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Should I file for bankruptcy without a lawyer?

By Staff atILAO on April 09, 2018
man looking at a stack of bills

This guest blog post was written by Martin Wegbreit, Director of Litigation, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.

In a word, “no.” Filing bankruptcy without a lawyer reminds me of my favorite quote from the 1981 movie “Body Heat, altered for a PG audience.

“I got a serious question for you: What the heck are you doing? This is not stuff for you to be messin’ with. Are you ready to hear something? I want you to see if this sounds familiar: any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna mess up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius.” - Teddy Lewis

I have been doing legal aid for almost 40 years, and am not a genius. However, I can think of at least 36 ways to mess up a bankruptcy without a lawyer.

You can mess up your bankruptcy case by filing…

  1. When you have too much property to protect in Chapter 7 or to pay out in Chapter 13.
  2. Right before you expect new debt, such as medical debt.
  3. After you sold a property for less than it is worth or gave away valuable property.
  4. After you paid more than $600 on a debt in the past 90 days.
  5. After you took money from a retirement account, such as an IRA, a 401(k) or a 403(b).
  6. After you had credit card charges to a single creditor for more than $675 for luxury goods or services bought in the past 90 days.
  7. After you got cash advances for more than $950 in the past 70 days.
  8. When you expect a large income tax refund.
  9. After you got a large income tax refund and can’t account for how you spent it.
  10. When you expect money or property in the future, such as an inheritance.
  11. When you have a legal claim, such a lawsuit or disability claim.
  12. Before the proper waiting period has passed (there are different ones for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13).
  13. And then being denied a discharge because the proper waiting period has not passed, and then never being able to discharge those debts in Chapter 7.
  14. Due to a small amount of debt which you could pay with a debt management plan.
  15. A Chapter 13 right before you expect a loss or decrease in income.
  16. As an emergency, but not meeting the rules for emergency filing.
  17. A joint bankruptcy, when the debts are only in one spouse’s name.
  18. A Chapter 7 when you only may file a Chapter 13.
  19. And not completing the means test form properly.
  20. As an emergency, but not qualifying for late filing of the pre-filing consumer credit counseling certificate.
  21. An emergency filing, but then not filing the pre-filing consumer credit counseling certificate.
  22. And not going to the hearing to see if you can file bankruptcy for free.
  23. And not paying filing fees as scheduled.
  24. And not filing to extend the automatic stay when you filed bankruptcy in the last 12 months.
  25. And not filing the post-filing debtor education certificate.
  26. And not filing every required petition, form and schedule.
  27. And not completing every needed item on every required petition, form and schedule.
  28. And listing debts under the wrong category, such as unsecured, secured, or priority.
  29. And not listing every debt.
  30. And trying to add new debt, such as rent, to the bankruptcy.
  31. And failing to list a legal claim as an asset.
  32. And not realizing that some debt can’t be discharged, such as fines, taxes, child support, and student loans.
  33. And not using the correct exemption to protect property, and losing the property.
  34. And not filing required documents, such as pay stubs, bank statements, tax returns, and/or a Homestead Deed.
  35. And not going to the first meeting of creditors.
  36. And not listing an asset, which could result in penalties and/or referral to the FBI for bankruptcy fraud.

No one should file a bankruptcy without a lawyer. The list of pitfalls is long, and you are likely to fall into one without an attorney representing you. Do not try this.

You may be eligible for free civil legal aid. If not, then start saving the money to pay a private attorney. If you can set aside $50 a week, you will have all the funds in a little under nine months.

This information is posted as a public service by Illinois Legal Aid Online and its partners. Its purpose is to inform people of their legal rights and obligations. Talk to a lawyer if you have questions about how this information applies to you.