Filing for Bankruptcy Without an Attorney

Whether you should file for bankruptcy without an attorney ("pro se") depends on the type of bankruptcy and the complexity of your case.

By , Attorney ● University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law
Updated 7/21/2022

You don't always need an attorney when filing individual bankruptcy on your own or "pro se," the term for representing yourself. If the case is simple enough, you can file for bankruptcy without help. But most people benefit from representation. This article explains:

  • when Chapter 7 is too complicated to handle yourself
  • why hiring a Chapter 13 lawyer is always important, and
  • if you represent yourself, how a bankruptcy petition preparer can help.

If you want to file pro se, at the very least, use a good self-help bankruptcy book like Nolo's How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, by Attorney Cara O'Neill and Albin Renauer, J.D.

When Is it Feasible to File Without an Attorney?

The general rule is the simpler your bankruptcy, the better your chances are of completing it on your own and receiving a bankruptcy discharge, the order erasing debt.

Your case is likely simple enough to handle without an attorney if:

However, even straightforward Chapter 7 cases require work. Plan on filling out extensive paperwork, gathering financial documentation, researching bankruptcy and exemption laws, and following local rules and procedures.

When Is it a Bad Idea to File Bankruptcy Without an Attorney?

It is almost always a good idea to hire an attorney to represent you in bankruptcy. Here are two situations that always call for representation.

You Have a Complicated Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

If you own a small business or have income above the median level of your state, a significant amount of assets, priority debts, nondischargeable debts, or creditors who can make claims against you based on fraud, you'll likely want a lawyer. Here's why.

Filers don't have an automatic right to dismiss a Chapter 7 case. If you make a mistake, the bankruptcy court could throw out your case or sell assets you thought you could keep. You could also face a bankruptcy lawsuit to determine whether a debt shouldn't be discharged. If you lose, you'll be stuck paying the debt after bankruptcy.

You Need to File for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

There are many good reasons for filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead of Chapter 7. You might want to file Chapter 13 to catch up on mortgage arrears so you can keep your house. Or you might want to get rid of your second mortgage, "cram down" or reduce a car loan, or pay back a debt that won't go away in bankruptcy over time, such as back taxes or support arrears.

Even if you're filing for Chapter 13 only because you make too much to qualify for Chapter 7, most Chapter 13 cases are too difficult to file on your own.

Other Reasons You Might Need a Bankruptcy Lawyer

Many people realize the legal fees required to hire a bankruptcy lawyer are quite reasonable once they understand how they can benefit from a bankruptcy attorney's help.

Prebankruptcy Considerations

In many cases, a bankruptcy lawyer can quickly identify issues you might not spot.

  • Not needing to file. Some people file for bankruptcy because they don't understand their alternatives. For instance, some filers don't need to file for bankruptcy because they're "judgment proof" and creditors can't collect from them.
  • Filing the wrong chapter type. For most consumers, the logical choices are Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Each type has specific benefits that solve particular problems. For example, if you want to save your home from foreclosure, Chapter 13 might be your best bet. Chapter 7 could be the way to go if you have low income and no assets. A bankruptcy lawyer can help you file the chapter that will best meet your needs.

Filling Out Bankruptcy Paperwork

Avoiding paperwork pitfalls can be problematic even if you choose the correct chapter. Here are common issues bankruptcy lawyers can prevent.

  • Failing to file required documents. Bankruptcy is form-driven. You'll have to complete a lengthy federal packet, and, in some cases, your court will also have local forms. Many self-represented bankruptcy debtors don't file all of the required bankruptcy documents, and their case gets dismissed. Learn more about forms, filing fees, and other things you'll need to know to start filing for bankruptcy.
  • Failing to protect property. You don't lose everything in bankruptcy, but keeping property depends on understanding how property exemptions work. If you stand to lose valuable property like your home, car, or other property you care about, an attorney might be well worth the money.
  • Failing to take required education courses. In Chapters 7 and 13, bankruptcy filers must receive credit counseling from an approved provider before filing for bankruptcy and complete a financial management course before the court issues a discharge. Many pro se debtors find these requirements confusing and don't file the proper certificate, resulting in a case dismissal.

