If you're considering bankruptcy, not being able to afford to hire an attorney can add to the anxiety you already feel. However, the law allows individuals to file Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions without using an attorney. Nonetheless, you may want to seek help in filing your petition, because bankruptcy laws are complex. Local organizations may offer free or low-cost assistance; a legal document service is another possible resource.
The two most common types of personal bankruptcy petitions are Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 involves liquidation of the debtor's assets, that is, selling her possessions to satisfy financial obligations, after which she receives a discharge that relieves her of any further obligation to pay. However, creditors often receive nothing from a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, because many debtors have few if any assets that are not protected from liquidation. Chapter 13 is a repayment plan for debtors with regular incomes, which takes place over two to five years. Chapter 13 does not involve liquidation; however, many debtors are able to reduce their overall financial burden by filing Chapter 13.
It may seem ironic, but there are fees involved with filing for bankruptcy. If you use an attorney, you can spend more than $1,000 to file Chapter 7, and $3,000 or more to file Chapter 13. Even without attorney's fees, you must pay standard court fees for Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 -- as of November 2011 the fee for filing Chapter 7 was $306 and the fee for filing Chapter 13 was $281. Additional fees are required for the credit counseling course you must complete before filing your petition and the financial management course that is mandatory to complete after you file your petition; those fees can add another $50 to $100 to your total costs.
Filing Without an Attorney
Filing without an attorney is known as filing "pro se." This means that you must complete all the paperwork associated with your petition, file the required documentation with the proper officials and appear in court on your own. Legal clinics and nonprofit agencies frequently offer assistance to pro se bankruptcy filers in completing their paperwork; some agencies have attorneys on staff to answer legal questions. However, these organizations cannot serve as legal representatives, and their staff attorneys cannot appear with bankruptcy petitioners in court.
If you are filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and you cannot afford court filing fees, you may apply for a waiver. Your income must be less than 150 percent of the poverty guidelines published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services for households of the same size and located in the same state. If you don't qualify for a waiver, you may pay the fee in installments. Making a mistake at any stage in the process of filing your bankruptcy petition may result in your case being dismissed rather than discharged.