When someone reaches the point of filing for bankruptcy, finances are obviously an issue. As a result, hiring a lawyer to help with a bankruptcy claim may seem like one more unreachable expense. In other words, if you can’t afford your house or car payments, how are you supposed to finance representation? On that note, we recently had a reader ask us: “Can I represent myself in a personal bankruptcy filing?”
The technical answer to that question is yes. Anyone can be their own representation in a personal (not business) bankruptcy case. However, the smarter answer is no, you really don’t want to try to do that.
Read on to discover why retaining legal counsel for bankruptcy proceedings is actually a savvy financial move worth the investment.
What if I Want to Represent Myself?
Anyone who decides to represent themself in a bankruptcy case without an attorney becomes a “pro se” litigant.
Say what? Well, in Latin “pro se” means “for yourself.” So, if you decide “I’ll just represent myself,” the courts will refer to you as a pro se litigant. And along with that “title,” the person serving as their own attorney gets every right afforded them under the law. But you’ll also have to follow all the rules that govern the practice of law in the federal courts.
“But I’m not a lawyer,” you say? Exactly. While you are legally within your rights to represent yourself, do you know federal law well enough to do that? That includes taking a deep dive into the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and the United States Code. You’ll also need to take a look at the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Oh, and once you’ve done all that you should dig into the local rules for courts in your area.
We’re not actually trying to scare you here. We just want anyone considering self-representation to realize it’s not easy. Filing for personal bankruptcy under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 takes a lot of preparation and understanding of the process.
And “Oh, I didn’t know that” is not an excuse any court will accept as valid.
Why It’s a Risk to File for Bankruptcy Without an Attorney
You can find the forms to file for bankruptcy online, which are free of charge. Many courts also require local forms, so you will need to check your court’s website before filing any documents.
Not sure how to fill them out? Well, you may be able to get a “non-attorney petition preparer” to help you. However, by law a non-attorney petition preparer cannot answer any bankruptcy questions you have or offer you legal advice. They also may not assist you in bankruptcy court.
So, a petition preparer can literally only help you enter information into the forms. On the flip side, a bankruptcy lawyer can chime in on all areas of your claim. So once again, you can file without speaking to an attorney, but is that a chance you’re willing to take?
Data from one of the largest U.S. bankruptcy courts offers these additional reasons why it’s risky to file sans attorney:
- Only 6% of self-represented Chapter 7 filings get a debt discharge. But 94.1% of Chapter 7 filings with an attorney end with a positive resolution.
- Judges dismissed 36.3% of self-represented Chapter 7 filings without approving any debt reductions.
- For Chapter 13, about 31% of attorney-represented cases had repayment plans and debt discharges or reductions in court. Just 2.9% of self-represented Chapter 13 filers were similarly successful.
What a Bankruptcy Attorney Can Do to Help Your Case
So, by this point, you may be thinking, “Maybe it’s not such a great idea to represent myself?”
The truth of the matter is, even most bankruptcy courts will suggest hiring an attorney. The reason is that bankruptcy law can be very confusing, and one wrong step could lead to your claim’s dismissal.
When someone is on the brink of financial collapse, time is of the essence. However, bankruptcy law is such that when a court dismisses a claim, you usually cannot file again for 6 months. Most applicants need assistance sooner than that and don’t have 180 days to wait before trying again.
Here are some other ways that a bankruptcy lawyer can also help you through the process. A skilled bankruptcy attorney can:
- Advise you if filing for bankruptcy is really your best move.
- Help you determine for which type/chapter of bankruptcy you should file.
- Discuss which of your debts might be dischargeable.
- Recommend ways you might be able to keep your car or home once you file.
- Assist you with completing all forms and making sure you file them on schedule.
- Explain the tax and credit score ramifications of filing.
- Aid you in determining if you should continue paying creditors.
- Prepare you for any court appearances associated with your claim.
- Educate you as to the processes, timelines, and procedures with bankruptcy claims.
- Guide you through all the steps it takes in order to have a successful resolution.
Consider Having a Consultation with a Bankruptcy Attorney
It can be very stressful to suddenly be in a position where bankruptcy is looking like the only way out.
If you’re dealing with that reality, consider a free consultation with a bankruptcy attorney. Most people feel a huge sense of relief after learning their options. There may also be ways to finance bankruptcy attorney fees into debt repayment plans.
Don’t hesitate to get the help you need to find your way to a better financial future.
Kimberly Dawn Neumann
Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes to Cosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit: www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter @KimberlyNeumann