By taking the time to find a good bankruptcy attorney and thoroughly preparing for your initial meeting, you save yourself a lot of time and can substantially aid your attorney in spotting issues in your case and creating plan. Declaring bankruptcy starts early, even before your initial meeting with your attorney.
Selecting an attorney
Choosing a trusted and skilled attorney is critical to the success of your bankruptcy case. You and your attorney will work together to restructure your finances and facilitate your fresh start.
Your bankruptcy attorney should possess the following attributes
So what are some of the characteristics of a good bankruptcy attorney? Well I’m about to tell you what to look out for. It may seem like I’m tooting my own horn listing out these qualities while actually a bankruptcy attorney, but my years upon years of experience in field, combined with some of the stories I’ve heard from my clients, has lead me to write this.
- Licensed: Hiring a licensed and barred attorney should be threshold qualifications for any attorney representing a debtor. The first question to ask is whether the attorney is a member of the bar of the local bankruptcy court. While any licensed attorney can represent you during your bankruptcy, not every attorney is qualified. There is no “bankruptcy bar” to which attorneys must be admitted, however, some jurisdictions require attorneys who regularly practice bankruptcy to become a member of the Bar of the U.S. District Court and take annual continuing legal education (CLE) courses. An attorney who is not a member of the bar where you reside will have to petition the court for admission pro hac vice (Latin meaning “for this event only”). That attorney may not have useful information regarding the bankruptcy judge, the trustee, local customs and rules, or important contacts to make your case go more smoothly.
- Experienced: Bankruptcy is a complex mix of federal and state statutes and regulations; federal and state case law; federal and local procedural rules; and local customs. Many times it’s also who you know. An experienced bankruptcy attorney knows the court clerks, local creditor attorneys, and the habits of the bankruptcy judges and trustees. This type of local experience can make a hard case easy and an easy case speed through the system.
- Involved: Bankruptcy law changes quickly, so a good bankruptcy attorney must keep him or herself informed. Many experienced and knowledgeable bankruptcy lawyers are members of professional organizations like the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys and the American Bankruptcy Institute. Involvement in bankruptcy bar groups and committees are also indications of an involved attorney.
- Accessible: When you hire a bankruptcy attorney, he or she works for you. Staff and paralegals working on your case under the supervision of an attorney are helpful resources, but your attorney should be reasonably available to answer your legal questions.
- Up Front Fees: Any good attorney will take the time to explain his or her fee structure, the required initial payment, and your payment options. Bankruptcy fees include the court filing fee, credit counseling and personal financial management fees, and the attorney fees. Many bankruptcy attorneys will agree to accept attorney fee payments through a debtor’s Chapter 13 plan, but collecting a pre-bankruptcy debt for attorney fees after a Chapter 7 case is filed is both unlawful and unethical for the attorney. An experienced bankruptcy practitioner knows this.
Preparing for your initial appointment with your attorney
A bankruptcy case is part lawsuit, part financial audit. The debtor is asking the bankruptcy court to order creditors to accept payments over time, or in some cases to order the discharge of a debt without any payment. Either way, the debtor is expected to make a full accounting of assets, debts, income, and expenses and conclusively prove a present inability to repay financial obligations.
Providing financial information at your initial meeting will save you and your attorney valuable time and effort in your bankruptcy case. This information is vital to your attorney’s ability to assess your financial situation and convey it properly to your creditors and to the bankruptcy court. When you consult a bankruptcy attorney you should be prepared to provide the following documents:
- Photo ID and social security card;
- The last six months of pay check stubs. Sometimes this information can be obtained from your employer;
- Last two years of income tax returns;
- Real estate deeds and mortgage paperwork;
- Vehicle titles along with lease or purchase agreements;
- All loan paperwork;
- Any appraisal paperwork for real estate or personal property;
- Any child support or maintenance (alimony) court order;
- Any recent credit report (you can obtain a free credit report at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/cra/index.jsp);
- Information regarding your debts, including bills and collection letters;
- Any important documents that impacts your income, assets, debts, or expenses. For instance: a foreclosure notice, or a notice of an upcoming bonus;
- Investment records;
- Any life insurance policies with a cash surrender value;
- Last six months of bank statements;
- Any tax bill showing assessed value;
- Proof of insurance on all property secured by a lien; and
- Any documents pertaining to a legal claim or pending lawsuit, which includes lawsuits on your behalf (e.g. a personal injury or worker’s compensation claim).
If you do not have these documents, the bankruptcy law requires that you make your best efforts to obtain them. It is always better to give the required information to your attorney before you file, rather than providing it directly to the trustee without your attorney’s prior review.
The take home
Be completely prepared to gather as much of the documentation required of you by the bankruptcy court and use due diligence in researching an attorney who’s experienced enough to get your though your case as successfully as possible.