Chapter 7 bankruptcy does not have to be complicated. Follow these 5 essential tips to make sure you have a successful case.
Written by Kristin Turner, Harvard Law Grad.
Updated December 29, 2020
If you can afford an attorney, hiring one is often a great investment.
If you can't afford an attorney, you may consider going to a legal aid organization that will provide you with free help.
Many legal aid organizations provide unbundled representation in which an attorney will help you fill out your forms, but you will file for bankruptcy on your own or “pro se.”
This article is meant to help people who are filing for bankruptcy on their own, but received help from a legal aid organization that reviewed their forms.
Here are five tips that will help you get through the process with confidence.
Tip #1: Understand that you are filing pro se.
Even if you received limited assistance from an attorney who reviewed your bankruptcy forms to check them for accuracy and completeness, you are filing for bankruptcy pro se.
“Pro se” is the Latin term for filing on your own without a lawyer. In the eyes of the court, you are unrepresented.
During your 341 meeting, a trustee may ask you whether you are represented by a lawyer. The answer is no.
It's important that you get this right so that you don't confuse the court clerk or your bankruptcy trustee when you’re going through the bankruptcy process.
If you used a bankruptcy petition preparer and not a lawyer, however, you must disclose that information to the court.
Tip #2: Try your best to deliver your bankruptcy forms in person to your court.
Most courts don't allow pro se debtors to submit their paperwork to the court through the electronic filing system.
As a result, you must either mail your paperwork to the court — or — show up in person and deliver it by hand to the clerk’s office.
NOTE: Some courts have created workarounds allowing people to submit their paperwork via dropboxes or online portals due the coronavirus pandemic. So, it's important to check what your court is doing before deciding what you want to do.
If the court is a reasonable distance from your home, you should try to deliver it to the clerk’s office in person.
It can be frightening to show up to a courthouse on your own, and showing up by yourself when all you need to do is submit paperwork can ease you into it.
This will help you get acquainted with the location of the courthouse and figure out details such as how to get to the courthouse and where to park. It will also help you feel less scared when you show up the court on your own for your 341 meeting.
Showing up by yourself also has the added benefit of giving you a chance to change your forms more quickly if the clerk’s office rejects a form you submit.
Tip #3: Make sure you know what documents you must send your trustee ahead of time.
Right when you file for bankruptcy, or shortly after, you will receive a date for your 341 meeting and learn the name of your trustee.
Your trustee is an official that oversees your case.
They will send you a request for documents ahead of your 341 meeting. Not all trustees request the same documents, so you should pay special attention to the documents your trustee requires.
It's important for you to send all the documents to your trustee, or your 341 meeting may not be successful. These documents may include bank statements for the last 6 months, more up-to-date pay stubs, your last two years of tax returns, etc. Some trustees require quite a bit of paperwork, so be prepared to provide it.
Trustees also have different ways of receiving information. Some trustees ask you to send it to a special email address, while others may ask you to mail them hard copies.
Many debtors who don't have attorneys to help them gather and send these documents get tripped up in this process. Make sure you’re vigilant in keeping an eye out for all information you receive from the court and your trustee.
Tip #4: #Take your post-filing course.
After you file for bankruptcy, your bankruptcy is not complete. You must still finish your post-filing debtor education course.
This course takes about 60 minutes to complete and is similar to the pre-filing credit counseling course. It is a good idea to take it right after you file for bankruptcy so that you do not forget.
Some nonprofits that offer the course file your certificate of completion for you with the court. But it's usually a good idea to file the certificate with the court yourself to make sure the clerk’s office has received it.
Bankruptcies are often unsuccessful just because the debtor forgot to complete the post-filing course. So, it’s generally a good idea to take the course before your 341 meeting.
The benefit of taking the post-filing course before your 341 meeting is that you can deliver the certificate to the clerk’s office yourself on the same day as your 341 meeting, rather than making a separate trip.
Tip #5: Don’t be afraid of your 341 meeting.
It is natural to feel scared when you attend your 341 meeting by yourself.
Keep in mind that most 341 meetings are quite short, lasting between five and ten minutes.
Also keep in mind that most debtors don't have any of their creditors show up to their 341 meetings. It's not worth it for most credit card companies to send someone to debtor meetings, especially when many people filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy do not have any assets that can be seized.
To prepare for your 341 meeting, you may want to watch the video at the bottom of this article. It simulates the questions you’ll be asked. 341 meetings are very similar from trustee to trustee, so you'll likely get a good sense of what the meeting entails by watching the video.
As always, it's is important to be totally honest during the bankruptcy process, including the 341 meeting.
Trustees ask debtors questions for a living, so they are good at figuring out when you’re concealing an asset or lying about your income. The questions usually cover what you earn, spend, own, and money you may receive in the future.