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 New York, New York.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated October 7, 2020
If you’re hoping to work with a “free lawyer” while filing a bankruptcy case, you’ll likely need to contact a local legal aid society to see if you’re eligible for their legal services. Private law offices rarely provide free services, as they rely on client fees – not grants and donations – to fund their operations. Thankfully, even if you’re ineligible for legal aid services, you can likely file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on your own successfully unless your case is unusually complex.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
Too often, it seems like if you don’t earn much income, it’s impossible to “catch a break.” However, when it comes to filing bankruptcy as a member of a low-income household, you’ll get to take advantage of three unique benefits. There are two kinds of consumer bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Whereas Chapter 13 “reorganization bankruptcy” is available to everyone, Chapter 7 bankruptcy is only available to members of low-income households. The unique benefits of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy include:
The elimination of eligible debts in as few as 90 days
A process so straightforward that you don’t have to hire an attorney unless you want to
Not being required to pay down your eligible debt before it can be eliminated
Granted, if your situation is unusually complex or you own a lot of expensive property, you may want to work with an attorney to prepare your Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. Filers who own multiple pieces of real estate, small businesses, and/or unusually valuable assets may benefit from seeking paid legal advice. However, if none of these exceptions applies to you, you can obtain the fresh financial start that the straightforward Chapter 7 bankruptcy process provides without an attorney’s assistance.
Are You Filing a Chapter 13 Reorganization Bankruptcy?
While you can file under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code successfully on your own, filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy requires the assistance of an attorney who practices bankruptcy law. Why? The Chapter 13 bankruptcy process is far more complex than the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process is. Therefore, if your income exceeds the Chapter 7 eligibility limits (also known as theChapter 7 Means Test), you’ll want to speak with a lawyer about whether Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a good fit for your financial situation.
If you’re panicking at the thought of seeking paid legal advice for a Chapter 13 case, you can breathe easy. Your attorney can be listed as a creditor in your repayment plan. You’ll be able to pay at least some of their fees over time, likely using funds that would have gone to your creditors no matter what.
Getting Free Bankruptcy Help Through Legal Aid
If you’re eligible to file bankruptcy under Chapter 7, you may be able to work with a bankruptcy lawyer for free if you don’t want to prepare your bankruptcy petition on your own. New York legal aid societies provide free and low-cost legal services to low-income communities.
What Is It Like Working with Legal Aid?
Legal aid organizations are non-profits, so they rely on grants and donor funding to keep the lights on. As a result, their resources can get easily overwhelmed. Don’t be surprised if, after you’ve been screened to ensure that you qualify for services, you’re placed on a waitlist. Once a staff attorney or local private bankruptcy attorney serving as a volunteer can accommodate your case, you’ll be scheduled for an initial consultation.
Keep waitlist times in mind if you’re hoping to file your bankruptcy petition quickly. Developing an attorney-client relationship with a legal aid lawyer can save you money and stress. However, if you need to act quickly, you may want to try preparing your paperwork on your own using resources explored later in this guide.
How Do I Know If I’m Eligible for Legal Aid?
Like private law firms, legal aid societies are independent operations. Each sets its own eligibility guidelines. If you want to know whether you qualify to access an organization’s services, you can contact them directly at any time. Most legal aid eligibility criteria are income-based.
As a general frame of reference, most legal aid societies across the United States are required to follow so-called LSC guidelines. The Legal Services Corporation is the largest funding organization for civil legal aid societies nationwide. LSC funding recipient organizations are required to assist an individual if their household, at a minimum, doesn’t report an annual income that exceeds 125% of the federal poverty line.
What Are the Legal Aid Organizations Near Me?
Below, you’ll find contact information (phone numbers, addresses, etc.) for civil legal aid societies around New York. Don’t forget that if one organization has a long waiting list, another might not. It often pays to call around.
Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York, Inc.
268 Genesee Street, Utica, NY 13502
Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Inc.
95 Central Avenue, Albany, NY 12206
Legal Assistance of Western New York, Inc.
361 South Main Street, Geneva, NY 14456
Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee, Inc.
One Helen Keller Way, 5th Floor, Hempstead, NY 11550
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
Getting a Free Evaluation from a Bankruptcy Lawyer
If you’re unsure of whether you want to file for bankruptcy, it may be helpful to schedule a free credit counseling session with an accredited, non-profit credit counseling agency in your area. At the end of your session, you’ll receive a personalized action plan (created by a credit counselor) designed to help you manage your debt and achieve your financial goals. This action plan may or may not include a recommendation to file for bankruptcy.
If you decide to file bankruptcy but you’re unsure if you want to file on your own, you can schedule a case evaluation with a bankruptcy attorney. Most New York bankruptcy law firms offer free consultations to anyone interested in asking questions about their legal issues. This meeting doesn’t obligate you to work with an attorney moving forward. You can find an attorney located in your area of New York using any of the following resources:
Local bar association websites
The New York State Bar Association website
The National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) website
Filing Without a Bankruptcy Attorney
If you choose to file on your own, you’ll want to take advantage of reputable, free self-filing guides that can be found online. When researching the self-filing process, don’t be surprised if you come across the term “pro se.” This Latin term is used nowadays to refer to filers who prepare their legal cases without an attorney’s assistance.
Using Upsolve’s Free Web Tool to File Bankruptcy on Your Own
A great place to begin your online self-filing research is Upsolve’s Learning Center. Upsolve is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping low-income filers navigate the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process for free. However, anyone struggling to manage their debt can benefit from the hundreds of guides and articles indexed on the Learning Center platform. These resources are always free and are available to the public without a login. Here, you’ll find all the information you need to begin filing pro se, as well as information about non-bankruptcy debt relief alternatives.
If you’re preparing a “simple case,” (no joint filings, etc.) you may also benefit from checking out Upsolve’s free filing tool. This tool allows eligible filers to access and prepare their bankruptcy forms in a secure, easy-to-navigate location. For many filers, tracking down forms and figuring out how to file them is the most stressful part of bankruptcy. The Upsolve free filing tool eliminates these particular stresses.
Self-help Resources at the Bankruptcy Court
If you prefer to use printed guides as your self-filing reference material, know that you can pick up free information at any bankruptcy court in New York. Depending on what’s available, you can use these guides to learn about the types of bankruptcy, how to self-file successfully, how to request a waiver of your case filing fee, how to prepare for your meeting of creditors, etc.
Conrad B. Duberstein United States Bankruptcy Courthouse
271-C Cadman Plaza East Brooklyn, NY 11201
Alfonse M. D'Amato United States Courthouse
Federal Plaza Central Islip, NY 11722
Alexander Hamilton Custom House
One Bowling Green New York, NY 10004
Charles L. Brieant, Jr. United States Courthouse
300 Quarropas Street White Plains, NY 10601
United States Courthouse
355 Main Street Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
300 Pearl Street Buffalo, NY 14202
Kenneth B. Keating Federal Building
100 State Street Rochester, NY 14614
James M. Hanley Federal Building
100 South Clinton Street Syracuse, NY 13261
Alexander Pirnie Federal Building
10 Broad Street Utica, NY 13501
James T. Foley United States Courthouse
445 Broadway Albany, NY 12207
Bankruptcy isn’t the right debt solution for all debt-related challenges. But if it’s the best option for your unique financial situation, this process can be life-changing in the best possible ways. If you choose to seek a fresh start through Chapter 7 bankruptcy, make sure to take advantage of free, reputable self-filing resources if you choose to file pro se. If not, make sure you feel confident in your attorney’s approach before they begin work on your case. The most important thing is that you approach your bankruptcy case in whatever way works best for you.