I recently spoke to a desk clerk at the bankruptcy court and she told me pro se bankruptcy filings are on the rise. Filing pro se is when you file without a lawyer helping you. Sometimes you pay less to a paralegal to prepare the documents. Sometimes they charge as low as $275. They may advertise in the same places as a lawyer. All too often me and my clients share a wink at the bankruptcy court when we see one of these “pro se” filers getting grilled by the bankruptcy trustee here in Orlando. It is scary. Usually, the case was filed incorrectly and the trustee surprises the person that file with, “So you have a Toyota Camry that is not protected. Are you prepared to buy it back from me or do you want my auctioneer to come pick it up?” My clients realizes – whoa! I am glad I hired an attorney. Think about it. Do you think a paralegal working on her own will advise you bankruptcy is not for you. I do not want your money. Yeah right.
Just because someone is a paralegal it does not mean they will do the same quality work as an experienced bankruptcy lawyer. And I mean experienced. Sometimes a client will come and sit down with me and say another lawyer will do their bankruptcy for less than $1000. I sometimes charge that low for cases but only if the person is on a fixed income or unemployed. It depends. So what is my answer to the potential client?
I ask the potential client who is the bankruptcy attorney who quoted you that low? I am able to look them up in the Federal database. That is where I can see how many cases they filed. I surprise the potential client when they have filed a grand total of 80 cases in five years. I show them we have filed over 5000 cases and it not to boast. It is to show them that I have seen it all and will make sure we do a great job for them.
The most frightening part of filing bankruptcy is losing property that one should not have lost. It doesn’t happen that often, but everyone needs to know how to protect property. Everyone who files bankruptcy gets to protect a certain amount of stuff, but not everyone gets to use the same exemptions. People that file bankruptcy here in Orlando must choose between state or federal exemptions to protect that stuff from the bankruptcy court. But which exemption does one use? Well, that depends on the interaction between a number of complicated federal and state laws.
Another part of bankruptcy law requires homeowners to look at home ownership during the last 1215 days to determine how much value can be protected in a house [that serves as one’s principal residence]. If this already sounds complicated, it is, so don’t expect an inexperienced lawyer or a paralegal to come up with the right answer. But this is just a start.