2020 hasn't been a great year for our finances. The economic devastation resulting from the COVID pandemic has left us all feeling the pinch, with some people hit harder than most. Sky-high debt coupled with soaring unemployment and stagnant incomes has left many people living on a hand-to-mouth basis. If you're facing extreme financial hardship, a debt lawyer may be able to help. But before you enlist an attorney, there are certain things you need to do. Or more specifically, certain things you need to ask.
1. How long have you practiced law?
When it comes to deciding whether or not a debt lawyer deserves your business, don't be shy about cutting to the chase. A professional lawyer isn't going to think you're rude if you ask them how long they've been practicing: if anything, they'll think it's odd if you don't. It takes a lawyer years of practice to become an expert in their field. Obviously, there are exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb, a veteran is going to be a better ally than a fresh-faced graduate. Ideally, look for someone with at least 10-15 years of litigation experience under their belt - if you can find someone with double that, so much the better.
2. How will you let me know what's happening with my case?
A lawyer who doesn't keep you up to date with what's happening with your case or who doesn't respond to your calls isn't a lawyer you want to have on your side. Ask them directly how they communicate, how often you can expect to hear from them, and under what circumstances they reach out. There are likely to be several milestone points and dates throughout your case - ask them how far in advance they'll advise you of them. The more you know about what to expect, the better. There's nothing worse than worrying about missing out on crucial updates: establishing the expectations upfront will ensure a smoother experience.
3. Have you had clients with cases similar to mine?
As findlaw.com recommends, always ask your lawyer how much experience they have in dealing with cases similar to yours. Even if a lawyer has 30 years of experience to call on, it's not going to help you if they've never practiced anything but divorce law. For the best chance of a successful outcome, you need to have an attorney that knows bankruptcy law like the back of their hand.
4. What fees do you charge?
Don't commit to anything before you know exactly what you'll need to pay. The total will include the filing fees charged by the court (as of Dec 1st, 2020, this will be $338 for Chapter 7, $1,738 for Chapter 11, $278 for Chapter 12, and $313 for Chapter 13), additional costs, and the attorney's fee for handling your case. Make sure you're aware of the full and complete breakdown of costs to avoid any nasty surprises down the line.
5. Will I get a written fee agreement?
Never rely on a verbal agreement when it comes to hiring a debt lawyer. A formal, signed agreement confirming both the fees and the scope of service is crucial. Without this, you have no protection in the event of the lawyer applying additional fees for services that go being their understanding of the original agreement.
6. Do I have any non-exempt assets?
As avvo.com notes, one of the most crucial questions to ask your debt lawyer is whether you have any non-exempt assets. Each state has a list of assets that are exempt from creditor attachment or seizure. Your attorney should be fully aware of the details of this list and should be able to let you know exactly which of your items are and aren't exempt from bankruptcy. From there, they should be able to guide you on the best strategy for handling non-expect assets.
7. Should I file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13?
As thebankruptcysite.org explains, your debt lawyer will guide you on the best form of bankruptcy based on your individual circumstances. There are two basic types of personal bankruptcies to be aware of: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 bankruptcies allow a trustee to seize any non-exempt property (the classification of 'exempt' property varies by state, but typically includes your car, your home, any tools of your trade, clothing, and household furnishings). In return, all debts except those that can't be discharged by bankruptcy (such as student loans, back taxes, and child support) will be wiped out. Chapter 13 bankruptcies do not require you to exchange any property for debt relinquishment. Instead, you will need to enter into a 3 - 5-year repayment plan. Your lawyer should be able to assess which type of bankruptcy is best suited to your circumstances and explains the advantages and disadvantages of both options.
8. When will my case be filed?
Always ask your lawyer when your case will be filed and what information or payments need to be received beforehand. To a degree, your cooperation will determine the length of time involved: you will need to complete paperwork, review, and sign bankruptcy forms, and provide detailed financial information in advance of filing. Your attorney should be able to give you a good understanding of each step involved and set your expectations around the timeframe.
9. Should I expect any problems?
If there are any red flags to be aware of, the sooner you know about them the better. Ask your debt lawyer if they anticipate any problems. They should be able to draw on their experience of dealing with similar cases, along with their knowledge of the judge and trustee appointed to your case, to alert you to any potential issues. An experienced attorney will then work to resolve those issues promptly and before they become a factor in the outcome of your case.
10. Will you appear with me in court?
Filing for bankruptcy is stressful, and you need to know you have a strong advocate by your side at every step of the way. In some law firms, it's common practice for a replacement attorney to attend a court hearing if the appointed attorney has a schedule conflict. If you'd feel more confident if they attend themselves, make sure you discuss this with them in advance to set the proper expectations. If anything unforeseen happens to necessitate a replacement attorney, ask to be notified well in advance so it doesn't come as a surprise on the day.
Written by Allen Lee
Read more posts by Allen Lee