Can I File Bankruptcy Without a Lawyer?

Yes, you can legally file for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy without a lawyer. But should you?

Every year, thousands of Americans find themselves unable to pay off their debts yet unable to afford bankruptcy. It is no surprise that attorneys' fees make up the lion's share of bankruptcy expenses. So you might be wondering if a lawyer is really necessary to file for bankruptcy. It largely depends on the complexity of your case.

For filers who own little property and don't make much money, filing bankruptcy pro se, or without a lawyer, might be possible. Make no mistake, while filing for bankruptcy on your own can save you money, it's a serious undertaking. You'll have to pull together 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 bankruptcy basics, including the state and federal laws that apply.

In this article, 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.

The Process

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 non-exempt assets
  • The number of people in your household

The bankruptcy process may be simple enough to handle on your own if the following conditions 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 Courses From Credit Counseling Agencies

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, that debt will not apply to your bankruptcy discharge and it will not be wiped out.

Next, U.S. courts require you 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 file bankruptcy without a lawyer.

Download the bankruptcy forms package to save time and stress tracking the necessary materials. The packages are inexpensive and provide all the forms you need to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in your state.

Once you complete the forms, attach the relevant documents, such as bank account information and tax returns, and submit the paperwork with the filing fee in person or by mail. You must 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 must attend your meeting of creditors on the scheduled date. Although your creditors won't 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. Look at the U.S. Trustee Program's site for 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 need to understand 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, or alimony

Even though your case may appear relatively uncomplicated, a bankruptcy case requires you to complete extensive paperwork and know the Bankruptcy Code well. It may be a good idea to have an initial consultation with an attorney to ensure you are on the right course.

Can You File if You Have No Money?

You must generally pay fees for filing, credit counseling, and financial management courses to finalize your bankruptcy petition.

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 that depend on the type of bankruptcy. Some examples include:

  • You'll need a bankruptcy lawyer if your corporation or partnership is facing bankruptcy.
  • If you fail the Means Test because your income is too high, 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 and involve a payment plan.

In addition to filling out the needed paperwork, you'll have to create a repayment plan detailing how 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.

Looking For Debt Relief? Consider an Attorney Who Knows the Bankruptcy Procedure and Local Rules

Do not underestimate the power of legal help. Although filing bankruptcy without a bankruptcy law attorney may be possible, it may not always be your best route to proceed without legal advice. It can be challenging to navigate many federal rules, federal court, and learn about exemptions. Non-attorney petition preparers can help, but they can only do so much.

If you need legal help with your bankruptcy filing or preparation, speak to a bankruptcy attorney near you and begin your fresh start.

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