Last year, nearly 500,000 people filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a process whereby a person can eliminate crushing debt and start anew. That number, though seemingly high, does not include all the people who opted out of bankruptcy merely because of the cost of an attorney and other expenses. Thanks to a 2005 law, people must now attend a credit clinic and pay a relatively high sum of money to complete the filing process. Whereas the average cost of a bankruptcy case used to be $868, now the cost is a whopping $1,300. Leaders in Congress raised costly barriers because, they claimed, fraud ran rampant in Chapter 7 cases. To tackle this problem, students at Harvard developed an app known as Upsolve to facilitate the filing process and to obviate the need for an attorney, effectively reducing the cost of pursuing Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The students – Kevin Moore, Rohan Pavuluri and Jonathan Petts – have described their app as TurboTax for bankruptcy, and they’ve been rather successful, having won $75,000 in a competition at Harvard University. According to Pavuluri, Upsolve’s primary purpose is to “make one of the biggest safety nets in America more accessible.” Speaking with a Harvard news writer, he continued, “The same way that unemployment insurance or subsidized housing are government benefits available for those who have hit hard times, Chapter 7 Bankruptcy helps people get back on their feet.” Seen this way, Pavuluri, Moore and Petts aim to restore a government benefit that they believe should be available on an equitable basis.
The app, perhaps unsurprisingly, started as a school project undertaken by Pavuluri in a class entitled Startup R&D at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). After the idea took off, the founders applied to the Harvard President’s Initiative Challenge and won a $75,000 prize. They’ve since received more funding as well.
Turbo Tax for Bankruptcy
Much like Turbo Tax, the app takes the impenetrable legalese of bankruptcy filing and translates it into an easy-to-understand questionnaire. Upon filling out said questionnaire, an attorney working for a non-profit organization reads over the answers and completes the filing process. Since the attorneys involved in the project already work for non-profit agencies, no profits are lost on the lawyer’s end. In fact, Upsolve facilitates the process for attorneys who, without Upsolve, can spend up to 10 hours on a single case. With Upsolve, the process takes an average of one to two hours, meaning non-profit counselors can effectively help more people than before. As of June, 40 people living in Brooklyn have been absolved of nearly $2 million in debt.
According to Petts, who was a bankruptcy lawyer at Morrison & Foerster, there are almost 19 million households in this country that could benefit from Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, but only 500,000 have done so. The immensely low number is partially due to the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform, which, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “caused a permanent drop in the Chapter 7 bankruptcy rate relative to pre-reform levels, owing to the rise in filing costs associated with the reform.”
It’s no wonder people don’t take on the burden of filing for bankruptcy, as nearly 80 percent of Americans don’t have the means to retain an attorney. In a sense, as noted by Forbes, a lot of people are too poor to claim bankruptcy.
Chief Judge Henry Callaway, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Alabama, is all too aware of the barriers posed by poverty. That’s why he’s fully supportive of the endeavor. “I’m interested in the Upsolve product for people who don’t have easy access to bankruptcy attorneys,” he told Forbes. “As a judge, my preference is a lawyer be involved in the process.” Although, he added, sometimes an attorney cannot be retained. In such cases, a program like Upsolve is perfect.