If you’re considering filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you probably want to know how much you’ll have to pay your lawyer. And if an attorney has already quoted you a price, you may want to find out how it compares to what other lawyers charge. We surveyed our readers in California who had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and, for comparison, researched the fee guidelines established by bankruptcy courts in California. Here’s what we learned.
Approval of Chapter 13 Lawyers’ Fees
The bankruptcy court has to approve all of your financial expenditures in a Chapter 13 case—including what you pay your lawyer—so the judge will decide whether your attorney’s fee is reasonable. Many bankruptcy courts streamline this approval process by establishing guidelines for fees (called “presumptive” fees) that the judge will presume to be reasonable. If your lawyer agrees to represent you for the presumptive fee amount or less, the court will automatically approve the fee without looking at the specific circumstances of the case—which is why it’s sometimes called a “no look” fee. The presumptive fee guidelines may also spell out additional fees for cases that involve certain types of property or debts, as well as the services that should be included in the basic fee.
Where bankruptcy courts have established fee guidelines, most attorneys use them to set their own fees. However, a presumptive fee isn’t an absolute maximum. Lawyers can file a detailed application to request a higher fee for cases that will require more work than usual. Also, if a case becomes more complicated than originally expected, the attorney can ask the court to approve additional fees for further services that are required. Some courts’ guidelines include presumptive amounts for several of these services (such as filing plan modifications or motions).
Presumptive Fee Guidelines in California Bankruptcy Courts
We’ve reviewed some of the recent Chapter 13 fee guidelines in the bankruptcy district courts throughout California. The fees paid by our readers who filed for Chapter 13 in California—from $1,500 to $5,000—fall in line with the maximum amounts recommended by the courts. (Note that our sample of California readers who filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy was not large, and none had business debts).
Courts may change their guidelines at any time, so it’s a good idea to check with your local court to get the latest information. Use the government’s court locator tool to find the website and phone number for the bankruptcy court in your area.
Northern District of California
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California is broken up into four different divisions, each of which has different guidelines for Chapter 13 attorneys’ fees.
San Francisco Division (San Francisco and San Mateo counties):
- $4,000 for nonbusiness cases
- $5,800 if the case involves a business
- additional amounts if the case involves certain types of debts or other complications (such as child or spousal support claims, real property claims, or unfiled tax returns), and
- other additional fees for further services required after the petition is filed.
Oakland Division (Alameda and Contra Costa counties):
- $4,800 for nonbusiness cases, or
- $6,000 for business cases.
The guidelines also state that lawyers must file applications for an additional flat fee ($1,500) for filing motions or proceedings to lift liens on property, and that the trustee and the court will “closely” scrutinize up-front retainers of more than $2,000.
San Jose Division (Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey counties):
- $3,300 for “basic” cases
- $5,100 for business cases
- additional amounts if the case involves other types of property or debts (such as real property claims, unpaid taxes or vehicle loans, or unpaid child or spousal support), and
- additional flat fees for further services such as filing plan modifications; requesting permission to sell, refinance, or purchase real property; or opposing motions to avoid liens on property.
Santa Rosa Division (Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties): The guidelines state that the court does not enforce a maximum fee structure or limit the size of the fee retainer, but the bankruptcy trustee and the court will scrutinize unusually large fees. After the petition is filed, attorneys cannot require any additional fee payments from the debtor without a hearing and court order.
Central District of California
This district (which covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara , and Ventura counties) has a single set of guidelines for basic fees:
- $5,000 for nonbusiness cases, or
- $6,000 for business cases.
For any additional fees, lawyers have to file a detailed application.
Southern District of California
The guidelines in this district (which includes San Diego and Imperial counties) state that the court “will not generally object” to fees within these “parameters”:
- $3,600 for nonbusiness cases
- $4,350 for business cases, and
- additional fees for further services such as filing plan modifications or motions to value real property, or opposing creditors’ objections or motions for relief from the automatic bankruptcy stay.
The guidelines also spell out which services must be covered by the initial and additional fees.
Eastern District of California
- $3,500 in nonbusiness cases, or
- $5,000 in business cases.
Attorneys may apply for additional fees only when “substantial and unanticipated” work is required after confirmation of the Chapter 13 plan.