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 Chicago, Illinois.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated September 17, 2020
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Illinois is a relatively straightforward process. As a result, you may not need to hire a lawyer to successfully file your bankruptcy case. However, working with an attorney can be helpful, depending on your circumstances and your preferences.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
There are two primary types of consumer bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Chapter 7 bankruptcy is available as an option to filers who earn very little income. This straightforward process eliminates qualifying debts in as little as 90 days. By contrast, the complex Chapter 13 bankruptcy process involves restructuring a filer’s debts so that they can be paid in-part or in-full over a 3-5 year repayment plan.
Each personal bankruptcy option offers individuals and married couples filing jointly an opportunity to achieve a fresh financial start. A Chapter 7 case (that isn’t unusually complex) may be filed without a bankruptcy lawyer’s assistance. However, it’s usually unwise to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy without professional guidance, as the legal issues involved in this process are far more complex than those involved in Chapter 7 cases tend to be.
With that said, filing bankruptcy under Chapter 7 can be stressful and many filers choose to work with attorneys because it allows someone else to do the “heavy lifting” involved in preparing their bankruptcy petition. There is no “correct way” to approach the bankruptcy process. You can hire an attorney if you want to and you can file “pro se” (without a lawyer’s assistance) if you’d like to save some money, provided that you don’t own a business or have otherwise unusually complex financial challenges.
Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?
One of the primary reasons why it’s important to hire an attorney if you choose to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy (which is far more complex than Chapter 7 bankruptcy) is that you’ll need solid legal advice when constructing your repayment plan. Structuring a plan that has the best possible chance of success over a 3-5 year period is the “heart” of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy process. Law firms that specialize in the practice area of bankruptcy can help you achieve this goal.
Unfortunately, most Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions filed without an attorney’s assistance fail. You may not feel that you can afford to hire a lawyer right now. But if your financial situation can benefit from the fresh start bankruptcy provides (and you’re ineligible for debt relief under Chapter 7), it’s important to speak to a bankruptcy law office about benefiting from their legal services under a reasonable payment plan.
Getting Free Bankruptcy Help Through Legal Aid
If you can’t afford to work with a bankruptcy attorney, you may be eligible for free legal counsel through an Illinois legal aid society. These non-profit organizations provide professional legal assistance for members of low-income households at no cost.
What Is It Like Working with Legal Aid?
If you request assistance through a legal aid society, you’ll be screened to ensure that you meet their eligibility requirements. Legal aid services tend to be in high demand, so you may be temporarily placed on a waitlist until a representative can help you prepare your case. Once you reach the top of the waiting list, you’ll work one-on-one with a bankruptcy attorney and you’ll develop an attorney-client relationship accordingly.
If you’re put on a waiting list to work with a legal aid society, you may benefit from scheduling a no-cost credit counseling session with an accredited non-profit credit counseling agency. That way, you’ll be able to speak with a professional credit counselor about your options concerning credit card debt, wage garnishments, harassment by debt collectors, debt relief alternatives, and your financial goals generally while you wait for your legal aid appointment.
How Do I Know If I’m Eligible for Legal Aid?
Although every legal aid organization has unique eligibility criteria, members of the federally-funded Legal Services Corporation are required to serve, at minimum, members of households whose annual income doesn’t exceed 125% of the federal poverty line. You’ll want to connect with various legal aid organizations in your area before making any assumptions (for better or worse) about your eligibility for their legal services.
Note that the credit counseling opportunity explained above is not subject to income limits. Anyone who wants to explore their debt relief options with the assistance of a credit counselor can schedule a credit counseling session with an accredited non-profit credit counseling organization for free.
What Are the Legal Aid Organizations Near Me?
The following is a list of legal aid societies in the Chicago area, featuring contact information for each option. If the first few you call have waiting lists, feel free to put your name down and to keep calling. You can always take your name off their list if you find an organization that can accommodate your needs faster.
Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Inc.
8787 State Street, Suite 201, East St. Louis, IL 62203
Legal Aid Chicago
120 South LaSalle Street, Suite 900, Chicago, IL 60603-3425
Prairie State Legal Services, Inc.
303 North Main Street, Suite 600, Rockford, IL 61101
Justice Entrepreneurs Project
208 S Jefferson, Suite 204, Chicago, IL 60661
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
Getting a Free Evaluation from a Bankruptcy Lawyer
Most consumer bankruptcy attorneys offer free consultations. These meetings allow prospective clients to have their questions answered in a confidential, no-cost, and risk-free setting. Attending an initial consultation will neither obligate you to work with that attorney moving forward nor will it obligate you to file for bankruptcy.
If you’re unsure of where to find a qualified attorney in your area, you may want to begin searching via the Illinois state bar website or the website run by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA). When you contact a bankruptcy firm that you’re interested in scheduling a consultation with, be sure to confirm that you’ll be meeting with an attorney, not a paralegal or member of the firm’s administrative staff. That way, you’ll be able to ask an attorney legal questions that other staff members are not qualified to answer.
Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney
If you can’t afford an attorney’s services, you aren’t eligible for legal aid services, and/or you’d prefer to prepare your petition on your own, keep in mind that you can file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case “pro se” (without a lawyer). Filing pro se is neither a “right” nor “wrong” approach to bankruptcy. Every filer can benefit from different approaches for different reasons.
Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own
If you choose to file bankruptcy without a lawyer’s help, you can access numerous helpful resources on the Upsolve website at any time. Upsolve’s non-profit “Learning Center” features hundreds of free articles about the bankruptcy process that are always accessible without a login.
Additionally, you may be eligible to prepare your bankruptcy paperwork for free using Upsolve’s no-cost web tool. This non-profit web tool may be used by individuals filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but it cannot be used for joint filings at this time. Partially because the tool is made available to the public through the generosity of donors, Upsolve must limit access to this comprehensive tool to individuals from low-income households.
Upsolve will never ask for your credit card. If you file using the free Upsolve web tool, the only fee you’ll need to be concerned with is the bankruptcy filing fee that you’ll need to submit to the court. Instead, you’ll prepare your bankruptcy petition online, at no cost. While it is generally a good idea to avoid any online resources that seem too good to be true, Upsolve’s free web tool is a “too good to be true” resource made available through a reputable non-profit via the generosity of donors, including Harvard University. It is a resource worthy of your trust.
Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court
Regardless of how you choose to file your bankruptcy petition, know that you can access self-help resources at whichever bankruptcy court is nearest your location. You can pick up these materials before you prepare your petition or you can pick up materials relevant to the remainder of your process when you drop your initial paperwork off with the clerk.
Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse
219 South Dearborn Street Chicago, IL 60604
Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse
327 South Church Street Rockford, IL 61101
Paul Findley Federal Building and United States Courthouse
600 East Monroe Street Springfield, IL 62701
Melvin Price Federal Building and United States Courthouse
750 Missouri Avenue East St. Louis, IL 62201
If debt relief alternatives can’t provide you with the fresh start you’re seeking, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy may be an excellent option for you. If you choose to file for bankruptcy, it’s important to choose whichever approach to filing best fits your unique needs. Either way, know that there are many options available (both free and fee-based options) that can help you file for bankruptcy successfully. Whether you’d prefer to hire a lawyer or go through the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process on your own, the “right” approach to filing for bankruptcy is the one that works for you.