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How Can I Get Free Legal Aid Help?

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In a Nutshell

It's ironic that filing for bankruptcy can be expensive. If you're filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, there is a good chance that you can't afford to hire an attorney to help you through the process. Luckily, there are ways to access free legal help by contacting a legal aid organization near you.

Written by Attorney Jonathan Petts.  
Updated August 26, 2021


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 debtor 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 puts low-income individuals in touch with experienced attorneys who can provide important free legal advice.

Fortunately, there are nonprofits in most U.S. cities that are able to provide free legal help to low-income people. These nonprofits are called legal aid organizations. They provide free legal services to help low-income Americans thanks to contributions from the government, philanthropic foundations, bar associations, and wealthy individuals. Sometimes legal aid organizations have waiting lists, but sometimes they do not. 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.

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 2021 federal poverty level for an individual is $12,880 and for a family of four is $26,500. That means if your income is less than $16,100 as an individual or $33,125 if you have a family of four, you will likely qualify for a free legal aid attorney to help you with your bankruptcy.

In addition to your income, you may also have to meet other requirements. These requirements may be that you are a United States citizen who lives in a city where a legal aid organization is located, and you don't have over a certain amount of assets.

Legal aid organizations deal with similar legal issues as for-profit law firms and treat their clients the same. In fact, lawyers have an ethical obligation to treat paying clients in the same way they treat clients who get their services for free.

If you call a legal aid organization, you can expect someone to ask you questions to determine if you qualify for assistance. It is 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 you ensure you use your and their time wisely and are qualified to actually receive legal assistance.

After the legal aid organization screens you to see if you qualify for free help, they’ll 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 is 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, you'll be asked 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 paper or online 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 court official overseeing your case. During this meeting, the trustee will ask you questions about your financial life. Most 341 meetings last less than 10 minutes and are just between the debtor and the trustee. 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.

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.

Most legal aid organizations cater to a variety of legal problems that low-income Americans face. These include tenant-landlord issues like eviction and debt collection issues like repossession or foreclosure. Some work in family law on domestic violence cases, child support issues, and more. Not every legal aid organization provides bankruptcy help. Those that don't are usually able to provide a lawyer referral service to other organizations that provide free or low-cost legal help for bankruptcy cases.

Let's Summarize...

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. Free legal aid organizations help low-income individuals navigate the bankruptcy process free of charge. 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.



Written By:

Attorney Jonathan Petts

LinkedIn

Jonathan Petts has over 10 years of experience in bankruptcy and is co-founder and Board Chair of Upsolve. Attorney Petts has an LLM in Bankruptcy from St. John's University, clerked for two federal bankruptcy judges, and worked at two top New York City law firms specializing in... read more about Attorney Jonathan Petts

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    Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income families who cannot afford lawyers file bankruptcy for free, using an online web app. Spun out of Harvard Law School, our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have world-class funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and leading foundations. It's one of the greatest civil rights injustices of our time that low-income families can’t access their basic rights when they can’t afford to pay for help. Combining direct services and advocacy, we’re fighting this injustice.

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