Do It Yourself Chapter 13: Should You File Without an Attorney?

Filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy on your own is rarely a good idea.

Updated by , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

Hiring an attorney to represent you in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy can be expensive. But unfortunately, representing yourself in Chapter 13 bankruptcy can be much more complicated than filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on your own, and filers rarely complete do-it-yourself Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases.

In this article, you'll learn why filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy without an attorney almost always ends poorly.

Do-It-Yourself Chapter 13 Bankruptcies Rarely Succeed

Chapter 13 bankruptcy has always been more complex than Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Even seasoned attorneys often need to amend a Chapter 13 plan more than once to get it "confirmed" or approved.

It's even more difficult for people filing without a lawyer. A bankruptcy court known for many "pro se" or self-represented bankruptcy filers found that the court confirms less than 1% of plans filed without an attorney. This statistic includes cases prepared by non-lawyer petition preparers.

What Representing Yourself in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Means

When you represent yourself, you are responsible for researching the law, following the bankruptcy court rules, preparing and filing your documents, and making all the decisions in your case.

When you file your case, the court appoints a Chapter 13 trustee. The Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee will likely notify you if your plan is not in compliance with bankruptcy rules, laws, or local procedures. It will be up to you to correct the problem.

Similarly, court employees can answer simple procedural questions but cannot provide legal advice.

Understanding How the Chapter 13 Trustee Gets Paid

The trustee is not your lawyer. The trustee can't provide you with legal advice and is rarely, if ever, able to respond to calls or emails requesting help with your case.

Also, although most Chapter 13 trustees are polite and personable, remember that the trustee is incentivized to collect as much money from you for creditors as possible. How does this work? The trustee gets a percentage of all the funds paid toward your bills.

Learn more about how trustees get paid in bankruptcy.

Pitfalls When Representing Yourself in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Some of the pitfalls to filing for Chapter 13 without a lawyer could lead to the dismissal of your case. Common reasons for a Chapter 13 dismissal include failing to do the following:

  • file all schedules, statements, and local forms timely and properly
  • complete required education courses
  • file a proposed Chapter 13 plan within the time allowed
  • provide proper notice to creditors when necessary
  • properly report income and expenses
  • comply with local procedures
  • start making proposed plan payments within 30 days of filing
  • "amend" or correct filing errors
  • appear at the 341 meeting of creditors or confirmation hearing
  • maintain insurance on vehicles and real property, and
  • follow the local court rules regarding filing yearly tax returns.

Learn about the steps in a Chapter 13 case.

Complying With Chapter 13 Procedural Rules

Successfully representing yourself in Chapter 13 involves learning federal bankruptcy laws and procedural rules. It isn't easy to know what's expected or determine who to send information to because it depends on the hearing type.

For instance, self-represented filers often forget to provide copies of motions and responses to creditors and others involved in the case. Courts won't rule in your favor on matters you haven't appropriately served.

Complying With Local Bankruptcy Requirements

There are almost always local rules, forms, guidelines, and procedures in Chapter 13 that vary widely between districts. And even different trustees in the same bankruptcy court district might have additional requirements.

Putting this information together is challenging and will require many trips back to these sites. Filing Chapter 13 on your own can quickly become a full-time job because you must understand all the obligations required by a Chapter 13 plan.

Many trustees maintain a website with the trustee's requirements, such as payment procedures. Each bankruptcy court website has local rules, guidelines, and helpful links for self-represented debtors.

Use the Federal Court Finder tool to find your local bankruptcy court and website.

Representing Yourself in Bankruptcy Court

Some Chapter 13 requirements are especially laborious. Suppose you filed Chapter 13 to take advantage of legal strategies such as lien stripping or cramdown. In that case, you must file the appropriate motions with the court and attend hearings. If a creditor objects, the bankruptcy court would set the matter for an evidentiary hearing where you must present evidence and witness testimony.

While judges often have patience with pro se debtors, all parties, represented or not, have to comply with the rules of evidence. Even if you have a good legal position to win at the hearing, you'll lose if you don't know how to get your proof before the court.

Consequences of a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Dismissal

If you aren't successful, the court will dismiss your bankruptcy matter. If this happens, at best, you are back in the same spot you were before you filed. But you could also end up in a worse position.

With the passing of time, additional interest and late charges will accrue. Even more important, if you want to get an attorney and file again, you might run into roadblocks because of your previous filing.

You might have to wait to file again. Courts often dismiss cases with prejudice for some time. You won't be able to file during the prohibited period unless you or your new lawyer gets the prejudice period shortened.

The automatic stay might be limited. But even then, you have another hurdle. The automatic stay that stops collection actions during bankruptcy might be limited to 30 days or unavailable. You'd have to file a motion and convince the judge to impose or continue the stay for an extended period.

Even if successful, this means much more work for your new lawyer and a higher fee.

Meet With a Bankruptcy Lawyer

You might be surprised to learn that even though filing for Chapter 13 is more costly than Chapter 7, many bankruptcy lawyers require a small deposit before filing the case. A Chapter 13 lawyer can roll the remaining attorneys' fees into the repayment plan, allowing you to pay your legal fees over time.

Need More Bankruptcy Help?

Did you know Nolo has been making the law easy for over fifty years? It's true—and we want to make sure you find what you need. Below you'll find more articles explaining how bankruptcy works. And don't forget that our bankruptcy homepage is the best place to start if you have other questions!

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We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all bankruptcy issues or the facts of your case. The best way to protect your assets in bankruptcy is by hiring a local bankruptcy lawyer.

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