There is no law requiring you to hire an attorney when filing for bankruptcy in Will County, Illinois or elsewhere. People do it—some even do it successfully. Those who choose to forego legal counsel generally do so either because they think they cannot afford an attorney, or because they do not feel they need one. Unfortunately, both these reasons commonly turn out to be flawed.

It is easy to understand why someone who is already neck-deep in debt might feel like hiring a bankruptcy attorney is simply not a luxury they can afford. A glance at the bottom line, however, suggests differently: many debtors cannot afford not to hire an attorney. In many cases, having an attorney makes the difference of hundreds if not thousands of dollars in savings. These savings come in the form of more discharged debts, more retained property, and even the avoidance of penalties for improper procedure. As you’ll see below, bankruptcy is a complicated process; penalties—including jail time—may await those who fail to carefully navigate the procedural rules.

The United States Bankruptcy Code is over 500 pages long. On top of this, each local court has its own rules for certain procedures. With this in mind, it is not surprising that pro se debtors (the technical term for those who file for bankruptcy without an attorney) almost inevitably fall into procedural black holes. Even licensed attorneys who do not specialize in bankruptcy law often find the process baffling. This is because every bankruptcy case is unique, making an effective “step-by-step” instruction manual virtually impossible. Any publications that claim to offer such guidance, while perhaps helpful, will inevitably be riddled with holes and generalities. For these reasons, an experienced bankruptcy attorney well-versed in the law of Joliet and Will County bankruptcy proceedings will be invaluable in helping you attain the best possible outcome of your bankruptcy case.

The possible pitfalls of a pro se bankruptcy filing begin even before your petition reaches the court. Far too often, people file for bankruptcy when they don’t really need to! Bankruptcy is a fairly extreme solution and should only be used in certain circumstances. Superfluous bankruptcy proceedings leave debtors with much of the same problems they started out with and effectively prevent the debtor from again seeking relief through the bankruptcy process for number of years. (The actual time frame between discharge eligibility depends on the type of bankruptcy in question; using Chapter 7 as an example, think of bankruptcy as a special card you are only allowed to play once every eight years. By failing to strategically file and/or adjudicate your case, you’ve essentially “wasted” your once-every-eight-years bankruptcy opportunity.)

Another mistake pro se debtors often make involves choice of chapter. There are several different options: Chapter 7, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, and Chapter 13 bankruptcies. There are important differences between each type, and all too commonly people end up filing under the wrong chapter. Which chapter is best for you depends on your particular circumstances (e.g., your income, your assets, etc.)—another reason why it is important to have an attorney review your case.

Even if you file under the correct chapter, the procedural pitfalls that lie ahead are numerous and hairy. Quite often, improper procedure will result in the dismissal of your case. Some people think that the court or the trustee will guide them through the process, but that is not their job. More likely than not, your inefficiency will only serve to annoy. And that never works in your favor.

Some of the common procedural mistakes pro se debtors make along the way include failure to file the correct documents and forms (e.g., schedules of assets, debts, income, and expenses; statement of financial affairs, statement of intentions, means test, certificate of credit counseling, etc.), failure to correctly fill out these required forms, failure to file on time, and failure to provide the trustee with the required articles within the required time frame. Any of these errors may result in the dismissal of your case or the retaining of certain dischargeable debts.

On top of the procedural complexity of bankruptcy filings, federal and local laws are constantly subject to change. Therefore, “helpful” DIY resources and how-to’s may be obsolete and send you down the rabbit hole instead.

As mentioned, the particularities of each client’s individual case have a tremendous impact on the outcome. Of especial importance are property and timing issues. Claiming the appropriate property exemptions is extremely important, because bankruptcy works by liquidating all your non-exempt assets. If you are unsure of how to properly list or value your assets, or if you don’t know your equity in the property, it will be utterly impossible for you to correctly claim exemptions. This can have devastating effects, especially if you stand to lose property of significant value (such as a car or house) or if you have property that is especially meaningful to you (such as a family heirloom). Exemptions become even more complicated if you own property with someone else.

Timing is crucial as well. Filing for bankruptcy in Will County or elsewhere at the wrong time can result in needless, sometimes devastating losses. Are you anticipating an inheritance within the next year? Are you planning on selling or buying real property? Are you trying to pay back friends or family members who have loaned you money? Did you recently receive a tax return? All these things will affect the way you approach your bankruptcy action, making the advice of an attorney essential.

Many people often take unnecessary (even harmful) actions in anticipation of filing for bankruptcy. For example, transferring money or assets to “hide” them, or even just paying back friends or family members who have loaned you money, can have serious effects on the outcome of your bankruptcy case. What’s more, evidence of fraud or dishonesty might put you in jail.

Few self-represented bankruptcy filers understand the significance of adversary actions or how to defend against them. A creditor may challenge the dischargeability of some or all of your debts, the trustee may allege that you have committed fraud, or some other damaging motion may be made against you. After all, not everyone is necessarily rooting for you: creditors are looking to protect their own interests, and court officials are ready to balk at the first sign of fraud—even if you didn’t intend to do anything wrong. Being able to deal with such hiccups by filing the proper motions is difficult to do without a legal background.

In sum, hiring an attorney to represent you in your bankruptcy action will almost certainly save you money in the long run, not to mention the time and stress that legal representation will spare you. Chances are you will come out of your bankruptcy action in a better financial and emotional position than you would as a pro se litigant.

Please contact affordable Will County bankruptcy attorneys, Hamilton & Antonsen, Ltd. at 815.729.9220 to discuss your individual situation and see how they can assist you with your potential bankruptcy filing.

Written by: Sarah Hanneken