The United States Bankruptcy Code does not require people to hire a bankruptcy lawyer to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. Cases filed by individuals without attorneys are referred to as “pro se” filings. However, the United States Court system strongly recommends seeking advice from a qualified attorney because bankruptcy issues can be complicated. Furthermore, filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case can have long-term consequences for your finances and other legal matters.
Chapter 7 is a powerful tool to get rid of debts and obtain a fresh start. Some debtors exit Chapter 7 without any debts. If your Chapter 7 case is simple, you may be able to file Chapter 7 without a lawyer. Just understand that the courts, judges, and bankruptcy trustees treat you like a lawyer. They cannot give you legal advice about your case or tell you what decisions to make. Therefore, you need to prepare to answer questions and handle matters that come in your case without their advice.
Before You File Bankruptcy Without an Attorney, Make Sure It Is the Right Thing for You
If you have any doubts, consider talking to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy lawyer for free. Most bankruptcy attorneys offer free bankruptcy consultations. You can get legal advice and discuss any problems that might arise in your case. Ascend can help you locate a bankruptcy lawyer in your area if you want to make sure that filing bankruptcy is right for you.
If you decide to file Chapter 7 without a lawyer, below is an overview of the basic steps to file Chapter 7 without a lawyer.
Best Online Bankruptcy Software
One of the biggest questions you may have is whether there is software to help you file bankruptcy online. Why? Because the bankruptcy forms are really complex. At Ascend, we realized that the folks who filed bankruptcy without an attorney had potentially higher dismissal rates, so we are building bankruptcy forms software.
The software will essentially be a question-based solution similar to something like TurboTax. It will be simple, allow you to save the forms, show you where you would file the forms, and allow you to print them easily.
Here’s a screenshot of the design.
If you are interested in this software, please fill out the basic information below to get on the wait list.
Preparing to File Chapter 7 Without an Attorney
The steps below help you file for bankruptcy without a lawyer under Chapter 7 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. They are not intended as legal advice. Instead, these steps are designed for a simple, no-asset Chapter 7 bankruptcy case.
Contact Ascend if you want to speak with someone free of charge about your debt problems. We offer many services to help individuals who cannot afford to pay their debts. Throughout these steps, if you become overwhelmed, unsure, and don’t know where to turn, please reach out to Ascend for help. We want to help you get out of debt using the best possible debt relief option.
10 Steps to File Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Without a Lawyer
Are you ready to begin? Let’s get started:
1. Gather Information and Documents
Before completing your bankruptcy forms, you need to gather information regarding your debts, assets, income, and expenses. The first thing to do is get free copies of your credit reports from all three credit reporting agencies. You can get free copies of credit reports here.
In addition to your credit reports, you need copies of:
- Tax returns for the past two years
- Current pay stubs and proof of income from all sources for the past six months
- Recent credit card bills, loan statements, and any other evidence of the debts you owe
- Statements for your checking account, saving accounts, retirement accounts, stock accounts, and all other financial accounts that you have an interest in at the time of filing
- Titles and/or registrations for all motor vehicles titled in your name alone or with another person
- Current household expenses include utility bills, lease payments, rent, etc.
- Real estate appraisals and deeds to property
- Any other documents that relate to your income, expenses, debts, and assets
Gathering as much information as possible before you begin is essential. Being prepared helps you avoid mistakes and decide if filing Chapter 7 without a lawyer is best for you.
2. Complete the Chapter 7 Means Test
Before going any further, complete the Chapter 7 Means Test using these forms. The Means Test determines if you meet the income requirements for a bankruptcy discharge under Chapter 7. The bankruptcy discharge is the order that removes your legal responsibility to repay a day. Chapter 7 is intended for individuals who do not have enough money to repay their debts after paying their living expenses.
Ascend provides a free Chapter 7 bankruptcy calculator. You can estimate whether you qualify to file Chapter 7 using our calculator online.
BEWARE! Income requirements are based on where you live and how many people live in your household. The figures are adjusted for inflation every few months. Also, some expenses may be limited based on household expenses, such as utilities, food, and clothing.
The most recent figures are provided on the United State Trustee’s website. In the center of the page is a box entitled “Data Required for Completing the 122A Forms and the 122C Forms.” Click the “Choose Option” box to select your filing date for the most recent figures.
3. Complete Your Credit Counseling Course
If you “pass” the Chapter 7 Means Test, complete your credit counseling course. The credit counseling course is the first of two bankruptcy courses required to file bankruptcy without an attorney and obtain a bankruptcy discharge.
Credit counseling courses are offered online by many approved companies. The fees range from $10 to $50. The UST provides a list of approved companies on its website. You must use a company approved by the UST for bankruptcy courses.
