resources available to help you navigate the bankruptcy process successfully.