What papers do you need to file for bankruptcy?

The mailbox is stuffed with bills. Your desk is overflowing. The deputy sheriff is knocking on the door with a fresh stack of litigation. You have thought about declaring bankruptcy, and are ready to call a lawyer for help. But how do you start organizing this stuff?

For a simple Chapter 7 case, (the most common form of bankruptcy, for example to eliminate credit card debt), here is what to find, and the order in which to find it:

1. Your social security card. Your attorney will need to know that he is putting you into bankruptcy, not someone else. You will also need it later on, at the meeting of creditors.

2. Your paystubs for the past six months. “Wait a minute,” you ask, “I’m swimming in debt, but what does my job have to do with it?” This is all about the “means test,” as your attorney will have to use the payroll information to determine if you are making an above-average income for the state you live in. Even if you are sure you are not close to that mark, most filers still have to complete the means test paperwork. Have your lawyer do it for you. But make it easy on him by rounding up your paystubs. If you are collecting unemployment, just bring in your last statement.

3. Your most recent tax returns. Three years worth is preferable, two sufficient, the last one absolutely required. Wait, you say. “I thought I was going to see a lawyer, not H & R Block.” Again, this is a means test check on your income level. People filing for bankruptcy in Massachusetts only have to bring in the federal return.

4. Paper copies of the bills that are troubling you. Bring in the entire bill, not just the top stub. That’s because your attorney will probably be more interested in the addresses on the back than the balance on the front. Accurate addresses get creditors to stop bugging you faster. If you are a fan of online commerce, print out a statement for each account.

5. Paper copies of the bills that aren’t troubling you. In other words, if you are caught up on the mortgage and car loans, bring in the latest statements anyway. Your lawyer will use these to determine how much equity, if any, you have in these assets.

6. If you own a home in Massachusetts, a copy of a Declaration of Homestead, if one has been filed. If you don’t have this handy, don’t worry about it.

7. Any written letters from collection agencies. Shut-off and eviction notices too.

8. Anything and everything related to lawsuits and litigation. Your attorney will be keenly interested in almost any paper that has come from a court or sheriff. Just pile ’em up and bring ’em in. If you are the plaintiff in a case (i.e. suing someone else) bring those in too.

9. Credit reports if you have them. Don’t spend any more money on credit reports though. If one is needed for your case we will get it through the office.

10. Bank account statements. Online bankers should print out a copy or, (if you trust the internet) e-mail a copy to me. Don’t forget closed accounts that might have a negative balance — I can write them off for you.

Individual cases may require more documentation (especially if you run a small business), but the papers on this list are plenty to get an attorney started on your case. Plus its a good feeling to plop this stuff off in someone else’s lap, knowing you are finally on the road to a comeback!

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