You may ask the company if you qualify to waive the fee for the course. Some low-income individuals may receive the class free of charge.
4. Complete Your Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Forms
Your Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms consist of roughly 24 forms. Depending on the information used to complete the forms, your bankruptcy forms could number 70 or more pages. You can access the official bankruptcy forms online through the United States Court website.
If you hire a bankruptcy lawyer, your lawyer completes your bankruptcy forms and files them with the bankruptcy court electronically. If you cannot afford to hire a Chapter 7 bankruptcy lawyer, talk with Ascend about our free online bankruptcy service or schedule an appointment with a legal aid provider in your area.
5. Have Your Filing Fee Ready
The filing fee for a Chapter 7 case is $338. You must pay this fee to the United States Bankruptcy Court where you file your bankruptcy forms without a lawyer. Most courts only accept cash or money orders, so check with the court before filing your forms.
If you cannot pay the filing fee, you might qualify to pay your fee in installments or waive the fee altogether. You must file a separate form to request installment payments. If you cannot afford installment payments, you can file a form to request a waiver of fees.
6. File Your Bankruptcy Forms with the Bankruptcy Court
Print your bankruptcy forms. They must be printed on one side of the paper. Review each page for errors and mistakes. If the forms are correct, sign the forms in all places indicating a signature.
You must attach copies of your:
- Pay stubs or evidence of income for six months before the month you file the bankruptcy case(make sure to mark out all but the last four digits of your Social Security Number)
- Credit Counseling certificate
- Application to waive the fee or pay the fee in installments
Some courts have local forms that must be completed and filed. Check with the court to ensure you complete the local forms and include them in the package. The court usually requires one copy of your bankruptcy forms, but you may want to call before going to the court or take two copies with you just in case you need another copy.
Your Chapter 7 case must be filed with the bankruptcy court that has jurisdiction over where you live. You can locate your bankruptcy court online. Ensure you have your driver’s license or another acceptable form of identification, or you will not be able to enter the courthouse.
The clerk of court files your bankruptcy forms and returns a Notice of Bankruptcy Filing that includes your bankruptcy case number, the name of your Chapter 7 trustee, and the date and time of the Meeting of Creditors. At this point, you have officially filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case.
7. Mail Required Forms to the Chapter 7 Trustee
Each Chapter 7 trustee has a different process for obtaining documents for court. Check with your trustee’s office for the document list you must send to the trustee’s office before your 341 Meeting of Creditors. In addition, some trustees have websites that explain their procedures.
Open all mail from the Chapter 7 trustee, bankruptcy court, or creditors immediately. The information in those letters could impact your case. If you do not follow up immediately, your case could be dismissed, or you could lose the property you wanted to keep.
8. Complete Your Debtor Education Course
Most companies that offer the Credit Counseling Course also offer the Debtor Education Course. Complete the second bankruptcy course as soon as possible and file the certificate of completion with the bankruptcy court.
The course teaches you about debts and how to create a budget. The information provided by the course can be beneficial for debtors exiting Chapter 7. It takes about two hours to complete the course.
Failing to complete the second bankruptcy course before the deadline means you do not receive a bankruptcy discharge. In other words, you still owe all your debts as if you never filed for bankruptcy without a lawyer.
9. Attend the 341 First Meeting of Creditors
The 341 First Meeting of Creditors is held 30 to 45 days after filing your bankruptcy case. The Chapter 7 trustee conducts the hearing. You must have your original driver’s license and Social Security Card with you at the hearing. If you do not have these documents, contact the Chapter 7 trustee’s office immediately to ask what other documents would be acceptable, if any.
It is also a good idea to take a copy of the bankruptcy forms you completed with you to court, copies of your bank statements for the last two months, and updated paystubs. In addition, take copies of any documents requested by the Chapter 7 trustee, even if you have already provided those copies to the trustee’s office.
The trustee places you under oath and asks you questions about your case. The questions should be easy to answer because they are based on the information on the bankruptcy forms you completed and filed with the bankruptcy court. Your creditors can also ask questions, but many creditors never appear.
If the Chapter 7 trustee does not believe you have any assets to repay your unsecured debts and there are no problems with your case, he will declare the case to be a “no-asset” case. You should receive your bankruptcy discharge within 60 days if you have completed and filed your second bankruptcy course certificate and there are no problems with your case.
10. Deal Your Car Loan
Secured debts (i.e., car loans and mortgages) are not discharged. Instead, you must continue paying these debts or surrender the property. If you surrender the property through Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the creditors cannot demand any more money even if they do not receive enough money to pay the debt when they sell the asset.
If you want to keep your car, you have a couple of options. First, you can reaffirm the loan, meaning that you agree the loan stands outside the bankruptcy case. If you default on the loan, the lender can repossess the vehicle and sue you for any money you may still owe the creditor.
