This article will explore when it makes sense to hire a bankruptcy attorney, how legal aid can help, and conclude with an overview of free bankruptcy resources available to Philadelphia residents.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated September 3, 2020
Whether you’re just still considering your debt relief options or have already made up your mind, you’re probably wondering whether you’ll need to hire a bankruptcy lawyer for your case. And, more importantly, how anyone filing bankruptcy can even afford an attorney… You’re not alone.
Bankruptcy is a powerful tool for folks facing financial hardship due to job loss, medical bills, divorce, or a never-ending cycle of payday loans that simply won’t go away. More than 750,000 consumers sought debt relief by filing a bankruptcy petition in 2019.
Upsolve is a nonprofit organization that provides low-income Americans a free tool to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy on their own (“pro se”). But, neither Chapter 7 nor filing pro se is right for everyone.
Using Legal Aid to File Bankruptcy
Legal Aid organizations exist to provide low-income Americans with legal services and legal advice in civil matters, including bankruptcy. Legal Aid organizations are funded by generous donors and grants from various organizations. The Legal Services Corporation, a federal agency operating as a nonprofit organization is the country’s largest funder of legal aid organizations.
They often employ full-time lawyers and get pro bono assistance from members of the state bar or a local bar association. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for legal aid organizations to have a waiting list. Because the need for legal aid is often greater than what these organizations can handle, anyone seeking legal services through one of them has to meet certain eligibility requirements.
Do You Qualify For Free Bankruptcy Assistance From Legal Aid?
To receive free legal assistance through legal aid, your household income must be below a certain limit. Most legal aid organizations put that limit at below 200% of the poverty line, which means a family of four making less than $52,400 / year in 2020 is eligible
Legal Services Corporation funded organizations help people earning less than 125% of the poverty line. In 2020, this means a family of four making less than $32,750.
Sometimes there are other requirements in addition to how much you make. These requirements may be that you:
are a United States citizen
don’t own over a certain amount of assets
have a certain amount of debt
Exceptions to the Legal Aid Requirements
It’s possible that you can be eligible to get help from legal aid even if you don’t meet any of the above requirements. For example, legal aid organizations often have specific services for military veterans, senior citizens, or persons living with certain medical conditions.
The best way to find out whether you can get help is to just call and speak to someone directly.
Find Legal Aid By Looking Online...
It’s probably easiest to search for general legal aid providers in the Philadelphia, PA area that offer more than bankruptcy services. Searching for places that offer different types of legal assistance might make it easier to locate legal help near you.
To get you started, we’ve compiled the contact information for the legal aid organizations closest to you:
16 E. Otterman Street, Greensburg, PA 15601-3066
625-627 Swede Street, Norristown, PA 19401-4801
213-A North Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17101
928 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-3799
Renaissance Center, Suite 700, 1001 State Street, Erie, PA 16501-1828
1424 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102
718 Arch Street, Suite 300N, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Credit Counseling and Other Free Debt Relief Resources
Credit counseling through a nonprofit organization is free and - more importantly - a great first step towards financial stability. A counselor will review your financial situation and make a recommendation on how to best address your debt. While the course required for bankruptcy usually has a small cost associated with it, low-income individuals with a monthly income below a certain amount can apply for a fee waiver.
The credit counselor may be able to provide you with recommendations for free legal help in your area and advise you on how to deal with debt collectors in the meantime. You can also reach out to a legal aid society near you, or contact a local bar association, like the Philadelphia Bar Association.
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Do I need a bankruptcy lawyer for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy?
The bankruptcy court allows anyone to file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy without hiring a bankruptcy lawyer. But, the two types of bankruptcy are quite different.
Chapter 7 is the most common type of bankruptcy. Filers get a fresh start in the form of a bankruptcy discharge in as little as 3 - 4 months after filing their bankruptcy petition with the court. In exchange, the bankruptcy trustee sells unprotected valuables to pay unsecured debt such as credit card debt and medical bills. But, since most property is protected by an exemption, only about 4% of Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases actually pay out funds to creditors. In all other cases, the Chapter 7 filer keeps all of their property.
Folks who earn less than the median income and don’t own real estate or run a small business can often navigate the bankruptcy process without the help of a bankruptcy attorney.
Chapter 13 is a way for those earning regular wages to reorganize their finances. They may not be able to make all minimum payments, but they can afford to pay back at least some of their debt through a Chapter 13 repayment plan. Filers are required to put together the repayment plan, which has to meet a number of requirements under the Bankruptcy Code. While the initial set of bankruptcy forms is essentially the same as those for Chapter 7, the rest of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy process is much more complicated.
If you make too much money to qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy relief, it’s in your best interest to hire a Philadelphia bankruptcy attorney to help you navigate the Chapter 13 bankruptcy process. Get a free evaluation of your situation from a local bankruptcy law firm to find out the attorney fees you’d have to pay. Especially considering the high failure rate of Chapter 13 cases filed without a lawyer, you may actually save money by hiring a bankruptcy attorney for your case. Since the Bankruptcy Code allows law offices representing debtors to receive their attorneys fees as part of the repayment plan, it’s possible that filing with a lawyer won’t cost you any more than if you file without one.
Scheduling a Free Consultation with a bankruptcy lawyer
One of the most important things you should know is that Philadelphia bankruptcy attorneys typically offer free initial consultations for potential new clients interested in consumer bankruptcy. Even after a free consultation, you don’t have to hire them for your bankruptcy. These free evaluations allow you to get a lot of your questions answered by investing only your time.
During this consultation you can get an overview of the bankruptcy process and the types of bankruptcy that you can file. The bankruptcy lawyer will also talk to you about how much it would cost to establish an attorney-client relationship with them for your Philadelphia bankruptcy case. Sometimes, they’re even able to give you tips on what you can do to afford their fees without getting deeper in the hole.
That said, sometimes hiring a bankruptcy attorney simply isn’t in the cards. If you’ve been sued by a credit card company and are already subject to a wage garnishment, you may not have the time to make even the most affordable payments to a law firm. If they’re not able to help you with your bankruptcy filing pro bono (“for free”), consider talking to a Philadelphia legal aid organization, like Philadelphia Legal Assistance, about legal services they provide to aid folks in getting a fresh financial start.
A bankruptcy filing doesn't have to be expensive. Many low-income individuals are even able to get their filing fee waived by the bankruptcy court. Once the bankruptcy petition is filed with the court, the automatic stay provides immediate protection from creditors.
Whatever your situation, know that free legal help is available. Whether it’s in the form of Upsolve’s web app, empowering you to file chapter 7 bankruptcy without a lawyer, a consumer bankruptcy attorney you find through the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA), or through a local legal aid society. Call one of the phone numbers above today to learn more about your debt relief options in the City of Brotherly Love.