Filing Motions or Adversary Actions

Most Chapter 7 cases move along predictably. You file for bankruptcy, attend the 341 meeting of creditors, and get your discharge. But, not all bankruptcy cases proceed smoothly, and other, more complicated issues can arise.

For instance, many self-represented filers:

  • don't understand the significance of motions and adversary actions
  • can't adequately defend against an action seeking to deny discharge, and
  • have a difficult time complying with confusing bankruptcy procedures.

Failing to understand these concepts will be problematic if a creditor challenges the dischargeability of a debt or if the bankruptcy trustee, the official who oversees your case, or a creditor alleges you've committed fraud. Or something else might crop up.

The bottom line is that an attorney is essential when you find yourself on the receiving end of a motion or lawsuit.

How to Get Help With Your Bankruptcy

If you decide to file for bankruptcy on your own, find out what services are available in your district for pro se filers.

Some bankruptcy courts hold pro se clinics where an attorney describes the bankruptcy options and process. Others can connect you with legal aid organizations that do the same. Many courts and their websites have information for consumers filing for bankruptcy, from brochures describing low-cost or free services to detailed information about bankruptcy.

Getting a good self-help book is also an excellent idea. Look for a bankruptcy book that highlights situations requiring an attorney.

Consider Hiring a Bankruptcy Preparer

Even if you have a simple Chapter 7 case, bankruptcy can be intimidating and time-consuming. You must accurately fill out many forms, research the law, and attend hearings.

If you understand bankruptcy law but would like help completing the forms (the average bankruptcy petition is approximately 50 pages long), you might consider hiring a bankruptcy petition preparer.

What Is a Bankruptcy Petition Preparer?

A bankruptcy petition preparer is any person or business, other than a lawyer or someone who works for a lawyer, that charges a fee to prepare bankruptcy documents. Under your direction and control, the bankruptcy petition preparer generates bankruptcy forms for you to file either by typing them or inputting information into a bankruptcy software program.

Because bankruptcy petition preparers are not attorneys, they can't provide legal advice or represent you in bankruptcy court. Specifically, they can't:

  • tell you which type of bankruptcy to file
  • tell you not to list certain debts
  • tell you not to list certain assets, or
  • tell you what property to exempt.

In essence, you must understand what debts your bankruptcy will discharge, what will happen to your property in the bankruptcy, and what laws exempt your property from being taken for the benefit of your creditors.

Also, you must file the bankruptcy papers and represent yourself in court. In other words, you are responsible for your case.

You act as your attorney and use the bankruptcy petition preparer as a typing service that transposes the information you give them onto the official forms.

Why Use a Bankruptcy Petition Preparer?

A good bankruptcy petition preparer will have up-to-date computer software that will quickly and relatively easily generate the documents. And most bankruptcy petition preparers charge low fees, especially compared to lawyers.

Bankruptcy law requires bankruptcy petition preparers to follow these business practices:

  • provide a written contract defining their services and fees
  • provide written disclosures summarizing the different kinds of bankruptcy and the associated procedures
  • identify themselves (in their marketing materials) as debt relief agencies providing services under the federal bankruptcy code
  • not charge an unreasonable fee (fees generally range from $100 to $200)
  • not collect or handle the bankruptcy filing fees or other court fees (you must do that yourself)
  • file a fee disclosure statement with the court (stating how much they have charged you for services)
  • include their name and social security or tax identification number on the documents they prepare, and
  • Do not use or advertise with the word "legal" or any similar term.

People who help others for free are not subject to these rules.

If You Aren't Comfortable, Speak With a Bankruptcy Lawyer

An attorney will prepare the forms, attend the hearings, and guide you through the process, and again, most people find it well worth the cost. If you're struggling to find the money to pay for legal help, find out what to do when you can't afford to hire a bankruptcy lawyer.

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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Helpful Bankruptcy Sites

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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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