Here’s some hard evidence on why it’s dangerous to file bankruptcy without an attorney.
As a bankruptcy attorney, I get many phone calls from people who have tried to file a bankruptcy by themselves and have gotten into trouble, sometimes serious trouble. I also run into similar horror stories about what happens when people file without an attorney when I attend “meetings of creditors”—the usually straightforward, usually short meeting with the bankruptcy trustee that everyone filing bankruptcy must attend. I’ve run into countless example of how dangerous it is to file bankruptcy without an attorney.
But I HAVE wondered whether anybody has actually investigated this question. Now somebody has, and we have some pretty solid evidence to back up what I have been witnessing anecdotally.
“The Do-It-Yourself Mirage: Complexity in the Bankruptcy System”
That is the title to a chapter in a book about bankruptcy called Broke: How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class. This book is a series of articles about many important current issues in the field, with this one chapter focusing on cases filed by debtors not represented by attorneys (“pro se” filers).
The author of this chapter, Asst. Professor Angela K. Littwin of the University of Texas School of Law, analyzed data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, “the leading [ongoing] national study of consumer bankruptcy for nearly 30 years.” Her finding: “pro se filers were significantly more likely to have their cases dismissed than their represented counterparts.”
Very interestingly, she also learned from the data that
consumers with more education were significantly more likely than others to try filing for bankruptcy on their own, but that their education didn’t appear to help them navigate the process. Pro se debtors with college degrees fared no better than those who had never set foot inside a college classroom.
She concluded that after bankruptcy law was significantly amended back in 2005 in an effort to discourage as many people from filing, “bankruptcy has become so complex that even the most potentially sophisticated consumers are unable to file correctly.”
Ten Times More Likely to Get a Discharge of Your Debts
In a closely related study, Prof. Littwin stated that “17.6 percent of unrepresented [Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy”] debtors had their cases dismissed or converted” into 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts” cases. “In contrast, only 1.9 percent of debtors with lawyers met this fate.” Even after controlling for other factors such as “education, race and ethnicity, income, age, homeownership, prior bankruptcy, whether the debtor had any nonminimal unencumbered assets at the time of the filing,” “represented debtors were almost ten times more likely to receive a discharge than their pro se counterparts.”
Prof. Littwin concluded that “filing pro se dramatically escalates the chance that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy will not provide a person with debt relief.”