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 eligible individuals. 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 for 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.” 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-costlegal help to eligible individuals.
What Is Legal Aid?
Most U.S. cities have nonprofitlegal aid offices where experienced attorneys offer their services “pro bono” to provide free legal help to eligible people through legal aid organizations. 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.
Most legal aid organizations provide services for a variety of civil legal problems that low-income Americans face. These include tenant-landlord issues like eviction and debt collection issues car owners or homeowners face like repossession or foreclosure. Some work in family law on domestic violence cases, child support issues, and more. Some provide bankruptcy help. Those that don't can usually give you a referral to lawyers at other organizations that provide free or low-costlegal help for bankruptcy cases.
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?
To find out if you qualify for these free legal services, you should call 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 2022 federal poverty level for an individual is $13,590. For a family of four, it’s $27,750. That means if your income is less than $16,988 as an individual or $34,688 if you have a family of four, you’ll likely qualify for a free legal aid attorney to help you with your bankruptcy.
If you call a legal aid organization, you can expect someone to ask you questions to determine if you qualify for assistance. It’s important to answer these questions truthfully. You'll 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; it makes no sense to put in the work to file for a bankruptcy that will be rejected if the documentation doesn’t match up.
There may also be other requirements you might have to meet. For example, you may have to be a United States citizen, live in a city where a legal aid organization is located, and not 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.
Filing 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 you to provide more information. Different legal aid organizations collect this information in different ways. Some will gather information by doing an interview. Some 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.
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 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 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. 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.