Key takeaways

  • You are only eligible for back fees under very specific circumstances.
  • Contact your attorney's office to see if you're entitled to a refund.
  • If your attorney failed to file or completed less work than you paid for, you may be entitled to back fees.

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.

Getting all or part of an advance fee refunded from a lawyer is sometimes possible. 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

There are several scenarios in which you can expect to get your money back and would be justified in requesting your fees be refunded to you.

If your attorney failed to file

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.

If your attorney does less work than you paid for

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

While there are some scenarios where you can get back fees for an unfiled bankruptcy, there are cases where you won’t be entitled to a refund — even if you choose to forgo the bankruptcy.

Attorney completed preparing the documents

If you paid a fee for the service of preparing your petition and the attorney completed those preparations you are not eligible for a refund. The attorney might complete your petition soon after accepting you as a client. This means even if you change your mind about filing the next day, it’s possible the attorney has already done the work to earn that fee.

Attorney worked paid hours

You won’t get any money back if your fee was an advance against hours worked and your attorney worked the total covered hours or more.

Fee was paid as a retainer

You’re not entitled to a refund if the money you paid was a true retainer 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 will 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.

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

How to file a complaint

You can lodge a complaint against an attorney if you believe they owe you a refund and withhold it. Contact your state bar association for instructions on how to proceed.

Usually, this agency will recommend participating in a dispute resolution process. This entails having a mediated conversation between you and the attorney to help you reach an agreement.

Bottom line

Getting back the fees you paid for an unfiled bankruptcy is possible for certain scenarios. If you chose to ask your attorney not to file after they prepared the paperwork for you, it is unlikely that you will get those fees refunded. However, if your bankruptcy documents were not completed as expected or filed on time, you may be entitled to have those fees returned to you.

If the attorney you hire for your bankruptcy case fails to perform the tasks you paid them for, you should ask for a refund. You may have to pursue this, including filing a complaint with the state bar association. But considering you may pay hundreds of dollars for this paperwork to be completed and filed on your behalf, it is often worth seeking a refund.