You are not required to have an attorney in order to file for bankruptcy. In some simple Chapter 7 cases, you can file on your own (it's called filing "pro se," meaning that you represent yourself) if you are willing to put in some time and research. However, in many cases, it's a good idea to have a bankruptcy attorney.
The importance of an attorney depends on the complexity of your case and whether you are filing a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Read on to learn more about when it is feasible to file bankruptcy without an attorney and when you should strongly consider hiring one.
The general rule is the simpler your bankruptcy, the better your chances are to successfully complete it and receive a discharge on your own. So it’s usually more feasible to file without an attorney if you are filing a simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
If your household income is less than the state median, you own little or no assets, and you don’t have any priority debts or creditors alleging fraud against you, then your case is likely simple enough for you to handle without an attorney.
However, keep in mind that even the simplest Chapter 7 requires you to fill out extensive paperwork, gather financial documentation, research bankruptcy and exemption laws, and follow the local rules and procedures. At the very least, if you want to file pro se, use a good self-help bankruptcy book like Nolo's How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.
In certain situations, it is almost always a good idea to hire an attorney to represent you in bankruptcy.
There are many reasons to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead of a Chapter 7. You may want to file a Chapter 13 because you wish to catch up on mortgage arrears, get rid of your second mortgage, cram down your car loans, or pay back nondischargeable priority debts. Or maybe you simply make too much money to qualify for a Chapter 7. No matter what your reason is, it generally means that your case may be too difficult to file on your own.
Chapter 13 bankruptcies are a lot more complicated than Chapter 7s. In addition to filing the official bankruptcy forms (and perhaps some local forms), you must also design a proposed repayment plan, something that is very difficult to do without the expensive software that most attorneys use. Also, certain actions such as stripping your second mortgage or cramming down a car loan will usually require filing additional motions and paperwork with the court.
As a result, even some attorneys will limit their bankruptcy practice to Chapter 7 cases because they feel they are not qualified to handle a Chapter 13. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Chapter 13 cases filed without an attorney get dismissed by the court. So if you are planning to file a Chapter 13, it is a good idea to hire a qualified attorney.
Certain Chapter 7 cases are more complicated than others. Your Chapter 7 will usually be more complex if you own a business, have income above the median level of your state, have a significant amount of assets, or have creditors who can make claims against you based on fraud. If any of the above applies to you, you risk having your case dismissed, your assets being taken and sold, or facing a lawsuit in your bankruptcy to determine that certain debts should not be discharged. In that case, it is advisable to hire an attorney to handle your bankruptcy.
Even if you have a simple Chapter 7 case, bankruptcy can be an intimidating and time consuming process. You will need to accurately fill out many forms, research the law, and attend hearings. If you are not comfortable with any aspect of the bankruptcy process, you should consider hiring an attorney who will prepare the forms, attend the hearings with you, and guide you through the process.
To learn more about finding and using a bankruptcy attorney, see Getting Bankruptcy Help.