What is legal aid and why does it exist?

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If you’re filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, there is a good chance that you cannot afford an attorney to help you through the process. Attorneys are a great investment for people who can afford them, as they’re constantly available to answer questions and it is usually pretty easy to find an attorney who can take your case right away if you’re willing to pay them for it. Unfortunately, many Americans who are filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy cannot afford attorneys due to their minimal or nonexistent income, and their high debt levels. In the words of one debtor, “If I could afford an attorney, I wouldn’t be filing for bankruptcy in the first place.”

Legal Aid is Here to Help

Fortunately, most cities in the United States have nonprofits that are able to provide free legal help to Americans below a certain income level. We know it may sound too good to be true: a free lawyer to help you solve your legal problem. Thanks to the government, philanthropic foundations, Bar associations, and wealthy individuals, these nonprofits, called legal aid organizations, provide free help to low-income Americans. Sometimes legal aid organizations have waiting lists, but sometimes they do not. If you’re wondering whether your local legal aid organization will take your case, the best thing you can do is give them a call and ask. You may be put on hold or need to give them a couple of calls, but the time you put into figuring out if you qualify may save you thousands of dollars.

How Do I Know if I Qualify

If you think you may qualify for free legal aid help, you should call your local legal aid organization rather than guess whether you qualify for free help or not. Most legal aid organizations help people who are either below 200% of the poverty line or below 125% of the poverty line. As of April 2018, 200% of the poverty line was an annual salary of $50,200 a year for someone with a family of four and $24,280 for an individual. In April 2018, 125% of the poverty line was $31,375 for a family of four and $15,175 for an individual.

If you earn below $31,375 and you have four people in your family, or if you earn below $15,175 and you’re on your own, it’s almost guaranteed that your income level qualifies you for a free legal aid attorney to help you on your bankruptcy, as long as you meet the other requirements. These requirements may be that you are a United States citizen, do not own over a certain amount of assets, or live in the city where a legal aid organization is located.

Upsolve has a legal aid locator tool to help you find legal aid organizations in your state that provide free bankruptcy assistance. Feel free to call the legal aid organizations in your area during normal business hours to see if you qualify for their help.

What is It Like to Work with a Legal Aid Organization

Legal aid organizations are similar to for-profit law firms in the way they provide help to their clients. Indeed, lawyers are bound by ethical obligations to treat clients that pay fees in the same way they treat clients that do not. If you call a legal aid organization, you can expect a phone operator or paralegal to first ask questions to determine whether you qualify for their free assistance. It is important not to lie during these questions. If you understate your income, the lawyer with whom you work will find out through your tax returns and pay stubs. You’ll just waste your time trying to get help from someone who cannot provide it.

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After the legal aid organization screens you to see if you qualify for their 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 have no such rules. Again, there is no way for you to know without calling your local legal aid organization to find out.

Once a legal aid organization determines that you qualify for its help and look like a good fit for bankruptcy, it will ask you to provide more information. Different legal aid organizations collect this information in different ways. Sometimes it will entail asking you to come into their office for an interview. Sometimes it will entail filling out a paper or online questionnaire. As you complete this questionnaire, it is important, once again, to remain totally honest. The information you provide will go onto your bankruptcy forms that are submitted to the court.

After your forms are complete, you’ll meet with your free attorney to review them. If your legal aid organization provides help in a limited assistance capacity, then you’ll be responsible for filing the actual bankruptcy forms on your own and showing up by yourself to the 341 meeting. During this meeting, the trustee, who is the court official overseeing your case, will ask you questions about your financial life, and you’ll answer them. Most 341 meetings last less than ten 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.

Why Legal Aid Organizations Exist

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As laws became more complex and it became clear that ordinary Americans would have a hard time navigating the legal system on their own without any sort of legal representation. As a result, philanthropists, and eventually government agencies, started legal aid organizations to provide free help to low-income Americans who would not be able to solve their own legal problems. Most legal aid organizations cater to a variety of legal problems that low-income Americans face. These include tenant-landlord issues, debt collection lawsuits, domestic abuse cases, etc. Not every legal aid organization does bankruptcy, but those that do not are generally able to provide referrals to those organizations that do help with bankruptcy.

If you live in New York City and you’re interested in getting free legal aid help, visit Upsolve.org and get started or call us at (347) 850-2656. We’re here to help you.

Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) legal aid nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income Americans in financial distress get a fresh start through Chapter 7 bankruptcy at no cost. We do this by combining the power of technology with pro bono attorneys. Spun out of Harvard Law School, our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have mission-driven funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and private charities.

To learn more, read our reviews from past clients, or read our press coverage.