Legal advice can be very helpful as you navigate the bankruptcy process, but not everyone can afford to hire an attorney to help them. That's where legal aid comes in. Legal aid organizations offer free or low-cost legal help to certain individuals. Eligibility is often based on income, but sometimes age, veteran status, or other factors come into play as well. This article will describe what legal aid is, how to find out if you qualify, and what it's like to work with a legal aid organization.
If you’re filing to get a fresh start through Chapter 7 bankruptcy, there's a good chance that you can't afford an attorney to help you through the process. As one filer said, “If I could afford an attorney, I wouldn’t be filing for bankruptcy in the first place.” While bankruptcy has its costs, attorneys' fees are usually the most expensive part by far. And you can apply for a fee waiver to eliminate other costs, such as filing fees.
But legal advice can be very helpful as you navigate the bankruptcy process. That's where legal aid comes in. Legal aid organizations offer free or low-cost legal help to eligible individuals.
What Is Legal Aid?
There are nonprofit legal aid offices in most U.S. cities. In these organizations, experienced attorneys provide free legal help to eligible people through legal aid organizations. You may hear this free help called "pro bono."
Eligibility is often based on income, but some assistance programs help older adults, veterans, and others. Legal aid services are supported by contributions from the government, philanthropic foundations, bar associations, and wealthy individuals.
What Legal Problems Can Legal Aid Help With?
Most legal aid organizations provide services for a variety of civil legal problems that low-income individuals face. These include:
Tenant-landlord issues like eviction
Family law cases involving domestic violence or child support issues
Some legal aid organizations provide bankruptcy help as well. Those that don't can usually give you a referral to bankruptcy attorneys at other organizations that provide free or low-cost legal help for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Also, many bankruptcy lawyers offer a free consultation to see if bankruptcy is right for you.
Can Legal Aid Take My Case Right Away?
Each legal aid office operates independently. Some organizations have a waiting list, but others don’t. If you’re wondering if your local legal aid organization can take your case, the best thing to do is call and ask.
You can find an organization near you through the American Bar Association. Your state supreme court likely provides links to legal resources as well, including self-help centers. The National Center for State Courts database can help you find a link to your state supreme court.
How Do I Know if I Qualify for Legal Aid or Free Legal Help?
The best way to find out if you qualify for free legal services is by calling your local legal aid organization. Most of these nonprofit organizations provide legal assistance to people whose income is below 125% of the federal poverty guideline.
The 2024 federal poverty level for an individual is $15,060. For a family of four, it’s $31,200. That means if your income is less than $15,060 as an individual or $31,200 if you have a family of four, you’ll likely qualify for a free legal aid attorney to help you with your bankruptcy case.
How Do You Prove You're Eligible for Legal Aid?
If you call a legal aid organization, you can expect someone to ask you questions to determine if you're eligible for assistance. It’s important to answer these questions truthfully.
You'll also have to provide a lot of financial documentation as part of the bankruptcy process. This means if you understate your income, for example, the organization will find out through your tax returns and pay stubs. Being honest will help to ensure both that you’re qualified to receive legal assistance and that you’re receiving the right sort of help.
You may also have to meet other requirements. Again, each legal aid organization operates independently and has its own rules and guidelines. For example, some agencies may require you to be United States citizen or live in the city where a legal aid organization is located. For bankruptcy help specifically, some agencies may not be able to help you if you have more than a certain amount of assets.
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What’s It Like To Work With a Legal Aid Organization?
Legal aid organizations deal with similar legal issues and treat their clients the same as for-profit law firms do. In fact, lawyers have an ethical obligation to treat paying clients in the same way they treat clients who get their services for free.
How Do You File Bankruptcy With the Help of Legal Aid?
The legal aid organization will screen you to see if you qualify for free help. They’ll also ask questions to see if you’re a good fit for bankruptcy. Some legal aid organizations will only help you if you have a job or have assets that creditors may seize. Some organizations don't have these rules. Again, there’s no way for you to know without calling your local legal aid organization to find out.
If the legal aid organization determines that you qualify for help and look like a good fit for bankruptcy, they’ll ask for more information. Each legal aid agency collects this information in its own way.
For example, some legal aid lawyers will conduct an interview with you to gather the information they need to complete your bankruptcy petition. Others will ask you to fill out a questionnaire. As you complete this questionnaire, answer everything truthfully. The information you provide will go onto the legal forms that are submitted to the bankruptcy court.
Do You Have To File Your Bankruptcy Forms or Will the Attorney Do It?
After your forms are complete, you’ll meet with your free attorney to review them. If your legal aid organization provides limited help, you may be responsible for filing the bankruptcy forms on your own and showing up by yourself to the 341 meeting with your trustee. The bankruptcy trustee is the person administering your case. If your legal aid organization provides full legal representation, then your attorney will file your forms for you and show up with you at your 341 meeting.
During the 341 meeting, the bankruptcy trustee will ask you questions about your financial life. Most 341 meetings last less than 10 minutes and are just between the filer and the trustee.
Why Do Legal Aid Organizations Exist?
As the law has become more complex, many ordinary Americans have a hard time navigating the legal system on their own. And bankruptcy law is no exception. After all, attorneys spend several years in law school to understand how to navigate the legal system successfully.
As a result, philanthropists, and eventually government agencies, started legal aid programs to provide free help to low-income Americans who struggle to get the legal information they need or who need free legal answers. This is especially helpful for individuals on a fixed Social Security income or those with limited or low income.
If you've been struggling financially and are considering filing bankruptcy, you may wonder how you can afford a lawyer to help you through the process. A legal aid program may be the solution. These organizations provide free or discounted legal services to help eligible individuals successfully navigate the bankruptcy process. If your case is simple, you may be able to use Upsolve's free online tool to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy on your own without help from a lawyer.