Bankruptcy has long been the ultimate financial taboo. Myths surrounding the debt-relief filings scare consumers off, encouraging them to wrongly believe that filing will rip away everything they own or permanently wipe out their credit.
In reality, bankruptcy can provide a fresh start — but it can be an expensive one for people who can least afford it.
Because of legal and attorney fees, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy can cost as much as $4,000. Qualifying for it requires individuals to make less than their state’s median income and submit to a means test that includes all their income, expenses and assets. It’s a tough barrier, and many Americans who could benefit from filing bankruptcy can’t afford to pay the attorney and court fees.
Rohan Pavuluri, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate, is the cofounder of Upsolve, a non-profit organization backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and the U.S. government that helps low-income Americans file for bankruptcy using proprietary software. The service is free to use although courts may charge filing and credit counseling fees.
“There are millions and millions of Americans who are actually priced out of our legal system, just because they can’t afford attorneys,” says Pavuluri. “We want to help them.”
A solution to a costly legal system
Last year, 472,135 Chapter 7 non-business bankruptcies were filed, according to the United States Courts. Legal experts believe that millions more could benefit from filing, but don’t. Cost is theorized to be one of the biggest barriers.
The idea for Upsolve came to Pavuluri while he was working with a research team at Harvard Law School; they were looking for ways to help low-income individuals navigate the complicated, and costly, legal system.
“I learned that bankruptcy was actually incredibly powerful safety net for [people], and an incredibly powerful poverty-fighting tool for people who had no other way out,” he says. “And so I thought, “If I don’t do something about this, then who will?”
In 2016, Pavuluri teamed up with bankruptcy attorney Jonathan Petts. Upsolve started as a brick and mortar legal aid firm and later became a technology-based service that walks users through bankruptcy paperwork and formalities.
The website features articles, videos and facts about how many people have filed for bankruptcy, including celebrities. Bringing relatability to the platform, says Pavuluri, not only breaks the stigma around bankruptcy, but it helps people understand that they’re not alone in their financial struggles.
At the end of Upstart’s process, a lawyer reviews and confirms the forms for free. Users are responsible for a $335 filing fee from the court and required credit counseling courses.
Upsolve has expanded to 48 states and raised over a million dollars in funding. The organization has helped about 400 people discharge their debt.
Who can benefit from filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy?
Falling deep into debt can happen to anyone. A Stanford study found that bankruptcy filers are more likely to be middle-income, black, middle-aged and with some college education. Additionally, older Americans (aged 65 and over) are filing for bankruptcy more now than ever before.
Filing for bankruptcy can be a viable option for people hopelessly behind on their debt payments. A major reason why these people turn to bankruptcy is to regain control of their wages, which creditors often garnish for repayment.
The majority of Upsolve’s customers make below $30,000 and have accumulated debt in the past 18 months due to a sudden financial shock. Pavuluri notes that unemployment, medical illness, divorce or domestic abuse are the biggest motivating factors for Upsolve users. Upsolve’s average user erases $40,000 in debt.
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy provides protection from creditors. Debts are erased, but depending on which state filers live in, nonexempt property, like a car or personal property, is sold to creditors. Most Upsolve bankruptcy cases are simple; users don’t typically have any eligible assets.
Debtors with assets and or higher income usually opt for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, a more complicated form of debt discharge that Upsolve doesn’t handle. Chapter 13 filings require debtors to enroll in multi-year repayment plans before debt is wiped away; however, studies find that many of these plans aren’t fulfilled.
After filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy, filers can see an increase in their credit scores. The filing will remain on a credit report for 10 years after the filing date.
Everywhere Pavuluri goes, he carries a handwritten letter with him. It reads:
“Dear Jonathan + Rohan
My wife and myself can’t thank you enough for helping through our financial problems. We are now able to handle our monthly expenses and will be out of debt before long. If it wasn’t for your guidance, we would still be paying very high interest rates + further in debt. Although we are getting older + in poor health, we don’t have to look over our shoulders for collection agencies. You changed our lives.
God bless you.”
For Pavuluri, the letter is what “keeps him going.”
For those struggling with insurmountable debt, Upsolve can help do the same.