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Is it a good idea to try filing for Chapter 7 without a lawyer?

You may be thinking to yourself that a bankruptcy attorney’s blog isn’t likely to recommend trying to file bankruptcy on your own, and you would be right. This isn’t about helping bankruptcy lawyers hold onto their clients, however -- it’s advice from the Los Angeles Times’ consumer columnist David Lazarus.

A woman recently wrote in to his “Ask Laz” consumer question-and-answer column asking if there’s a cheap way to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. While a lawyer is not legally required in bankruptcy, the columnist stressed that experts don’t recommend going without one.

Filing for bankruptcy is a complicated process. You’ll be expected to fill out a series of schedules detailing your assets, expenditures and debts. These are legal forms that you’re swearing under oath are accurate, but they use terms and assumptions few people other than lawyers and accountants are familiar with. Moreover, you run the risk that you will miss a deadline, leave out a debt, incorrectly state the value of your assets, or make other costly mistakes.

In Chapter 7, you can have most of your debts wiped out, but some of your assets might be sold by a bankruptcy trustee to partially meet those obligations -- and that could include your home and car, in some cases.

In Chapter 13, you’ll be expected to put together a reasonable plan to repay your debt over three to five years, with limited penalties and interest allowed. You could easily make mistakes that would cost you more than it should -- or the court might reject your plan.

Even if you feel confident you can handle all that, you should know that there are numerous other rules you must follow, and violations could land you in contempt of court or even jail. For example, if you transfer assets to family members to protect them from the bankruptcy, you could be committing bankruptcy fraud.

All in all, good legal advice about bankruptcy is well worth the cost, and it may be more affordable than you think.

Source: Los Angeles Times’ Money & Co. blog, “Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on the cheap,” David Lazarus, Oct. 3, 2013

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