Legal aid and pro bono attorneys can help you get through your bankruptcy filing. Find out how they work and why they exist.
Written by Kristin Turner, Harvard Law Grad.
Updated November 29, 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. Attorneys are a great investment for people who can afford them, as they’re constantly available to answer questions and it's 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/or their high debt. 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 don't. 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 October 2020, 200% of the poverty line is an annual salary of $52,400 a year for someone with a family of four and $25,520 for an individual. In October, 125% of the poverty line was $32,750 for a family of four and $15,950 for an individual.
If you earn below $52,400 and you have four people in your family, or if you earn below $15,950 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.
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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's 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 can't provide it.
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 that means coming into their office for an interview. Sometimes it'll mean filling out a paper or online questionnaire. As you complete this questionnaire, it's important, once again, to be 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 bankruptcy trustee 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
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.