What Are My Options If I Can't Afford a Bankruptcy Attorney?

Learn about your options if you cannot afford to pay bankruptcy attorneys' fees.

By , J.D. · California Western School of Law

A knowledgeable bankruptcy attorney can provide you with legal advice, prepare your bankruptcy paperwork, and guide you through the bankruptcy process. But these services come at a cost. If you can't afford to pay the fees, you might be able to:

  • represent yourself as a "pro se" debtor
  • negotiate reduced attorneys' fees
  • pay your fees through your Chapter 13 repayment plan
  • seek help from a free legal clinic or legal aid society, or
  • find a pro bono attorney who will take your case free of charge.

Learn tips for choosing a competent bankruptcy attorney.

Represent Yourself in Bankruptcy

You don't have to have an attorney to file for bankruptcy. But whether it would be in your best interest to hire one will depend on:

  • the type of bankruptcy you want to file
  • the complexity of your case, and
  • if you're willing to do the research necessary.

Learn more about filing for bankruptcy without an attorney.

Simple Chapter 7 bankruptcies. Filers with little or no income or assets, and no other matters that might complicate a bankruptcy might be able to file on their own. But even a simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy requires a significant amount of time and research. If you aren't willing to make the necessary commitment, you risk having your bankruptcy dismissed. You could also put your property in danger. At a minimum, if you want to file without an attorney, get a self-help book such as Nolo's How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.

Complicated Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies. Complex Chapter 7 cases and almost all Chapter 13 bankruptcies require extensive knowledge of bankruptcy law and have many pitfalls for inexperienced filers. For these reasons, it would be in your best interest to hire a bankruptcy lawyer. In many cases, you can pay a good portion of your attorneys' fees through your Chapter 13 repayment plan. Even if you can't afford a bankruptcy lawyer, consider talking to an attorney. Many attorneys provide free consultations. You could learn about hidden dangers your case might present.

Negotiate Reduced Attorneys' Fees

If you can't afford the quoted fees, you can try offering the attorney the amount you can pay. The lawyer might agree to accept your case—especially if your income is low. Also, try shopping around. Other local attorneys might charge less.

Talk to a Free Legal Clinic or Legal Aid Society

Several free legal clinics and legal aid societies assist low-income individuals with legal needs. Also, some bankruptcy courts and law schools have clinics or information centers designed to help self-represented debtors with their cases. You can use the U.S. Court Federal Court Finder to find your local bankruptcy court.

Find a Pro Bono Attorney

Some attorneys take on a certain number of cases pro bono (free of charge or at a significantly reduced rate) each year. If you don't have the means to pay for the services of a bankruptcy attorney, you might be able to find a lawyer to take your case pro bono. You can typically find more information on pro bono attorneys online, through your state bar, a local bar association, or by talking to lawyers in your area. Or start with the American Bankruptcy Institute's Pro Bono Locator.

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