Can I get back fees for unfiled bankruptcy?

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If you paid an upfront fee to a lawyer to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy on your behalf and they never filed your case, you might be wondering if you can get that money back.

It is sometimes possible to get all or part of an advance fee refunded from a lawyer. But if the attorney performed any work on your file—even if you didn’t end up going through with a bankruptcy—your fee goes toward paying for that work… and you may not get much, if anything, back.

When you should get your money back

You should get a refund if you paid your attorney an upfront fee for the service of preparing your file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy (or as an advance against hours worked) and the attorney didn’t perform that service or put in any time on your file. This could happen because you decided not to proceed with bankruptcy and told the attorney to stop before any work was done. It could also happen if the attorney was unable to start work on your file due to personal injury, death, disappearance, suspension or disbarment.

You might get a partial refund if the attorney started work on your petition but didn’t work the full number of hours you paid for in advance. Keep in mind, though, that even seemingly small tasks like making copies, couriering documents and answering emails or phone calls are included in your attorney’s bill. While the attorney needs to refund the difference between what you paid upfront and the amount you’re being charged, this partial refund may end up being only a tiny fraction of the fee.

When you’re not entitled to a refund

You’re not going to get a refund if you paid a fee for the service of preparing your petition and the attorney did, in fact, prepare your documents. The attorney might complete your petition soon after accepting you as a client, so even if you change your mind about filing the next day, it’s possible the attorney has already done the work and earned that fee.

Similarly, if your fee was an advance against hours worked, the attorney might have already worked the total number of hours covered by the fee or even gone over the allotted time. In these cases, you’re also not going to get any money back.

And you’re not entitled to a refund if the money you paid was a true retainer that was just meant to reserve a place in the attorney’s schedule, not to pay for any work. However, this kind of arrangement isn’t typical for a straightforward bankruptcy filing.

How to get your money back

Contact your attorney’s office and ask if the attorney did any work on your file. If the answer is no, ask for a refund. If the answer is yes, ask for an itemized bill. This bill will show if the amount you paid exceeds what you’re being charged—and if it does, the office should agree to refund the difference.

Usually, the lawyer’s office will either explain why you’re not entitled to a refund or give you back the money you’re owed. It’s important to follow up if you don’t receive your money or an explanation promptly.

If your attorney died or is no longer practicing law, things can get a bit more complicated. You may need to contact the person who’s managing the attorney’s trust account or, in the case of the attorney’s death, the executor of the estate. In these situations, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your state bar association for guidance.

How to file a complaint

You can lodge a complaint against an attorney if you believe he or she owes you a refund and is withholding it. Contact your state bar association for instructions on how to proceed. Usually, this agency will recommend participating in a dispute resolution process in which someone will mediate between you and the attorney and help you reach an agreement about the fee.