Choosing to defend yourself or hire legal representation for a bankruptcy case is a big decision — one that could impact how your case is handled in court and the outcome of how much (if any) debt is discharged. Some people choose to hire an attorney to handle their bankruptcy case and ensure it will be successful, but others consider filing and proceeding through court on their own. There’s no right or wrong way when it comes to bankruptcy court, but it’s important to know how defending yourself could lead to serious ramifications.
Why an Attorney is Important
An attorney who specializes in bankruptcy cases is an experience guide in helping you through the bankruptcy process with as few speed bumps and issues as possible. Their legal expertise can handle all of your case details — from if your debt qualifies for bankruptcy, what kind of bankruptcy you qualify for, exemptions during liquidation (when your items are sold to pay debts) and the entire process from start to finish. Having an attorney’s legal advice and assistance can help you avoid common mistakes, like filing under the wrong chapter or forgetting to submit particular paperwork. Those issues can delay your ruling, or invalidate your case.
What is Pro Se Bankruptcy?
Filing pro se bankruptcy is a technical term for defending yourself in bankruptcy court — that is, not having legal representation. Some people feel they can navigate the system on their own, or worry that they can’t afford an attorney’s help. In these situations, pro se filers must fully understand the bankruptcy process and everything the court requires in your bankruptcy petition (the application to the courts for bankruptcy). Pro se filers are still required to pay court fees, but you may find that fees cost more than the estimated $300 to $400 because of fees an attorney might face (such as filing court motions).
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Common Pro Se Pitfalls
There’s nothing wrong with filing pro se, but there are common issues and mistakes filers encounter. These setbacks can delay your case; in some cases, they can be faulty enough that your case is dismissed. If you chose to defend yourself in bankruptcy court, be sure to avoid these pitfalls:
- Filing in the wrong chapter: What bankruptcy chapter you qualify for can depend on what kinds of debt you have, how much you have and how much money you make. It’s possible that one chapter, like chapter 7 bankruptcy, may seem better for you, but a court may determine that you only qualify for chapter 13 bankruptcy. In this case, you may have to start the petition process all over again.
- Missing documents and information in your petition: A bankruptcy petition has multiple parts, including statements about your intent (whether you’ll continue paying debts or if you want them cleared), schedules (documents that list your debt, personal property, income, employment information and other relevant details), a means test (the calculation that determines your eligibility for chapter 7 bankruptcy) and many other documents. Leaving out just one of these documents can delay your petition and cost you money to amend your petition with additional information.
- Not understanding courtroom proceedings: The biggest difficulty pro se filers face is navigating the legal language, court room procedures and understanding the ramifications of their bankruptcy case. Failing to fully understand how your bankruptcy case is moving forward can be the biggest detriment to a case, and one that can be costly to fix (if fixable at all).
What Could Go Wrong?
Sure, many people are pro se bankruptcy filers who successfully make it through the legal process. But, before you decide you can navigate the waters of bankruptcy court, be sure you know the risks of pro se pitfalls:
- Having your case tossed out of bankruptcy court for inaccuracies or improper filing
- Receiving a bankruptcy judgment that isn’t the best possible outcome
- Costly, additional fees from having to make additions or amendments to your petition
- Making a wrong decision based on not fully understanding legal terms, which could leave you with a less than great judgment
- Feeling unnecessary stress or anguish from handling the case yourself
If you have a legal background or experience, or have a strong legal support network, pro se bankruptcy can be a strong option for handling your debt relief. But, making an educated decision about hiring representation is an important step of filing for bankruptcy; regardless of which route you chose, making this choice is a necessary for moving forward and escaping debt.