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In a Nutshell

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. Louis, Missouri.

Written by Upsolve Team
Updated November 4, 2020

Did you know that if you don’t earn much income, you probably don’t need to hire a bankruptcy attorney to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case successfully? This is often welcome news for low-income filers, as it’s difficult to find a “free bankruptcy lawyer” in Missouri. Private bankruptcy law offices need to charge their clients or they can’t stay in business. Although free legal help can be found at legal aid societies, these organizations often have long waitlists that new clients are placed on before they can receive legal advice. Therefore, the fact that most low-income bankruptcy filers can successfully prepare their cases themselves can be a “game-changer.”

Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?

If you were unsure of whether you could afford to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and the fact that you can probably prepare your bankruptcy petition successfully on your own is news to you, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. You may even be thinking that this opportunity sounds too good to be true. Thankfully, it isn’t. This reality isn’t well-advertised, but the United States bankruptcy courts structured this type of bankruptcy so that it would be easy enough for most filers to navigate successfully without a bankruptcy attorney’s help.

Why would the courts do this? Chapter 7 is a particularly generous debt relief option. Unlike the other major type of bankruptcy available to consumers – Chapter 13 bankruptcy – the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process doesn’t require filers to repay any of their eligible unsecured debts before the court is permitted to discharge them. Because this model takes away creditors’ ability to collect any of a filer’s debts that are eligible for discharge, the courts only allow members of the lowest-income households in the nation to benefit from this process. The courts reason that if a filer can’t be expected to pay their debt, they can’t be expected to afford an attorney either.

In short, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process is intentionally so straightforward that unless any of the following scenarios applies to your financial situation, you should be able to file bankruptcy successfully without hiring a law firm to help you:

  • You have a disability that makes filling out paperwork without help impractical

  • You own real estate other than your primary residence

  • You’re a small business owner

  • You own unusually valuable luxury property

Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?

What if you’re not a member of a low-income household? If you earn so much money that your annual household income exceeds the Chapter 7 income eligibility limits, you’ll need to explore alternative debt relief options. Thankfully, filing bankruptcy under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code is also a very affordable process, it’s just affordable in a different way.

When filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you and your attorney will construct a 3-5 year debt repayment plan. You’ll then repay a manageable monthly amount of your total debt for the “life” of your repayment plan. Once you’ve completed this process successfully, any remaining eligible debt will be discharged. Your attorneys’ fees will be treated as debt for the purposes of repayment. Meaning, you’ll repay your bankruptcy lawyer over several years, through your Chapter 13 repayment plan using funds that would have gone to other creditors regardless.

Creating this repayment plan is a very tricky and legally complex business. You shouldn’t attempt to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy on your own, as most Chapter 13 cases filed “pro se” (without an attorney’s help) fail.  

The one place where members of low-income households may be able to reliably access free or low-cost legal help is civil legal aid societies. These organizations are nonprofits that provide members of low-income households with access to an attorney. Note that this isn’t the same opportunity as scheduling a free credit counseling session, which is an experience available to everyone. 

Step One: Contact a legal aid organization to be screened for legal services based on that organization’s eligibility criteria, which will probably focus on your household’s income level.

Step Two: If you’re accepted as a client, you will probably be placed on a waitlist before you can meet with your new lawyer if the organization’s services are in high demand.

Step Three: Develop an attorney-client relationship with your lawyer just like you would if you were paying a private firm for help with your legal issues. You’ll work together one-on-one to navigate the ins and outs of your case.

Most legal aid societies focus on a potential client’s income level when screening them for eligibility. This is because nonprofit organizations without access to limitless funding need to offer their resources to those most in need. For example, if a legal aid society accepts grant funding from the Legal Services Corporation, it commits to providing – at the very least – services for members of households whose income doesn’t exceed 125% of the federal poverty line annually. With that said, every organization is unique. It’s important to confirm an organization’s eligibility criteria before assuming that you will or won’t qualify to become a client.

There are several civil legal aid societies that serve the St. Louis community. If you use the phone numbers listed below to connect with these organizations, don’t forget to ask about estimated wait times. If waitlists are long, you’ll need to consider that as you weigh your filing options if you need to file bankruptcy urgently.  

Legal Aid of Western Missouri
(816) 474-6750
4001 Blue Parkway, Suite 300, Kansas City, MO 64130

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Inc.
(314) 534-4200
4232 Forest Park Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63108

Legal Services of Southern Missouri
(417) 881-1397
809 N. Campbell Avenue, Springfield, MO 65802

Mid-Missouri Legal Services Corporation
(573) 442-0116
1201 West Broadway, Columbia, MO 65203

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Getting a Free Evaluation from a Bankruptcy Lawyer

If you have questions about your bankruptcy options, you can also opt to schedule an initial consultation with an attorney who practices bankruptcy law before you commit to a plan of action. Most lawyers who advertise Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy as “practice areas” offer free consultations to anyone who could benefit from a case evaluation. If you attend a consultation, you won’t be obligated to work with a bankruptcy lawyer moving forward. This is a no-risk opportunity that only requires your time.

To get contact information for lawyers who practice consumer bankruptcy in St. Louis, check out the NACBA website. The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys hosts a searchable “find an attorney” database of consumer bankruptcy lawyers from around the country. Both the Missouri State Bar Association website and local bar association websites can be helpful for research purposes as well.

Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney

It’s important to understand that even if you go to a law office to attend an initial consultation, if you choose to prepare your case yourself past that point, you’ll be classified as a “pro se filer” for the purposes of your bankruptcy case. As a result, if you see information posted by the court referencing pro se filers, you’ll want to pay attention. Being a pro se filer simply means that you’re not working with an attorney to prepare and file your bankruptcy petition.

Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own

Just because you’re choosing to file pro se doesn’t mean that you won’t have access to knowledgeable resources designed to guide you through the bankruptcy process. There are resources available for self-filers, often at no charge, both online and in print. For example, you can find answers to virtually any question you may have about filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on the Upsolve Learning Center. This free and login-free educational hub features hundreds of bankruptcy-related and debt-related articles and guides written by attorneys.

The Upsolve website also features a free online filing tool that eligible pro se filers can use to prepare bankruptcy forms for their simple Chapter 7 cases. Tracking down required bankruptcy forms and filling them out properly is arguably the most challenging aspect of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. If you’re eligible to use this tool, it will take that guesswork and stress out of your bankruptcy journey.

Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court

You can also learn about various bankruptcy topics (requesting a waiver of your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case filing fee, what to expect at your meeting of creditors, etc.) at any local bankruptcy court. When you arrive, ask the clerk where you can find the court’s free printed information about bankruptcy.

Charles Evans Whittaker United States Courthouse

Charles Evans Whittaker United States Courthouse
400 East Ninth Street Kansas City, MO 64106

Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse

Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse
111 South Tenth Street St. Louis, MO 63102

Christopher S. Bond United States Courthouse

Christopher S. Bond United States Courthouse
80 Lafayette Street Jefferson City, MO 65101

Let’s Summarize

Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy can’t solve all financial challenges. If most of your debt is secured or you own a great deal of luxury property that you want to keep, this option might not be right for your situation. However, if you’re eligible to file bankruptcy under Chapter 7, you’re looking for a fresh financial start, and this process meets your needs, there is no reason not to begin thinking about which filing approach might work best for you. Unless your situation is complex, you should be able to self-file if you choose to. If you opt to file on your own, there are plenty of reputable resources available at no charge that can help you achieve your fresh start.

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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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