There's nothing that says you have to hire a lawyer to get bankruptcy relief. You can file bankruptcy without a lawyer either by yourself or with the help of a legal aid organization.
Written by Attorney Eva Bacevice.
Updated July 27, 2023
You always have the option to file bankruptcy without a lawyer. Representing yourself is called filing “pro se” and it is an option in any legal proceeding. And yet, while it is always possible to file a bankruptcy without a lawyer, the better question is should you? In this article we will examine some bankruptcy basics to help educate you about the different types of bankruptcies and the relief they can offer. For simple straightforward cases it is entirely possible to be successful pro se. For more complicated matters it is usually better to have a lawyer or legal aid to assist you.
What Kind of Debts Do You Have?
The first thing we will look at is what types of debt you have and whether filing bankruptcy is the best remedy for you. Bankruptcy is most helpful to people with unsecured debt, like credit cards and medical bills, because these kind of debts are dischargeable. You can potentially walk away from them completely. Secured debts are those which are tied to a specific item as collateral. Most often this is a house or a car, where the house or car serves as collateral for the mortgage or car loan. A Chapter 13 case may be more beneficial to you if you have secured debt.
There are also debts which are non-dischargeable in a bankruptcy case. Non-dischargeable debts include things like child support, alimony, most tax debt, etc. If the bulk of your debts are non-dischargeable a Chapter 7 bankruptcy may not offer the relief you are seeking.
Bankruptcy Basics – Chapter 7 vs Chapter 13
There are two main types of bankruptcy for individuals to file, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. A Chapter 7 is what you think of as a traditional bankruptcy, where you walk away from your debt and get a fresh start. A Chapter 7 case lasts for a significantly shorter amount of time than a Chapter 13 case.
A Chapter 13 can be much more complicated. A Chapter 13 involves a repayment plan that will run for three to five years. The payment plan has to be approved by the court and there are a minimum of two court proceedings.
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How Can You Be Successful in Representing Yourself?
You are most likely to be successful representing yourself in a straightforward Chapter 7 case. It is important to find a trusted resource and educate yourself on the necessary steps if you want you case to be successful. We recommend using the US Trustee site in your area as well as the learning center here at Upsolve to guide you through the process.
You Qualify for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Under the Means Test
First you will need to determine if you are eligible to file a Chapter 7 by passing the means test. If you are below a certain threshold for your state you will qualify, otherwise, you need to complete both parts of the means test calculation to determine your disposable income.
You Have All the Paperwork You Need
There are a lot of bankruptcy forms to fill out to file a case. You will need to fill out a petition and schedules and be certain to list all of your assets and creditors. In order to make certain that you are properly listing all of your creditors you should get a copy of your credit report. You can request a free copy here.
You Take the Credit Counseling and Debtor Education Courses
There are two debtor education courses you will have to take. You will take the first course before you file, and the second course after you file.
You Attend the Meeting of Creditors
There is a single court appearance in a Chapter 7, which is called a section 341 hearing or a Meeting of Creditors. You need to attend this meeting when scheduled, and you will appear before a Trustee and answer questions about your paperwork. This is generally a short proceeding, maybe 15-20 minutes, and Trustees are accustomed to working with pro se debtors
Wait for the Bankruptcy Discharge
After you have attended your 341 meeting and presuming there is no follow-up needed (such as filing amendments to your documents) you simply need to wait to receive your bankruptcy discharge. Make certain to keep a copy of this document somewhere safe.
When Should You Not Represent Yourself?
If you suspect you may have a more complicated case (if you own real estate or if you believe you’re income is above the median for your state), or if filing a Chapter 13 case would be the more beneficial option for you, we recommend that you consult with an attorney who can provide you with full representation.
You are not required to hire an attorney to represent you in a bankruptcy case. You can file on your own with or without guidance, but we suggest that you educate yourself first to determine whether filing pro se is the best option for you.