Filing Bankruptcy Without a Lawyer: Can or Should You?
If you’re thinking about filing a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13 case without an attorney, you have probably spent some time researching the cost of filing. Perhaps you have even taken advantage of the free initial consultation many consumer bankruptcy attorneys offer. Depending on the jurisdiction, filing a Chapter 7 straight bankruptcy case can cost you up to $3,000 or more for an uncomplicated case, plus court costs that will add hundreds more.
A Chapter 13 case payment plan is even more expensive because of the additional labor and time involved for the attorney and her staff.
If you’re wondering how to afford a bankruptcy filing, check out our articles
So, no doubt you are wondering if you might actually be able to represent yourself in your bankruptcy case. It is certainly possible to do so. In fact, one recent informal poll found that one out of nine bankruptcy cases is filed pro se (without the aid of an attorney).
Informal evidence also suggests that pro se filers (those who file on their own) have no more difficulty successfully traversing the bankruptcy court than do filers to pay attorneys to handle their cases.
There are so many factors that weigh on an important decision like filing a bankruptcy case on your own, and much depends on the complexity of the case.
It isn’t so much the debts you have that could cause issues, although they can be difficult if a creditor challenges whether or not the debt can be discharged. The real issue has to do with the type and the value of assets.
No debtor in bankruptcy is left with nothing at the end of a case. In every state, a debtor is allowed to keep a certain amount and value of assets needed to get a fresh start.
These are called exemptions, and the amounts differ from state to state. They are called exemptions because they are exempt from the reach of the court, the trustee and your creditors.
Exemptions work differently in Chapter 7 than in Chapter 13. If you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case while you own property that is not exempt, your trustee can take that property, sell it and use the money to pay your creditors some of what you owe them. If you have non-exempt property when you file a Chapter 13 payment plan case, the value of the assets could be added to your payment plan to increase your payments or the length of the plan.
If you don’t have much more than the furniture in your house and a car or two, you probably would not be required to give up any of your property, as long as you were careful to list everything you own and list it at a reasonable value. It is vital, however, that you know what exemptions are allowed in your state. Here’s a place to start:
Expect Increased Oversight by the Court
If it looks like you will not have any non-exempt assets, filing a Chapter 7 case is still a daunting task. Your trustee will no doubt take special interest in your case, if for no other reason than you make sure you have listed everything properly.
You can expect that the trustee will ask you for additional documents, like copies of tax returns, house papers, car papers and bank account statements. Your Meeting of Creditors will probably take longer than for filers who are represented by attorneys just so that the trustee can do a thorough job of examining you under oath. For the same reason, your creditors will often look more carefully at your paperwork.
If you are willing to put up with that much scrutiny, you must still be mindful of the pitfalls you might encounter than can derail your attempt to go it alone unscathed.
For more things to think about if you are considering filing bankruptcy on your own, see