The United States legal system is designed to allow individuals to represent themselves in court cases and proceedings if they so choose. It’s called filing pro se, a Latin phrase that means “for oneself” or “for one’s own behalf,” and can apply to individual bankruptcy filings, too. “Pro se”
If you want to go pro se in bankruptcy, there are some important things to understand to get the fresh start you need. Namely, the success rate for those who file pro se is close to 0% – pretty dismal. But if you’re determined to do so, you need to understand the process and risks of filing for bankruptcy without the assistance of a licensed attorney.
How to file bankruptcy without a lawyer
When you want to file bankruptcy with a court, you must first check that bankruptcy is the right choice for you. Assuming that it is, here are the steps to take:
- Take a pre-bankruptcy course from an approved credit counseling agency.
- Choose which type of bankruptcy is best for you. This may be difficult to do on your own. If you don’t fully understand the differences, you could make the wrong choice and end up changing from Chapter 13 bankruptcy to Chapter 7 bankruptcy later.
- Determine your property exemptions. Having help with this part is invaluable, too. The last thing you want to do is give up an asset when you don’t have to.
- Redeem or reaffirm your debts. This may involve filing multiple motions with the court.
- Fill out and file the forms. They can be confusing, and it’s important to fill them out correctly.
- Pay the filing fee or request a fee waiver.
- Make sure you are eligible. Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 have a means test you must fill out. If you fill out these forms on your own and miss things, you could be deemed unqualified to file. Lawyers know the details of these tests and can help you qualify.
- Get assigned a bankruptcy trustee. This is who you give your forms to. The trustee is an administrator and does not represent you in your case.
- Attend a meeting of creditors and attend a confirmation hearing. Without a lawyer, you must explain your case to the court and your creditors on your own.
- Complete a debtor education course.
- Get your discharge.
Pro se only applies to individual filings
As long as you are making an individual filing, you can file for bankruptcy on your own without a lawyer or a law degree yourself. This includes both types of personal bankruptcy filings (Chapter 7 and Chapter 13) as well as business filings (Chapter 11 or Chapter 12) as long as the business is not a partnership or incorporated entity.
You can NOT represent yourself in a partnership because you can’t legally represent someone else without being a licensed attorney. Incorporated businesses can’t be represented by the owner, so you must hire an attorney.
Of course, just because you can do something it doesn’t mean that you should. Even on the official website for United States Courts it states:
“While individuals can file a bankruptcy case without an attorney or “pro se,” it is extremely difficult to do it successfully.”
The risks of filing on your own
Here are a few risks you face with filing on your own:
- With any bankruptcy that requires you to submit a payment plan that will be approved by the courts, not using a qualified attorney means you could be risking plan rejection.
- In personal bankruptcy, if your Chapter 13 plan is rejected and you don’t qualify for Chapter 7 under a means test then you won’t be able to file.
- Bankruptcy is a complex process with lots of regulations and steps to follow. If you don’t do this correctly, your petition to file can be dismissed.
- If you don’t file correctly, discharge can be denied. You can always file again with an attorney if your case is denied the first time, but it can be problematic to get discharge approved on the same debt if it’s already been denied once.
If you still want to go through with the pro se filing process, consult this government guide.
For free official bankruptcy forms, visit this page from the U.S. Courts.
How a bankruptcy lawyer can help
Our advice is to avoid the risks of pro se filing and seek the proper legal services. After you choose a bankruptcy attorney, they help you through the filing process. An attorney can help you:
- Decide if bankruptcy is right for you, and if so, which chapter.
- Understand which debts can be discharged and which cant.
- Accurately fill out your bankruptcy forms.
- Know what tax consequences to expect.
- Understand which assets you can keep.
This is just a small sample of what a bankruptcy attorney can do for you. Filing without a lawyer is possible but requires so much work on your part and leaves plenty of room for error. Letting your lawyer provide legal advice and handle the difficult stuff also gives you more time and energy to repair your credit score.