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 Stockton, California.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated November 4, 2020
While “the best things in life are free,” many necessary goods and services are simply, not. Californians struggling with debt and eager for a fresh financial start too often learn the hard way that there are virtually no free bankruptcy lawyers to be found in The Golden State. Thankfully though, filing bankruptcy under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 is usually a very affordable process.
If you don’t earn much income and your financial situation is not unusually complex, you can successfully prepare your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case without a lawyer’s help. If you’re ineligible to file bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, you can repay legal service fees as part of your 3-5 year Chapter 13 repayment plan.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
The short answer to this question is, “No,” provided that you:
Don’t earn much income
Don’t own a small business
Don’t own real estate other than your house or other unusually valuable property
Don’t have an extraordinarily complex financial situation
Aren’t dealing with life circumstances that make filling out paperwork impractical without help
The reason why, if you meet the criteria listed above, you won’t need to hire a bankruptcy attorney to prepare and file your case is simple. The United States bankruptcy courts have purposefully made the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process easy enough to complete that eligible filers can have their cases processed successfully without paying a law firm for assistance.
Why have the courts done this? Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a debt relief option only available to low-income filers. If a filer doesn’t earn enough to repay their debts, the courts assume (correctly) that they don’t earn enough to pay a bankruptcy law office for help with their case. As a result, they keep this process straightforward enough that filers can prepare their own cases. The lowest-income filers can even request a waiver of their filing fee. This waiver combined with the opportunity to self-file means that many filers essentially file bankruptcy for free.
Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?
If you earn too much income to qualify for debt relief under Chapter 7 or if you own so much luxury property that filing for Chapter 7 isn’t a good fit for your needs, filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be a good solution for your financial challenges.
If you choose to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition, know that you’ll need an attorney’s help with your legal issues. This type of bankruptcy is much more complex than Chapter 7 bankruptcy is, to the point where most individuals who try to self-file Chapter 13 cases fail. Don’t panic about the cost of Chapter 13 legal fees, though. They’ll get integrated into your repayment plan as a debt. Essentially, you’ll be permitted to use funds that would have gone to other creditors regardless to reimburse your attorney for their legal advice and assistance.
Getting Free Bankruptcy Help Through Legal Aid
Perhaps your situation is such that you need an attorney’s help or perhaps you’re just uncomfortable with the idea of preparing legal paperwork on your own. If so, you can contact civil legal aid societies located in or near Stockton to see if you’re eligible for their free or low-cost legal services. If you are, you can have a licensed attorney help you with your consumer bankruptcy case at little or no cost.
What Is It Like Working with Legal Aid?
If you’ve ever worked with a private law firm before, you have a good sense of what it’s like to work with a legal aid society. Once you’ve passed an eligibility screening (and possibly spent time on a waitlist if the organization’s services are in high demand) you’ll begin meeting with your lawyer. Your attorney-client relationship with your lawyer – whether that lawyer is a staff attorney or a private lawyer volunteering their time – will be just as legally protected and personalized as it would be if you worked with a private firm.
How Do I Know If I’m Eligible for Legal Aid?
Most legal aid societies are underfunded when compared to community demand for their services. As a result, these organizations must employ eligibility criteria to determine who is most in need of their services. You can contact each organization directly to discuss their unique eligibility requirements. If you’re calling an organization that receives funds from the Legal Services Corporation, you can likely expect to hear that you’re eligible for assistance, provided that your annual household income doesn’t exceed 125% of the federal poverty line.
What Are the Legal Aid Organizations Near Me?
You can use the phone numbers or alternative contact information listed below to contact civil legal aid societies in your area at any time. Just make sure to confirm estimated wait times for clients who need access to an attorney well-versed in bankruptcy law. That way, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether you can afford to wait to file bankruptcy with the help of a legal aid attorney.
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
It’s okay if you’re not sure of what you want to do at this point. It’s okay if you don’t know whether you want to save money by filing on your own or save yourself time and stress by letting an attorney handle the filing process for you. It’s also okay if you’re not sure of whether you’re ready to file bankruptcy at all. If you find yourself in this position, you can schedule a free credit counseling session to explore all of your debt relief options. If you have questions about the bankruptcy process specifically, you can schedule an initial consultation with a Stockton consumer bankruptcy attorney.
When you’re researching local bankruptcy firms on the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) site, the California State Bar Association website, or local bar association sites, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for firms that offer free consultations. Most firms offer consultations that are both free and risk-free, but some charge for this initial meeting. Either way, attending a consultation won’t obligate you to work with a lawyer moving forward. Think of this process as a cost-free, no-obligation “Q&A session.”
Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney
Have you come across the term “pro se filer” in your bankruptcy research yet? This phrase is Latin for “in/on one’s own behalf.” If you choose to prepare your bankruptcy case without an attorney’s assistance, the court will refer to you as a pro se filer.
Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own
Pro se filers can reduce the stress and guesswork traditionally associated with self-filing by taking advantage of free tools and guides created by reputable sources. For example, Upsolve offers a free online filing tool for eligible pro se filers. Upsolve is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping low-income bankruptcy filers, so it has no agenda beyond giving the public access to reputable bankruptcy-related resources. If you’re eligible to use this tool, you can use it to access and fill out the forms you’ll need to prepare a simple Chapter 7 case. It functions a lot like TurboTax does, only for bankruptcy filings, not tax filings.
Even if your case is too complex to prepare on the Upsolve tool, you can access free guides to every part of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process on the Upsolve Learning Center. The Learning Center features both geographically specific and universally applicable articles about consumer bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy alternatives that are written by lawyers. The public can access these resources for free and without a login at any time.
Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court
If you have time to stop by a local bankruptcy court during business hours, ask the clerk where you can find the court’s free printed information about bankruptcy. Depending on what information the court has available on the day you pop by, you can use these printed guides to learn more about various bankruptcy-related subjects. For example, they may tell you how bankruptcy affects wage garnishments, how to prepare for your meeting of creditors, and how to report violations of the automatic stay by debt collectors.
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
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy is almost always a straightforward process, regardless of whether you choose to file “pro se” or with the help of an attorney. Both approaches work great under different circumstances. If your case is complex or you own lots of valuable property, you may want to seek professional legal advice. If your case is like most others, you should be able to utilize knowledgeable free resources to guide you through the process of filing successfully on your own. Either way, if this debt relief option makes sense for your situation, it can help you to achieve a fresh start.