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 Tampa, Florida.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated October 29, 2020
If you’re thinking about filing for bankruptcy but you’re hesitant to move forward because you can’t afford a bankruptcy attorney’s help, know that this guide provides welcome news. It’s true that there are few “free bankruptcy lawyers” in Tampa beyond those that work or volunteer at legal aid societies. However, Chapter 13 bankruptcy clients can pay their legal service fees back over several years and Chapter 7 bankruptcy filers can – in many cases – successfully prepare their bankruptcy petitions on their own.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
Before you can begin working on your bankruptcy case, you’ll need to choose the type of bankruptcy you want to file. If you don’t earn much income, you don’t own a small business, you don’t own real estate other than your home, and you don’t own luxury property, you’ll likely want to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Unlike Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which is available to all consumers, Chapter 7 bankruptcy is only available to members of low-income households. It’s a particularly generous debt relief option, so the courts limit the number of individuals who can take advantage of it to those who earn so little that they can’t reasonably be expected to pay down their debts over time. Chapter 13 filers are required to repay at least some of their debts via installments over 3-5 years before their remaining eligible debts can be discharged. By contrast, the eligible debts of Chapter 7 filers can be discharged in as few as 90 days.
The courts recognize that Chapter 7 filers earn so little that they can’t afford to repay their debts. Understandably, they also recognize that Chapter 7 filers earn too little to afford paid legal advice. As a result, the courts purposefully keep the Chapter 7 filing process so straightforward that the vast majority of filers can prepare their cases without an attorney’s help.
Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?
If you earn too much money to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, you can explore the option of filing under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. Filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a complex endeavor, so you’ll need to hire an attorney to help you prepare your case. Thankfully though, repaying your attorney is a manageable process. You’ll be able to treat the law firm you hire as a creditor. This means that you’ll be able to repay your legal fees as a part of your 3-5 year bankruptcy repayment plan.
Getting Free Bankruptcy Help Through Legal Aid
If you, for any reason, don’t feel comfortable filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case on your own, know that you may be eligible for free or low-cost legal services provided by a civil legal aid society. These nonprofit organizations assist low-income earners with their legal issues at little or no cost to their clients.
What Is It Like Working with Legal Aid?
When you pay for legal advice through a private law office, you develop an attorney-client relationship with the lawyer providing that advice. You’ll be afforded the same one-on-one legal relationship with a lawyer if you work with a legal aid society. Your lawyer may be a staff attorney or they may be an attorney who practices privately and volunteers their time at the nonprofit.
The major difference between a private law firm and a legal aid society is funding. Private firms rely on legal fees to remain operational. However, legal aid societies are funded by grants and donations, so they tend to have more limited resources than private firms do. As a result, you’ll likely be screened for eligibility (as most legal aid societies only have the resources to assist low-income earners) and you may have to spend time on a waitlist before a lawyer can begin work on your bankruptcy case.
How Do I Know If I’m Eligible for Legal Aid?
The best way to learn about a specific organization’s eligibility criteria is to call and ask. Phone numbers for local legal aid societies are conveniently listed in the next section of this guide. With that said, the chances are good that any legal aid society you call is going to tell you that they limit their client base to members of low-income households. For example, when a legal aid society accepts funding from the Legal Services Corporation, they are held to a standard of serving members of the community whose annual income doesn’t exceed 125% of the federal poverty line.
What Are the Legal Aid Organizations Near Me?
Contact information for Tampa-area civil legal aid societies is noted below. Don’t forget to ask about expected wait times and eligibility criteria when you call. This information will empower you to make an informed choice about whether to work with a particular organization or not.
Bay Area Legal Services, Inc.
1302 N. 19th Street, Suite 400, Tampa, FL 33605
Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, Inc.
491 North State Road 7, Plantation, FL 33317
Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Inc.
128 Orange Avenue, Suite 300, Daytona Beach, FL 32114-4310
Florida Rural Legal Services, Inc.
1321 E. Memorial Boulevard, Lakeland, FL 33801
Legal Services of North Florida, Inc.
2119 Delta Boulevard, Tallahassee, FL 32303-4209
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
Getting a Free Evaluation from a Bankruptcy Lawyer
If you’re not eligible for assistance through a legal aid society, you have numerous other resources available to help you make informed decisions about your legal and financial situation. First, you can schedule a free credit counseling session to better help you determine whether filing bankruptcy is the best debt relief option for your unique circumstances. Second, you can use some of the Upsolve resources discussed later in this guide.
Third, you can schedule an initial consultation with a bankruptcy law firm, even if you’re thinking about navigating the bankruptcy process on your own. Most Floridian consumer bankruptcy firms offer free consultations. You can use this no-risk, no-obligation meeting as an opportunity to ask a lawyer (not a paralegal) questions and to receive a case evaluation. Tofind an attorney near you who practices Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy, check out the websites hosted by these organizations:
Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney
Regardless of whether you attend an initial consultation with a lawyer, if you choose to prepare your case without an attorney’s help, you’ll be referred to as a “pro se filer” by the court. Pro se is a Latin term which means, “in/on one’s own behalf.” Representing yourself can be an empowering process but it’s important to understand that you don’t have to navigate pro se filing without helpful guidance at your disposal.
Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own
There are both printed and online resources available – at no cost – designed to help pro se filers prepare their bankruptcy forms and navigate the bankruptcy process successfully. Two of these reputable resources can be found on Upsolve’s website. Upsolve is a nonprofit organization, funded by generous donors, including Harvard University.
The first resource you’ll want to check out if you’re filing pro se is Upsolve’s free online filing tool. This tool allows filers of “simple cases” (the tool can’t accommodate joint filings at this time) to access and prepare all the forms that the courts require. The platform is secure, free, easy-to-navigate, and takes much of the guesswork out of filing bankruptcy without an attorney’s help.
Whether you’re eligible to use the tool or not, you can always access articles and guides about the bankruptcy process – written by attorneys – on Upsolve’s Learning Center hub. The Learning Center platform is free and accessible without a login. With hundreds of general and geographically-specific guides to choose from, if you have a question about Chapter 7 bankruptcy or debt relief alternatives generally, chances are excellent that you can find a knowledgeable answer to that question here.
Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court
Printed guides, made available to the public at no cost, can be accessed at any bankruptcy court in the United States. These guides cover varied topics related to the Bankruptcy Code and different types of bankruptcy. From requesting a filing fee waiver to reporting unlawful harassment by debt collectors, the information that these guides address is worth checking out.
Bryan Simpson United States Courthouse
300 North Hogan Street Jacksonville, FL 32202
George C. Young United States Courthouse
400 West Washington Street Orlando, FL 32801
Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse
801 North Florida Avenue Tampa, FL 33602
United States Courthouse and Federal Building
2110 First Street Fort Myers, FL 33901
C. Clyde Atkins United States Courthouse
301 North Miami Avenue Miami, FL 33128
The Flagler Waterview Building
1515 North Flagler Drive West Palm Beach, FL 33401
Winston E. Arnow Federal Building
100 North Palafox Street Pensacola, FL 32502
If you’re eligible to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and you’re struggling to make minimum payments on your credit cards and other unsecured debts, know that this debt relief option can help you to achieve a fresh financial start.
If bankruptcy is the best way to help you manage your current financial difficulties, know that you don’t have to incur legal debt to take advantage of this opportunity. If your finances aren’t unusually complex and you’re comfortable completing paperwork on your own, you can file without an attorney’s help. Upsolve’s resources and material printed by the courts can help you file bankruptcy successfully pro se.