The Costs of Representing Yourself in a Bankruptcy Case

April 1, 2011

Remember that time is money.
Benjamin Franklin (1748)

Several years ago Ian Walker, a professor of economics at Warwick University in England, developed a mathematical formula to show the personal cost of an activity like mowing your lawn or washing your car. The formula looks like this:

V=(W((100-t)/100))/C
V is the value per hour;
W is your hourly wage;
t is your tax rate (e.g. 15%, 20%, etc.)
C is the local cost of living, which is a baseline of 1.0. If you live in an area that is 50% more expensive than the national average, use 1.5

For a person making $20.00 per hour, and a tax rate of 25%, the value per hour is $15.00, or $.25 per minute. Spending an hour mowing your lawn is therefore a value over paying the neighbor boy $30. So let’s look at whether representing yourself in a bankruptcy case is a “value.”

A represented debtor in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy must at minimum collect financial information; spend time with counsel during the initial interview and petition signing; complete credit counseling; attend the 341 meeting; and complete a course in financial management. A pro se (Latin meaning “for himself”) bankruptcy debtor must spend time on these things as well. However, the pro se debtor has a lot to learn including applicable exemption laws, and the bankruptcy rules and procedures. Setting that “learning time” aside for the moment, let’s look at some actual administrative costs the pro se debtor must perform “for himself:”

Time spent preparing the petition. Even the simplest petition will take the pro se debtor time to read the instructions and properly prepare the schedules. Your bankruptcy attorney uses sophisticated petition preparation software and is skilled at completing these forms. 6 hours.

Most pro se debtors drive to the bankruptcy court to personally file the bankruptcy case, and must pay the filing fee with cash, a cashier’s check, or money order. Your bankruptcy attorney has access to the court’s electronic filing system and can file your case within minutes from the office. Time 2 hours.

Extra time at the 341 meeting. The trustee will schedule extra time to spend on your case. Usually, pro se cases are set at the end of the trustee’s docket, so you will have to wait extra time for your examination. 30 minutes.

Communications with the trustee. The trustee generally requires income information, bank records, tax records, vehicle titles, recorded deeds, and other information. The bankruptcy attorney will provide these documents to the trustee while a pro se debtor must prepare and send them. 2 hours.

Communications with the bankruptcy court. The clerk’s office at the bankruptcy court can assist a pro se debtor on certain procedures, but is prohibited from giving legal advice. Pro se debtors generally spend a considerable amount of time on the phone with the clerk’s office. 2 hours.

The pro se debtor’s total so far for these simple administrative activities is 12.5 hours, or $187.50. Now let’s add the time spent researching the bankruptcy laws and processes; and the time spent on correcting or amending the bankruptcy pleadings. Additionally, the bankruptcy judge requires that any pro se debtor must appear personally in court to reaffirm a debt – an appearance is not required for represented debtors. This “extra” time can easily amount to another 40 hours!

The moral of this story is: the representation provided by your experienced bankruptcy attorney is not an expense, it is a savings! By having a licensed, experienced bankruptcy attorney handling your case you will get peace of mind and your case will be handled efficiently without surprises. The actual cash savings to the pro se debtor is small at best, while the truth is that many pro se cases experience problems that result in lost property or case dismissal. Don’t be “penny wise and pound foolish.” Hire qualified counsel and get the legal relief you need.

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