Yes, it is possible to successfully file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case in New Jersey without a lawyer and get your unsecured debt discharged. This article is a step-by-step guide to filing a New Jersey Chapter 7 bankruptcy case and representing yourself, from the office of a busy bankruptcy attorney in Woodbury, NJ.
Step 1: Gather your financial information and documents.
In exchange for getting the protection of the bankruptcy court’s automatic stay prohibiting creditor contact, you must disclose every aspect of your financial situation, including income, expenses, debts, and assets.
First, gather all of your bills and bank statements. Then get a copy of your credit report to ensure you are not missing any creditors or debts. Make a list of your monthly expenses, and collect pay stubs or other proof of income to determine your total monthly income.
Make a list of your assets, including personal belongings, and their value. Houses and cars can be evaluated using online tools. The value of personal belongings such as clothing, jewelry, hobby, and sporting equipment, and household goods, can be estimated using a common sense yard sale value. If you are uncertain, consult one of the online auction sites to see what similar items to the one in question recently sold for at auction.
Step 2: Assemble your list of creditors.
All creditors and their addresses must be listed and filed with the Bankruptcy Court. Some creditors may have multiple addresses and may be represented by collection agencies or law firms. Be sure to include all parties and addresses attached to each particular debt so that they all get notice of your bankruptcy filing.
Step 3: Prepare your Chapter 7 petition and schedules.
Copies of the documents you need to file to start your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case can be found here. You will need to disclose your social security number, full legal name, current address, all income, all expenses, all debt, and all assets.
You will also have to state your intention as to any secured property you have. For example, if you have a mortgage you can afford to pay each month but for your credit card bills, and you want to keep that home, you will need to “reaffirm” that debt in your filing. As a second example, let’s say you have a car lease you can no longer afford. You can legally “surrender” that car and be discharged of the underlying contractual debt to the lessor.
You will also answer targeted questions about your finances, such as, have you loaned any money to anyone in the last few months? Have you sold any real property in the last year? When was the last time you paid your credit card bill? Have you given any of your property away recently?
Be sure to answer completely and honestly. Bankruptcy fraud is a federal crime punishable with steep fines and even jail time.
Step 4: Take the online credit counseling course.
The link in the previous section will also take you to the list of court-approved providers of the credit counseling course. This course can be completed online or over the phone. Be sure to get your certificate of completion so that you can file it along with your petition and schedules.
Step 5: File your Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, schedules, and certification of completion of the credit counseling course.
Filing a new Chapter 7 case is done electronically. Click here for directions on how to file your case and for the current filing fee for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Step 6: Attend the 341(a) Meeting of Creditors with the Chapter 7 Trustee.
Once your case is filed, a Chapter 7 Trustee will be assigned and your 341(a) meeting of creditors will be scheduled. You are required to attend and bring your driver’s license and social security card to prove your identity.
The Trustee will swear you in, and you will answer questions about your filing under oath. Again, lying or omitting facts is a federal crime, so be sure to answer truthfully and honestly.
This meeting is scheduled to give your creditors the opportunity to question you under oath about any aspect of your debt. Chapter 7 debtors represented by an attorney will know in advance if any creditors will appear and whether there is a potential problem with the dischargeability of any of their debts. Unfortunately, since you represent yourself and the automatic stay prevents your creditors or their attorneys from contacting you, there will be no way for you to know whether creditors will show up.
Step 7: Take the online debtor education course and file the certification of completion.
The list of approved providers of the debtor education course, also called the financial management course, is found at the link provided above. Be sure to file your certificate of completion with the bankruptcy court, otherwise, you will not be granted a discharge.
Step 8: Wait for the creditors’ deadline to object to discharge to pass.
Once the creditors’ deadline to object has passed, and no creditor objected, the court will automatically issue a discharge order.
Step 9: Receive your discharge order.
Keep your discharge order with all of your other filing information. The discharge order will have the date you filed, the date the order was entered, and your docket number.
Step 10: Keep a record of any creditors who contact you about discharged debt.
If any creditor calls you about collecting on a discharged debt, be sure to tell them about your filing and give them your docket number. If they continue to call or contact you in writing, consult with an attorney. This conduct is a violation of the discharge order and carries steep financial penalties.
About the Author:
Veronica Baxter is a legal assistant and blogger living and working in the great city of Philadelphia. She frequently works with busy Woodbury bankruptcy attorney Stephen V. Bottiglieri, Esq.