By the time that you get to a bankruptcy attorney’s office for an initial consultation, you’ve likely given filing for bankruptcy considerable thought. A dedicated bankruptcy lawyer knows that you’re going through a difficult time, and like nearly all of his or her clients, your circumstances arose from matters beyond your control. Millions of Americans have been forced to file for bankruptcy after being impacted by Covid-19.
What to Ask a Bankruptcy Attorney
The first meeting with a bankruptcy attorney can be intimidating. Since it is probably the first time you have met, they will ask many penetrating questions about your financial history. They might seem highly personal, but the attorney needs to make a preliminary assessment of your financial situation before he or she can answer your questions.
Your answers should be as accurate as possible. That helps to frame your case in the lawyer’s mind. After that, you’ll be able to ask your own questions. Here are some questions that you’ll want to ask your bankruptcy attorney:
Should I File for Bankruptcy?
Much depends on your personal financial situation, but if you’re drowning in debt, and creditors are continually contacting you about payment, filing for bankruptcy might be the best step you can take.
Whether you file a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, an automatic stay occurs upon filing. Nearly all creditors must discontinue collection efforts and many must stop contacting you. Given your finances and your attorney’s experience, he or she can advise you on this issue.
What are the Pros and Cons of Filing for Bankruptcy?
The automatic stay is extremely attractive to nearly all debtors, but there are also other factors that operate in favor of filing for bankruptcy. Any lawsuits or garnishments against you are generally stopped as are repossession actions.
You may be allowed to keep most of your property as it may be exempt from bankruptcy. Speak with your attorney about foreclosure proceedings. You may be able to save your home. On the negative side, some of your property might be seized and sold to pay creditors.
Unfortunately, you can expect your bankruptcy to stay on your credit history for 7 to 10 years. This can impact your ability to take out a loan, secure low-interest rates, or buy/rent a property.
What Type of Bankruptcy Should I File For?
Both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 proceedings are consumer bankruptcies. Chapter 7 cases are called liquidation or straight bankruptcies. After being discharged in bankruptcy, the debtor starts with a clean slate.
Chapter 13 bankruptcies are also called wage earner plans. Monthly payments are made to the bankruptcy court. Chapter 13 plans last 3 to 5 years. The type of bankruptcy that you should file for is a decision that you must make after consulting with an experienced bankruptcy attorney.
How Much of an Attorney’s Practice is Devoted to Bankruptcy Cases?
This is an important question to ask. You’ll want to retain a lawyer who devotes at least 50% of their practice to bankruptcy law. That operates to assure you that the lawyer remains updated and articulated on the always-changing bankruptcy laws and rules.
How Long Have You Been Practicing Bankruptcy Law?
You’ll want a bankruptcy lawyer with a minimum of five years of exemplary bankruptcy law experience. Those lawyers are better prepared to address any complications that might arise in your case.
If a new associate fresh from the bar exam will be working on your case, make sure that a senior associate or partner will be reviewing all of the new associate’s work.
How Many Cases Like Mine Have You Handled?
If the answer that you’re given is in the thousands, you’re probably in the right place. If not, you might want to arrange for a consultation with another bankruptcy lawyer with more experience.
Who Will Work on My Case?
Make sure that the person you meet with is a bankruptcy lawyer and not a secretary or paralegal. If no lawyers are able to meet with you, find another law firm.
A lawyer who is retained by a prospective client is primarily responsible for what occurs in that client’s case. You’ll want to meet with a partner or senior associate. Even if a junior associate works on your case, it’s that partner or senior associate who is ultimately responsible for it.
What Information Do You Need to Get Started on My Case?
The lawyer who you consult with probably has a preprinted list of anything that he or she needs from you to get started. You can ask for a copy of that to be emailed to you before your initial consultation, or it might even be on the law firm’s website.
If you intend on retaining that lawyer, have everything readily available. The sooner that the lawyer can get started, the easier it will be for you.
What is the Most Serious Complication for Me?
Some debtors might forget about an asset or debt, or even intentionally withhold information about them. An unexpected inheritance or personal injury settlement can also cause serious complications.
Be thorough in listing out your possible assets and debts, and make sure that your lawyer knows about all of them before your case is filed.
How Do You Prefer to Communicate?
Letters or emails are sometimes appropriate, but most lawyers communicate by phone. If your lawyer is unavailable when you call, leave a message.
A responsive attorney will return your call within 24 hours. There are times when a secretary or paralegal might be able to answer a question without participating in the unauthorized practice of law.
Who Will Attend Court with Me?
The lawyer who you hired should be the person who goes to court with you. If an associate is covering for him or her, that associate should be fully prepared for the proceedings.
How Much Do You Charge? What Does Your Fee Cover?
Your case involves legal fees and related costs like your filing fee, credit counseling fee, and the like. What the lawyer charges for a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy should be itemized separately from the costs.
Will You Use a Written Retainer Agreement?
A written retainer agreement operates in your best interests. It details the obligations of both attorney and client. The agreement should disclose both legal fees and the related costs like filing fees involved in the bankruptcy case.
Is Bankruptcy My Only Option? What Alternatives Might I Have?
Depending on the type of debt relief that you want, a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy might be your sole debt relief solution. There are alternatives like negotiating with your creditors or repayment plans. In the context of repayment plans, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy probably offers you more protection.
Organization is Key to Communicating with Your Bankruptcy Attorney
In searching for and retaining a consumer Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy lawyer, you should be looking for a lawyer with a good reputation, extensive experience and the ability to get the job done for you without needless delays. The more organized that you are, the sooner you’ll get the bankruptcy protection that you need. Bring everything that the lawyer is asking for to your initial conference. That can save valuable time.
Elena Steers is a highly experienced bankruptcy attorney, the founder of Law Offices of Steers & Associates, and previously worked as a Bankruptcy Trustee Assistant at the Office of the Chapter 13 Trustee in Los Angeles. Her current affiliations include the State Bar of California, National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, and Central District Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys Association.