You can also file a motion with the court to redeem the car if your car is worth less than you owe on the loan. You must prove the car is worth less than you owe on the car loan. Furthermore, you must pay the vehicle’s value in one lump sum if the court grant’s the motion.
5 Important Things to Consider Before Filing Chapter 7 Without an Attorney
Filing for bankruptcy relief could be the best solution to your debt problems. However, before you go down that path with the help of a bankruptcy lawyer, there are five essential things you need to consider:
1. The Length and Complexity of Bankruptcy Forms and the Need for Accuracy
A completed bankruptcy package could contain 70 to 100 or more pages, depending on the case’s complexity. Bankruptcy forms can be difficult to understand. You must read each page and section carefully to ensure that you include the correct information requested.
You sign your bankruptcy forms under penalty of perjury. In other words, you swear under oath the information is accurate and complete.
Mistakes could result in losing property that would generally be safe from the Chapter 7 trustee. Errors may result in owing debts that you could have discharged. In the worst case, mistakes could result in allegations of bankruptcy fraud.
Hiring a Chapter 7 bankruptcy attorney helps ensure that your bankruptcy forms are complete so that you do not make costly mistakes.
2. Does Your Chapter 7 Case Have Complex Issues?
Filing Chapter 7 without an attorney is only a good idea if your case does not involve any complex issues. Complex issues could include, but are not limited to:
- A home you want to keep, but you are behind on the mortgage payments
- You owe back child support or alimony payments
- If you are behind on your car payments but want to keep your car
- You owe back income taxes or other government debts
- Your debts include judgments regarding a DUI accident or fraud
- You have a large inheritance you just received or anticipate receiving soon
- Your income comes from a trust or other family arrangement
- Your spouse makes a lot of money and does not need to file for bankruptcy relief
- You have not filed tax returns for several years
- Potentially, you own assets that are worth more money than the allowed bankruptcy exemptions
- You paid family members money within the last year
- You sold or transferred anything of value within the past two years
These are just a few examples of issues that could complicate your Chapter 7 case. So before filing bankruptcy without a lawyer, take advantage of a free bankruptcy consultation to make sure Chapter 7 is best for you.
3. Pros and Cons of Bankruptcy Petition Preparers
Some companies offer to prepare and file your bankruptcy case for you. These companies are often called “bankruptcy petition preparers” or BPPs. A BPP is someone who helps you fill out your bankruptcy forms. Their role is limited to typing your bankruptcy forms from the information you provide. They are not permitted to give legal advice. Only attorneys may give legal advice. A BPP does not represent the debtor in the bankruptcy case or court.
However, the courts have found many BPPs tell debtors what chapter to file and give legal advice. For some debtors, this arrangement works out. They receive their bankruptcy discharge. However, they may pay as much for the BPPs services as they would hire a Chapter 7 attorney who does represent them and who can give them legal advice.
Many debtors could complete the forms themselves, especially in jurisdictions where courts have self-help desks that provide limited information about filing Chapter 7 without a lawyer.
4. Pro and Cons of Bankruptcy Filling Software
Bankruptcy software makes it easier to complete your bankruptcy forms. You enter information into the program, and the software completes the bankruptcy forms. Well-developed bankruptcy software is easy-to-use, field-driven software that has updated bankruptcy forms and current information. Some bankruptcy software is as easy to use as the credit counseling and debtor education systems used for bankruptcy courses.
However, the result of using bankruptcy software is only as good as the information you input into the software. If you enter incorrect information or leave information out, your bankruptcy forms are inaccurate.
The best bankruptcy software systems for pro-se debtors include detailed information about each bankruptcy form, including the information included in the form. Based on the description of the bankruptcy form, you determine what to enter to ensure that the bankruptcy form is complete and accurate.
5. Success Rate of Pro Se Chapter 13 Cases
If you do not qualify for Chapter 7, you might be able to get out of debt by filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case. Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a court-supervised debt repayment plan. It can have a lot of advantages for some individuals such as:
- Stops foreclosures and repossessions
- Protects property that a Chapter 7 trustee could take
- Generally gets rid of most unsecured debts for pennies on the dollar
- Allows you to catch up back alimony and child support payments
- Gets rid of most income tax debts
However, Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases are much more complex than Chapter 7 cases. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you talk to a Chapter 13 attorney. Unfortunately, only 2.3% of the Chapter 13 cases filed without an attorney from 2010 through 2016 were successful.
If you are interested in a Chapter 13 case, try our free Chapter 13 bankruptcy calculator. You can estimate your bankruptcy plan payment and find a Chapter 13 bankruptcy attorney in your area for a free bankruptcy consultation.