You CAN file Chapter 7 bankruptcy yourself, which is called filing “pro se.” This article will explain the process of filing Chapter 7 and identify pitfalls that, if not avoided or resolved, will result in you not getting the financial fresh start you need.
Why Do You Think You Need to File Chapter 7?
The most common reasons people are forced to turn to bankruptcy as a solution are job loss, divorce, and significant medical bills.
Chapter 7 allows you to discharge many forms of unsecured debt, such as credit cards and medical bills. A discharge means you are no longer responsible for paying that debt.
You cannot discharge certain kinds of debt like child or spousal support, government fines and fees, most income taxes, or student loans in a Chapter 7 filing. You may be able to get a mortgage or car loan discharged if you surrender the collateral to the lender.
Use the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Website and the Website of the Court in Your Jurisdiction
Bankruptcy is governed by federal law. The U.S. Courts website has PDF files of many of the required forms, and the federal courthouse in your jurisdiction will have a website with a page for pro se litigants with the required local forms.
Some states have multiple bankruptcy courts, while others have one. For example, if you’re filing for bankruptcy in Pennsylvania you would go to either the Eastern District of Pennsylvania bankruptcy court site, Middle District of Pennsylvania, or Western District of Pennsylvania. On the other hand, if you’re filing bankruptcy in New Jersey, there is just one website for the District of New Jersey.
Bear in mind that judges, clerks, and any employee of the court cannot give you legal advice and that pro se litigants are held to the same standards as attorneys. You will have to comply with all procedural requirements in your case.
If you are single, married, or a sole proprietor, you will use forms in the 100 series.
If you are filing on behalf of a business that is a corporation, partnership, or LLC, you will use forms in the 200 series.
Gather Your Financial Documents, Records, and Other Information
You will need the following documents to prepare your Chapter 7 filing and to have ready to give to the Chapter 7 Trustee:
- The last three years of federal income tax returns;
- The last six months of all bank account statements;
- Copies of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies;
- Copies of overdue bills and debt collection notices showing amounts in arrears;
- If you rent, a copy of the lease;
- If you own, copies of the mortgage(s);
- A real estate appraisal of your home;
- The past six months’ worth of paystubs
- Your monthly budget for expenses;
- The value of each of your possessions.
Complete Your Chapter 7 Petition and Schedules
Once you’ve gathered all of the documents, you are ready to download and print the Chapter 7 petition and schedules. The petition will require you to enter all personal and contact information. On the schedules, you will disclose all income, expenses, assets, and debts.
Be sure to list all creditors and all debts. Failing to include all creditors and debts can result in a debt not being discharged or an allegation of fraud, which under federal bankruptcy law is punishable by hefty fines, jail time, or both.
There is no law preventing you from paying a debt back even if it is discharged, so list everything – even that loan you got from your parents.
Take Your Credit Counseling Course
Since the passing of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA), everyone filing bankruptcy must take a credit counseling course over the phone or online. The list of accepted course providers will be on your jurisdiction’s website. You will file the certification of course completion with your petition and schedules.
File Your Chapter 7 Case
Attorneys can file your case electronically. As a pro se litigant, you will have to visit the Clerk of Court and physically file your case along with the filing fee of $335 (as of March 2021).
Attend Your 341(a) Meeting of Creditors
You will receive notice of a mandatory meeting with the Chapter 7 Trustee. This meeting is called the Meeting of Creditors because all of your creditors receive notice of it too, and if they have questions about your debt or their collateral, this is their opportunity to appear and inquire while you are under oath.
The Trustee will swear you in, verify your identity by inspecting your photo ID and your social security card and ask you targeted questions about your filing. The Trustee may or may not request additional information or documentation, which you are required to supply.
Take the Financial Management Course
Under BAPCPA, Chapter 7 debtors are required to take a second course, called the financial management course or the debtor education course. This can be done over the phone or online. Once you receive the certification of completion, you must file it with the Clerk of Court. You will not receive your discharge if you fail to complete the course or fail to file the certification of completion.
Wait for the Deadline for Creditors to Object to Pass
Creditors have a limited amount of time to object to discharge of the debt you owe them. The last date your creditors can object will be on the notice you receive that your case is filed.
If a creditor does object to discharge, there can be any number of reasons for that, including:
- The debt is secured and the creditor wants the collateral back;
- The debt was incurred just before filing bankruptcy;
- The debt is nondischargeable.
If you are unable to negotiate with the creditor and that debt is not discharged, you will still be responsible for paying it when your bankruptcy case closes.
Receive Your Discharge
Once the deadline to object passes, a discharge order will be entered in your case. Keep it handy in case any creditors attempt to collect discharged debt so that you can give them your case number and mail, fax, or email a copy of the discharge order to them.
If You Need Help, Consult with a Bankruptcy Attorney
If, after organizing all of the documents and information you need to file Chapter 7 and looking over the required forms, you find that you are confused or that you are uncertain as to how to proceed, consult with an experienced bankruptcy lawyer in your jurisdiction.
Filing bankruptcy can have unintended consequences for you and for others if you do not fully understand what will happen in your case and anticipate potential problems. An attorney can help you:
- Determine if filing Chapter 7 is the best solution for your particular situation;
- Inform you about the pros and cons of filing Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy;
- Assess your debt situation and advise you which debt can be discharged;
- Determine whether you will be able to keep your home, your car, or other property when you file bankruptcy;
- Correctly apply “exemptions” so the Trustee does not seize your property;
- Prevent your car from being repossessed;
- Negotiate with secured creditors if you fell behind in payments but want to keep your home or car;
- Negotiate with creditors that object to discharge;
- Deal with any creditors who violate the automatic stay;
- Advise you about whether you should continue to pay creditors, and if you are able to stop paying some bills, that may make hiring an attorney affordable;
- Inform you of any tax consequences of filing bankruptcy;
- Ensure that your case complies with all bankruptcy law, procedures, and filing requirements;
- Complete all of the required forms for you to review and sign;
- Represent you in the 341(a) Meeting of Creditors, before the Trustee;
- Prepare you for testifying under oath at the 341(a) Meeting of Creditors;
- Represent you if your case is subject to random audit by the U.S. Trustee’s office;
- Ensure that you get what you need from filing bankruptcy.
Most bankruptcy lawyers offer a free initial consultation. What do you have to lose (other than thousands or tens of thousands of dollars of debt)?