Can I File Bankruptcy Without a Lawyer?
Yes, you can legally file for bankruptcy without a lawyer. But should you?
Every year, thousands of Americans find themselves too broke to pay off their debts, yet unable to afford bankruptcy. It probably comes as no surprise that attorneys' fees make up the lion's share of bankruptcy expenses. So you might be wondering, "Do I really need a lawyer to file for bankruptcy?"
It largely depends on how complex your case is. If you own little property and don't make a lot of money, it might be possible to file bankruptcy pro se (without a lawyer). But while filing for bankruptcy on your own can save you money, it's a serious undertaking. You'll have to pull together all of your financial documentation, file a lot of paperwork on time, and communicate with your bankruptcy trustee. You'll also need to take the time to understand the state and federal laws that apply.
In this section, you'll find a step-by-step guide to filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and a few tips to help make the process as simple and painless as possible.
You should follow these steps when you file your bankruptcy case:
1. Determine Whether Your Income Meets the Means Test
When considering whether to file bankruptcy without a lawyer, the first step is to conduct a “Means Test" to determine whether you qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The federal government provides a test form. You can also find simplified versions of the test online. You'll have to answer questions regarding:
- Your monthly income
- Your debts (to see if they are dischargeable) and nonexempt assets
- The number of people in your household
The bankruptcy process may be simple enough to handle on your own if the following are met:
- You own few assets
- Your household income is below your state's median
- You haven't been accused of fraud
2. Obtain Your Credit Reports and Complete Credit Counseling
The next step is to obtain credit reports from all three credit bureaus. You'll need all three reports because creditors don't typically report to every bureau. If you fail to report a debt, it won't be discharged in bankruptcy.
Next, you'll have to complete a credit counseling and financial literacy course. The U.S. Trustee Program has a list of approved credit education agencies on its site.
3. Fill Out the Paperwork
Filling out the official bankruptcy forms is generally the most complicated and time-consuming task if you choose to file bankruptcy without a lawyer.
Download the bankruptcy forms package to save the time and stress involved in tracking down the necessary materials. The packages are inexpensive and provide you with all the forms you need to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in your state.
Once you complete the forms, attach the relevant documents and submit the paperwork with the filing fee either in person or by mail. It's important that you promptly respond to any correspondence from the bankruptcy trustee. Failure to do so can get your case dismissed.
4. Attend the Meeting of Creditors
You'll have to attend your “Meeting of Creditors" on the scheduled date. Although your creditors won't actually be present, the trustee will be and will ask you a number of standard questions about your case. Be sure to answer truthfully and accurately.
5. Take a Personal Financial Management Instruction Course
Finally, you must complete a post-filing Personal Financial Management Instruction Course within 45 days of your meeting of creditors. Take a look at the U.S. Trustee Program's site to find an approved course near you. After you've completed the course, the last step is to wait to hear from the bankruptcy court whether your debts have been discharged.
How Hard Is It To File for Bankruptcy on Your Own?
You will at least need an understanding of the legal issues before filing the bankruptcy petition. How hard a case will be will also depend on other factors including :
- The type of bankruptcy
- How complicated your case is
- Your current financial situation
- Whether you have other obligations like student loans, car loans, child support, and alimony
Even though your case is relatively uncomplicated, a bankruptcy case requires you to fill out extensive paperwork and have a good knowledge of the Bankruptcy Code. Thus, it may be in your best interest to at least have an initial consultation with an attorney to make sure you are on the right course.
Can You File if You Have No Money?
In general, you need to at least pay a filing fee and the credit counseling and financial management course fees to finalize your bankruptcy petition.
But if you have no money, you can ask for a fee waiver (in Chapter 7 cases) or ask the bankruptcy judge to roll the payment in your repayment plan (in Chapter 13 cases).
Chapter 13 Bankruptcies and Other Situations
While in some cases you can file bankruptcy without a lawyer, there are exceptions, depending on the type of bankruptcy. Some examples include:
- If your corporation or partnership is facing bankruptcy, you'll need a bankruptcy lawyer.
- If you fail the Means Test because your income is too great, you may have to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy rather than a Chapter 7. In that case, you can still file for bankruptcy without a lawyer, but it will be more difficult. That's because Chapter 13 cases are much more complicated than Chapter 7 bankruptcies.
In addition to filling out the needed paperwork, you'll have to create a repayment plan detailing how you plan to repay your creditors. As with Chapter 7 cases, downloading a bankruptcy forms package will help you stay organized by providing you with all the paperwork you need to file.
Legal Advice From an Experienced Attorney May Help
Although filing bankruptcy without an attorney may be possible, it may not always be the best route for you. If you need legal help with your bankruptcy case, speak to a bankruptcy attorney near you.