Though there are online services that claim they can help you file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy by yourself, the success rate for people who file Chapter 13 without a lawyer is low. That’s because Chapter 13 cases include multiple types of debts and a repayment plan that can last from three to five years. It's not uncommon for filers to experience issues or changes while their Chapter 13 bankruptcy case is open, and it can be difficult to deal with those without legal help.
Written by Attorney Curtis Lee.
Updated May 25, 2022
You have the right to represent yourself in any court proceeding, including Chapter 13 bankruptcy. This is called filing “pro se.” But just because you have the legal right to file Chapter 13 without an attorney doesn’t mean it’s the best choice if you want your case to be successful.
Though there are online services that claim they can help you file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy by yourself, the success rate for pro se Chapter 13 filers is low. That’s because Chapter 13 cases tend to be complicated and can last from three to five years; many problems can arise during that time. In this article we’ll explain why it’s difficult to file Chapter 13 on your own without legal help.
What Makes Chapter 13 So Complicated?
The two most common types of consumer bankruptcies are Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 13 cases are more complicated than Chapter 7 cases for several reasons. These intricacies don’t make it impossible to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy pro se, but they do make it far more difficult than filing Chapter 7 pro se.
Let’s look at some of the differences between the two chapters to shed some light on why it’s often a good idea to hire a bankruptcy lawyer to help you with your Chapter 13 case.
Chapter 13 Requires a Repayment Plan
A Chapter 13 repayment plan lasts three to five years. Any debt remaining after the plan is over is eligible for discharge. In contrast, Chapter 7 bankruptcy doesn’t require a payment plan, so Chapter 7 filers usually have their debt discharged in just a few months.
The road to discharge is long in Chapter 13. To start, you’ll have to set up a repayment plan, have the bankruptcy court examine your income and expenses, and reorganize your debts. The goal is to have you repay as many of your debts as possible while giving you manageable debt payments you can afford to pay each month over several years.
There’s More Paperwork To File Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
To begin the Chapter 13 bankruptcy process, you’ll have to file more paperwork than filing Chapter 7. A notable example of additional paperwork is the Chapter 13 plan. This is where you propose what payments you intend to make through the plan and the amounts going to various creditors. You can include both past-due and current payments as a part of this proposal.
Filers Have To Attend a Confirmation Hearing
In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, filers rarely have to go to court, except to attend the creditors’ meeting. Also known as a 341 meeting, the purpose of this hearing is to confirm your identity and allow the trustee or any interested creditors the opportunity to ask you any questions about the information you put in your bankruptcy petition.
You’ll have to attend a 341 meeting if you file Chapter 13, but that’s not the only hearing you need to go to. You’ll also have to attend a confirmation hearing to go over the Chapter 13 repayment plan. During this meeting, the trustee and creditors review your proposed repayment plan and decide whether to agree to it.
Filers Must Comply With Procedural Rules and Local Requirements
When you file either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you’ll have to comply with local requirements and procedural rules. But there are more special requirements and rules that Chapter 13 filers must be aware of and follow. These unique requirements apply both to filing bankruptcy (such as special paperwork requirements or local forms) and throughout the process (such as attending any hearings or court proceedings).
Why Do People File Chapter 13 Bankruptcy if It’s So Complicated?
Given the complexities of Chapter 13 bankruptcy, why does anyone file it? For one thing, some bankruptcy filers don’t qualify to file Chapter 7, so they have no choice but to file Chapter 13. But Chapter 13 can also be helpful for people who want to hold onto property that’s secured by collateral, such as a house (subject to a mortgage) and a car (collateral for a car loan).
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Chances of Success in a Pro Se Chapter 13 Case
Because of the additional paperwork and complexities of Chapter 13 cases, there’s a high failure rate for pro se filers. To put things in perspective, 69.1% of Chapter 13 filers from the Central District of California who had an attorney, got their repayment plans confirmed. In contrast, less than 3% of Chapter 13 filers who did not have a lawyer helping them were able to get their repayment plans confirmed.
Major Reasons That Pro Se Chapter 13 Cases Fail
Chapter 13 cases have a lot of moving parts, so there are many reasons why these cases fail. But common issues include:
Problems with the repayment plan. This includes certain debts not becoming part of the repayment plan when they should be. This is sometimes the responsibility of creditors, to make sure they get paid. But in certain cases (like when the filer wants to save their home from foreclosure), if a creditor fails to file a proof of claim, the mortgage debt may not become part of the repayment plan. If this happens, the filer can file a proof of claim for the creditor.
Poor payment history. It might take a few months or more for the court to confirm your proposed repayment plan. Until then, you’ll begin making payments right after you file Chapter 13 bankruptcy; if you don’t make these payments, your plan may not get confirmed.
Unresolved creditor objections to the proposed repayment plan. You get to propose what your repayment plan will look like, but that doesn’t mean your creditors will agree to it. If creditors have objections and you aren’t able to properly address their concerns, your Chapter 13 bankruptcy may fail.
Unrealistic repayment plan amounts. The confirmed repayment plan might have higher payments than you expected. Or you may face unforeseen financial difficulties in the middle of the repayment plan. Either way, it’s common for Chapter 13 bankruptcies to fail if the filer can no longer afford to make their monthly payments.
What Happens When a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Fails?
If a Chapter 13 case isn’t successful, you might be facing a dismissal with prejudice. This means you can’t file bankruptcy again, or there’s a time limit before you can file a new bankruptcy case. Meanwhile, you’ll be accruing more and more debt as time goes by, making it harder to come up with a workable repayment plan. Additionally, you may face limitations to the automatic stay protection when you file consecutive Chapter 13 cases.
When Filing Chapter 13 Without an Attorney Is a Good Idea
Most filers find it’s best to get legal help for their Chapter 13 cases, but it might make sense to start the Chapter 13 bankruptcy process on your own if you’re facing an emergency. For example, if your home is close to being foreclosed and you want to save it.
If you face an emergency like this, you can file a “skeleton case” or emergency bankruptcy filing to enact the automatic stay as quickly as possible. But you’ll still need to file the remainder of the completed paperwork within 14 days. This could be enough time to find an attorney to help you finish your paperwork and guide you through the rest of the process.
If you decide to file and represent yourself, you have to fill out the forms the bankruptcy court provides, attend all court hearings, and make sure you are abiding by both the procedural and local rules. There are many different things that a filer has to keep track of and the Chapter 13 process can take as long as five years to complete. Because of these challenges, most people who file Chapter 13 bankruptcy without legal help end up having their bankruptcy case dismissed.
If you can’t afford a lawyer but feel Chapter 13 is your best option, know that there are several low-cost or free options available. You may qualify for free, pro bono help from a legal aid organization.