Need to file bankruptcy but don't think you can afford an attorney? Learn how to get free legal help to get your fresh start in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated November 4, 2020
There aren’t a lot of free bankruptcy lawyers in the Twin Cities, simply because private law firms need to charge their clients fees to “keep the lights on.” Thankfully though, filing for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy is very affordable, although these consumer bankruptcy processes are affordable in their own ways. Chapter 13 filers can repay fees for legal services as part of their 3-5 year bankruptcy repayment plans. By contrast, most Chapter 7 filers – who aren’t required to repay their eligible debts – don’t need to work with a lawyer to prepare their bankruptcy cases successfully. The Chapter 7 bankruptcy process is straightforward enough that they can self-file.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
If you meet the income eligibility limits set forth in the Chapter 7 bankruptcy Means Test, the bankruptcy courts believe it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to afford the repayment of even a portion of your eligible unsecured debts anytime soon. Logically, the courts assume that if you can’t afford to pay down your credit cards, medical bills, etc. right now that you also can’t afford to pay a bankruptcy attorney to prepare a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition on your behalf. As a result, the courts intentionally keep the Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing process simple enough that the vast majority of filers can successfully prepare their cases without a law firm’s assistance.
How can you determine whether you’re in the minority of filers who need to consult a bankruptcy law office for help with your legal issues? Generally speaking, if any of the following unusual circumstances apply to your situation, you should consider scheduling an initial consultation with a lawyer (discussed later in this guide) and/or schedule a free credit counseling session before committing to filing your bankruptcy case without professional assistance:
You own real estate other than your primary residence
You own valuable luxury property
You’re a small business owner
Your age, disability, or other circumstances make filling out legal paperwork on your own unwise or impractical
Your financial situation is extraordinarily complex
Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?
You’ll also want to consult an attorney who advertises consumer bankruptcy law as a “practice area” if you earn too much money to file under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. In this scenario, you may benefit from exploring the other primary type of bankruptcy widely available to consumers in the United States: Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Self-filing isn’t a practical option if you choose to file for debt relief under Chapter 13. Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a great option for many filers and can help you achieve a fresh start over time. But it is also a complex process that requires an attorney’s help.
Thankfully, paying for Chapter 13 legal advice is very manageable. After you file bankruptcy, your attorneys’ fees will be treated as an unsecured debt. As a result, you’ll be able to pay these fees over several years as part of your manageable bankruptcy repayment plan.
Getting Free Bankruptcy Help Through Legal Aid
If you don’t earn much income and either need an attorney to help you with your case or you’re uncomfortable filing on your own, you may be able to access free or low-cost legal help with filing bankruptcy. Civil legal aid societies in the Twin Cities may be able to assign a staff or volunteer attorney to your case at little or no cost. Legal aid societies are nonprofit organizations that primarily offer legal services to members of low-income households.
What Is It Like Working with Legal Aid?
If you’re interested in developing an attorney-client relationship with a licensed attorney who can help you obtain a fresh financial start, you’ll get this one-on-one opportunity as a client of a legal aid society. You just may have to wait longer to start meeting with your lawyer than you would if you worked with a private firm. Nonprofits have limited resources, so they sometimes have to place new clients on waitlists after screening them for eligibility.
How Do I Know If I’m Eligible for Legal Aid?
Most legal aid societies focus on a potential client’s household income level when screening them for eligibility for services. For example, if you work with a nonprofit that receives grant funding from the Legal Services Corporation, you’ll be eligible for help if your household income doesn’t exceed 125% of the federal poverty line annually. However, every Twin Cities legal aid society is different, so you’ll want to contact each directly before making an assumption about your eligibility for services.
What Are the Legal Aid Organizations Near Me?
Phone numbers and other handy contact information for civil legal aid societies in St. Paul and parts of the Twin Cities metro can be found below. If you call any of these organizations, make sure to confirm their estimated wait times. If you can’t wait to begin filing bankruptcy, you can research some of the resources listed below to see if filing on your own is the best option for your family right now.
Anishinabe Legal Services, Inc.
411 1st Street, NW, P.O. Box 157, Cass Lake, MN 56633-0157
Central Minnesota Legal Services, Inc.
430 First Avenue North, Suite 359, Minneapolis, MN 55401-1780
Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota
302 Ordean Building, 424 West Superior Street, Duluth, MN 55802-1540
Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota Corporation
1015 7th Avenue North, P.O. Box 838, Moorhead, MN 56561-0838
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
Getting a Free Evaluation from a Bankruptcy Lawyer
Anyone who wants to explore their options can schedule a case evaluation with a bankruptcy lawyer. Similarly, anyone who wants to ask a lawyer questions before deciding whether to file on their own can schedule a case evaluation with a bankruptcy lawyer. Most consumer bankruptcy firms in the Twin Cities offer free consultations to anyone who asks for one. This process won’t obligate you to work with a lawyer or file for bankruptcy. Think of this opportunity as a free, risk-free question and answer session with a legal professional (an attorney, not a paralegal as these individuals aren’t empowered to give legal advice.)
You can begin researching Minnesota bankruptcy lawyers on the following websites:
The Minnesota State Bar Association
The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA)
Twin Cities metro bar association sites
You can also ask loved ones if they are aware of any reputable bankruptcy attorneys who practice in your area of The Cities.
Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney
Preparing your own bankruptcy case is known as “filing pro se.” Pro se is a classification taken from the Latin translation of the phrase, which is “in/on one’s own behalf.” If you come across this term in court documentation or when researching how to file on your own effectively, pay attention to whatever information is being discussed.
Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own
There are many knowledgeable resources available for pro se filers. Some can be accessed in print form at local bankruptcy courts. Others can be found on the internet. For example, at Upsolve.org, you can access two valuable resources designed for pro se filers at no cost. The first is the Upsolve Learning Center. This free educational hub is available to the public without a login. It features articles written by attorneys about every aspect of the Chapter 7 filing process, the Chapter 13 bankruptcy process, and non-bankruptcy debt relief alternatives. If you have questions, you can look here for free answers written by legal professionals.
The second is Upsolve’s free online filing tool. This resource works for eligible bankruptcy filers in much the way that TurboTax and similar programs work for tax filers. If you’re preparing a simple Chapter 7 case (free of joint filings, etc.) you can use this tool to access all required bankruptcy forms. You can also fill out your forms on this secure, easy-to-navigate platform at no cost.
Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court
Minnesota bankruptcy courts provide free information about bankruptcy law as well. You can stop by during business hours to pick up guides related to various aspects of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. For example, you can use this printed information to learn more about preparing for your meeting of creditors and about effectively securing a waiver for your Chapter 7 filing fee.
Warren E. Burger Federal Building
316 North Robert Street St. Paul, MN 55101
Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building and United States Courthouse
515 West First Street Duluth, MN 55802
If you’ve decided that filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the best way to stabilize your family’s finances and to achieve a fresh start upon which to build a stronger financial future, there is good news to be had. You neither have to pay for an attorney’s help nor navigate this process without knowledgeable guidance. Yes, if your circumstances are extraordinary, you may need to work with a private or legal aid attorney. However, the vast majority of Chapter 7 filers can opt to save money by learning about the process from free, reputable resources and by filing their cases “pro se.”