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What is a pro se bankrupcy?

Debtors may file bankruptcy without an attorney, but beware of technicalities

In legal proceedings, individuals have the right to represent themselves rather than hire an attorney to present their case in court.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court doesn't allow corporations or partnerships to represent themselves, but "pro se" cases - the term used to describe people who represent themselves in a legal matter - are allowed for individuals who file personal bankruptcy.

According to USCourts.gov, debtors who decide to represent themselves need to understand they are undertaking a difficult task and that the bankruptcy trustee who oversees the case, as well as court staff members, are not allowed to provide them with legal assistance.

"The rules are very technical, and a misstep may affect a debtor's rights. For example, a debtor whose case is dismissed for failure to file a required document may lose the right to file another case or lose protections in a later case, including the benefit of the automatic stay," the court website states.

During the required 341 meeting when the debtor appears in a brief hearing, the trustee will likely point out what is missing from the filing, but that is all.

"The court will expect you to follow the same rules and procedures that an attorney must follow. The [trustee] in your case may not do anything to give any appearance of being partial to either side and this includes giving legal advice," according to the website for the 6th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. "Court staff may assist you with procedures only ... staff cannot give legal advice."

As part of their case, debtors must also obtain credit counseling from an approved provider within 180 days before filing their cases and file a certificate that the counseling course - which can be done online - has been completed.

USCourts.gov points out that those filing bankruptcy a pro se cases because they believe they cannot afford to hire a lawyer may qualify for free legal services. The website also warns debtors that by handling their bankruptcy without the guidance of an attorney they may be susceptible to services that can lead them astray.

"Beware of bankruptcy petition preparers who do not comply with all legal requirements," the website states. "The role of non-attorney petition preparers is solely to type information on bankruptcy forms. Petition preparers are barred by law from providing legal advice - they cannot explain how to answer legal questions or assist in bankruptcy court."

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