When you’re considering filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you should know how much it will cost. To get a better idea of how much people pay their lawyers in these bankruptcy cases, we surveyed our readers across the United States and learned about their experiences. Here’s what we learned.
How Much Do Attorneys Charge for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy?
Our survey results tell us that readers paid their attorneys an average of $3,000 to handle their Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases. Most Chapter 13 filers (63%) paid $3,000 or less, but a significant number (30%) paid between $3,000 and $5,000.
Compare these figures to attorneys’ fees in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, which average $1,450. Lawyers charge higher fees for Chapter 13 bankruptcy than for Chapter 7 because these cases take longer (three to five years) and involve more work. For instance, in a Chapter 13 case, the lawyer has to represent you at a confirmation hearing, where a judge will approve or deny your repayment plan.
Chapter 13 Attorneys’ Fees Vary by Geographical Area
Bankruptcy lawyers usually charge a flat fee—a set amount that covers their basic services from start to finish. Because the court has to approve all of your financial expenditures in Chapter 13 bankruptcy—including your lawyer’s fee—the judge will decide whether that fee is reasonable. Many courts streamline this approval process by establishing a “presumptive” fee amount for their area. If your lawyer agrees to represent you for that amount or less, the court will automatically approve the fee without looking at the specific circumstances of the case—which is why it’s also called a “no look” fee.
Some bankruptcy courts don’t use presumptive fees; instead, the judge reviews each case to decide whether the attorney’s fee is reasonable, based on the amount of work the case will probably require.
When Attorneys’ Fees Differ From Presumptive Fees
Where bankruptcy courts have established presumptive limits, most attorneys use them to set their own fees. However, a presumptive fee isn’t an absolute maximum. Lawyers can 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.
When You Might Pay More for Chapter 13 Attorney's Fees
You will probably pay more than the average if your attorney has to spend extra time strategizing on your behalf. That can happen for different reasons, but here are some examples.
Special requests. If you want to wipe out your student loans or one of the mortgages on your house (when you owe more than it’s worth), you’ll need to file a separate lawsuit or motion within the bankruptcy case. Your lawyer will charge more for this.
Involvement in a lawsuit. If you’re involved in litigation when you file for bankruptcy, it could turn the initial meeting with creditors (the “341 meeting”) from a routine step into a hornet’s nest. An experienced attorney will charge more to protect you, but it’s probably worth it.
Business owners. If you’re the sole proprietor of a business, your attorney will need to prepare financial documents for both you and your business, as well as develop a strategy to maintain the cash flow for your business that will be satisfactory to the creditors, the trustee, and the court. All of this takes time.
When You Might Pay Less for Chapter 13 Attorneys’ Fees
When attorneys use a local court’s presumptive fee to set the amount they charge, it’s unlikely that they’ll be willing to give you a discount (although they’re usually more flexible about how much you have to put down for the initial deposit—more on this below). Even so, you can still try to negotiate the overall fee. Your best approach is to demonstrate that your case will be simple to process and that you’ll be easy to work with. Here are a couple of other things that might convince an attorney to give you a financial break:
Being organized. Before your initial consultation, ask the attorney for a list of the documents needed to prepare your case. Assemble the documents and bring them to your appointment. If you have everything ready to go, you’ll stand a better chance of receiving a discount.
Not having many creditors. Our survey showed that the total amount of debt readers owed didn’t affect how much they paid for their lawyer’s fee. But the number of creditors could make a difference, because more creditors mean more potential problems and more work. You may be able to get a discount if you have less than five (or even ten) creditors.
Not requiring extra work. When you talk with the attorney, ask what has to happen before the judge approves your repayment plan. If your case is simple and the list is short, the lawyer might agree to discount the fee.
Chapter 13 Attorneys’ Fees Need Not Be Paid All at Once
The most common way of paying a lawyer’s flat fee in Chapter 13 bankruptcy is to make an initial down payment before the bankruptcy petition is filed, with the remainder of the fee included in your monthly payments under your repayment plan.
Example: Brian consults with an attorney and learns that he can solve his financial problems in Chapter 13 bankruptcy by making a $500 payment every month for five years. He agrees to pay the lawyer a total fee of $2,500 and puts down an initial deposit of $1,000. During the case, the bankruptcy trustee—the person in charge of overseeing the case—will pay Brian’s attorney a certain amount (often $100 per month), with the remaining $400 going to Brian’s creditors. After the $1,500 balance for the lawyer’s fee is paid off (probably 15 months later), the trustee will pay the full $500 each month to the creditors.
In some cases, however, the attorney might ask you to pay the full fee up front.
What Services Are Included in Your Chapter 13 Flat Fee?
Before you agree to a flat fee, make sure you know what will (and won’t) be included. In addition to filing your bankruptcy petition and representing you at the 341 meeting and repayment plan confirmation hearing, your attorney’s flat fee might include services like filing certain kinds of motions or filing changes to the petition, schedules, or repayment plan. It might also include representing you if, for example, a creditor asks to remove the bankruptcy stay (which stops collection activities during the bankruptcy).
Other Fees and Costs in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
Here are a few other expenses you’ll have to pay in your Chapter 13 bankruptcy:
Filing fees. In addition to the fees you pay your attorney, you’ll have to pay the bankruptcy court’s filing fee ($310 in 2016). The court might waive this fee if your income is less than 150% of the national poverty guidelines. (For instance, a family of four with up to $36,000 in yearly income qualifies for a fee waiver.)
Bankruptcy counseling courses. Before you can complete your bankruptcy case, you must take two counseling courses—one before you file your petition and one afterward. These courses should cost no more than $60, and there are discounts available for low-income folks.