If you want to file for bankruptcy pro se — by doing it yourself — then you will need to know the step-by-step procedure for filing for bankruptcy and you may need to know how to find particular federal and state statutes, federal and local court rules, and specific court cases.
Bankruptcy is not really very hard. In fact it, it could be a lot easier if the courts were more helpful in helping people file their own cases. When you consider the fact that bankruptcy is mostly filling out forms, it makes no sense that a bankruptcy lawyer, for instance, should be able to charge $1,600-$2,500 for a Chapter 7 petition and $2,500-$4,000 for a Chapter 13 petition, which is their typical charge, for work that they often dole out to their legal secretaries! They also charge $200 - $300 an hour for court appearances. Maybe one day people will be able to file their bankruptcy petitions electronically, just as people can file their taxes electronically by filling out the forms that the IRS provides on their website. Although you can download fillable bankruptcy forms, you generally cannot save the data to disk nor can you file the forms electronically as bankruptcy attorneys are required to do.
While articles on this site give an overview about bankruptcy, they are not intended to — nor do they provide — a step-by-step procedure for an actual filing, which is best provided by books.
Books provide the best way to learn the overall procedure for filing for bankruptcy. Nolo Press have several books relating to bankruptcy, including books on how to file Chapter 7 and Chapter 13, that are written by attorneys, with current editions published annually, and a website that provides updates to any changes in bankruptcy law or procedures. It also has books pertaining to representing yourself in court and how to do legal research, which will be useful if you have to file or respond to legal motions.
The Internet has a great deal of information about bankruptcy, although much of it is not reliable. However, the federal government and the courts do have reliable information, but are best consulted for specific facts, since they are not organized to provide a step-by-step procedure for filing for bankruptcy. It would be easy enough for the federal government provide this, but lawyers generally don't want it to be easy, since it would obviate the need for their services, and the lobbied Congress has decided that the interest of lawyers should prevail over the interest of the people.
However, the Internet does provide most of the primary sources of bankruptcy law. The entire bankruptcy code and the Rules for Bankruptcy Procedure can be found on the Internet at several places. Most recent court cases are also available. Unfortunately, many court cases that are referenced in bankruptcy are older than what the free Internet provides. Fortunately, most petitioners will not have to worry about referencing specific cases.
Much the information that you need in the bankruptcy petition is maintained by the office of the United States Trustee, at www.usdoj.gov/ust. Here you can find:
- fillable Official Bankruptcy Forms;
- lists of credit and financial management counseling agencies approved by the U.S. Trustee:
- information to complete the means test:
You may also have to know local court rules, which can usually be found on the websites maintained by each court. You can find these websites by going to the United States Trustee's website, which links to all bankruptcy courts.
There are a number of websites devoted to law with useful information for bankruptcy:
- American Bankruptcy Institute | Bankruptcy Courts has links to every bankruptcy court in the United States and its territories.
- FindLaw - find lawyers or research the law. Includes Supreme Court cases dating back to 1893 and cases from the United States Courts of Appeals.
Websites and Blogs by Lawyers
There are many bankruptcy attorneys who maintain websites and have additional information. They may also maintain a blog or several of them may have a blog on one site that is usually searchable. This is a very good source of practical information on how bankruptcy actually works and may bring out specific facts that may elude you from a general reading.
The following websites provide excellent information on bankruptcy:
- www.legalconsumer.com, created by Albin Renauer, the co-author of How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy by Nolo Press, provides bankruptcy information resources organized by zip code, including exemptions for each state and the federal exemptions, and contact information for the local bankruptcy court in each district.
Websites for Finding the Value of Property
Because you must list the value of all of your assets in the bankruptcy petition, you must find a reliable way of estimating their replacement value and, for valuable assets, the bankruptcy trustee will want to know how you arrived at its valuation. The Internet provides many websites that will allow you to find the replacement value of your real and personal property.
To find the value of:
- motor vehicles:
- personal property:
- The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center: Donation Value Guide - shows low and high values for appliances, children's clothing, women's and men's clothing, furniture and household goods, and common electronic equipment.
- Goodwill Donation Value Guide | What is my Donation Worth?
- real estate:
Other Reliable Websites
Recent court cases can be found at https://www.law.cornell.edu/opinions.html#state.
The law library has many additional references that would be difficult or costly to get anywhere else. Most law libraries are located at courthouses, which are most often located in the main city of the county and at law schools. Just search for the terms law library and your location for a list of nearby law libraries. The law librarian can tell you how to find specific pieces of information, although they will not give you legal advice.
Some of the references that are available at most law libraries include the following:
- Collier On Bankruptcy, including semi-annual updates. Also has all bankruptcy exemptions for all states, and including annotations and summaries of state court opinions.
- Collier Bankruptcy Practice Manual provides local league rules of specific courts and also court procedures;
- Bankruptcy Law Reporter (BLR) by the Commerce Clearing House (CCH), which contains statutes, rules, and cases.
- Consumer Bankruptcy Law and Practice is published annually by the National Consumer Law Center.
- Bankruptcy by the Rutter Group, which is especially useful for California districts.
If the above references are not sufficient for your case, then you probably need a bankruptcy lawyer.
Online Legal Databases
You can often find the latest court cases on the Internet for free, but older cases are in online databases. If you need to look for a specific case, the most powerful tools are the online databases Westlaw or LexisNexis which are available at many law libraries. Almost any aspect of bankruptcy can be easily researched using these online resources. However, they are organized and written for lawyers, and although they can be searched from any computer, the user requires an account that is very expensive. If you go to the law library, you could probably search these databases for free, and the law librarian can assist you in conducting the search.
Another online resource that is much less expensive is VersusLaw. Currently, you can pay just $13.95 for 1 month of access or for as long as you need it — there is no long-term contract.