Bankruptcy Petition Preparers: The Illusion of Cheaper Fees and Quality Legal Advice

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When it comes to filing for bankruptcy, Georgians are more likely to be do-it-yourselfers than debtors in other states. Georgia has been ranked among the top ten states in the number of bankruptcy cases in which the debtor wasn't represented by a lawyer (pro se). Many people who file their bankruptcy cases pro se do so with some “assistance”. Often times they hire a bankruptcy petition preparer to fill out court documents. Preparers, who charge a fee, can't give legal advice, such as whether the debtor is better off filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7, or more importantly whether or not the debtor(s) even qualify for the bankruptcy being filed.

Needless to say, there is a growing concern nationwide that petition preparers may be overstepping their bounds by giving legal advice — and not very good advice at that. This can lead to debtors' unnecessarily forfeiting property or even having their cases dismissed. Many legal experts point to the foreclosure rescue and loan modification services that have popped up in recent years as an explanation for the increasing numbers of bankruptcy petition preparers around the country. According to California Bankruptcy Judge Maureen Tighe, “homeowners are desperate and take advice from the most questionable sources.” Judge Tighe went on to say that there’s a wide range of bankruptcy petition preparers, “from those who are well-meaning but still are giving legal advice, to out-and-out fraud perpetrators — and the down-and-out consumer debtor doesn't know the difference most of the time."

Though a bankruptcy petition preparer may mean well, their lack of understanding of the rules and requirements can ultimately do more harm than good. Filing for bankruptcy is not necessarily difficult or complex. But it’s the work and counseling that is done after the bankruptcy is filed (and while the case is pending) that is so critical to the outcome of the case, and bankruptcy petition preparers are prohibited by law from counseling clients as to these matters. So, what money one might save by using a petition preparer is likely to be wasted, because the bankruptcy client will likely have to hire an attorney (and pay them) at some point during the case.

Fortunately, many bankruptcy law firms offer free consultations to prospective clients as a way of educating the prospect about the bankruptcy process and associated fees and costs. Anyone considering bankruptcy would be wise to take advantage of such services.