Many bankruptcy attorneys, myself included, offer potential clients a free debt consultation. Although these meetings vary from lawyer to lawyer, at the very least your bankruptcy attorney should review your financial situation, discuss possible solutions (such as Chapter 7, Chapter 13, debt negotiation/debt settlement, and mortgage foreclosure defense), and answer any questions. This first meeting is an opportunity not only to get a professional appraisal of your financial status, but also to see if the attorney is a good fit for you. However, as with many things in life, to get the most from the meeting, it helps to be prepared. What can you do to make your first meeting with your bankruptcy lawyer count?
Be ready to answer questions about your finances fully and candidly. It is understandable that some people are nervous about meeting with a bankruptcy attorney. After all, who wants to discuss their personal finances with someone they have just met. However, the more information you share with your lawyer upfront, the better your lawyer will be able to advise you. Don’t withhold information for fear of embarrassment. Whatever your personal circumstances, the odds are that your bankruptcy attorney has seen similar (or much worse) situations in the past. A lawyer’s job is to help people find a solution to their problems, not to judge them. (Unless, of course, the lawyer is a judge.) You should feel comfortable enough with your bankruptcy attorney to answer questions completely. If you feel you cannot be candid with your attorney, you need to need to find new counsel.
Read any information provided by your bankruptcy attorney. I have bankruptcy and debt negotiation information on both my firm website and this blog, including a bankruptcy FAQ and links to bankruptcy videos. Many of my clients have found that viewing these materials before our first meeting made it easier to discuss their financial situation and to understand their options.
Have your basic financial information ready. Not all attorneys request the same information at the first meeting, but they will need to see your basic financial data. (I have short initial consultation form that I ask potential clients to fill out and bring with them to the meeting.) At the very least, you should have the following information available:
- Basic biographical information, e.g., full name, address, phone numbers, email address, etc. (note that you should not provide a work email address, as it is rarely private);
- Number of dependent children and their ages;
- Length of time you have lived in the state;
- Whether you have filed for bankruptcy before and, if so, when you filed and which chapter;
- Purchase date, value, loan balance, and payment amount for your home and any other real property that you own;
- Purchase date, value, loan balance, and payment amount for each vehicle;
- Purchase date, value, loan balance, and payment amount for any other personal property on which you have a loan;
- The balances on all of your unsecured debt, such as credit cards, personal loans, medical bills, and student loans (a rough balance is fine to start);
- The amount of any back taxes owed, anticipated tax refunds, and any tax refund you have already received.
- Your income and, if married, your spouse’s income (note that even if you are not filing jointly, your attorney will need to know your spouse’s income, unless you are separated);
- Any pending lawsuits and judgments filed against you;
- Any domestic support obligations, such as child support and maintenance (and the details of any property settlement);
- Any repossessions or foreclosures, regardless of how long ago;
- Any claims or potential claims you may have against anyone else, including insurance claims, personal injury claims, or money owed to you for any reason; and
- Any changes you expect to your financial situation, such as a raise, a job change, or an increase or decrease in expenses.
Don’t feel like you have to bring the kitchen sink. I generally do not require anyone to bring a lot of documents to an initial meeting, unless it is an emergency filing. However, your attorney may find the following items to be helpful: the most recent statements from your creditors, your most recent pay stubs, and pleadings from any lawsuit pending against you. In addition, if you have obtained a recent credit report, you may wish to bring it along. Additional documents, such as tax returns, bank statements, etc. will be needed later if you decide to hire the attorney to file for bankruptcy.
Ask questions. In fact, you may wish to write them down. A good lawyer will be happy to answer them. I certainly never mind if my clients bring a list of questions, because I want people to leave my office understanding their options. If they have additional questions later, I encourage them to send me an email or call. Bankruptcy is a major decision, and you should not take that step until you are fully informed.
Return requested forms and documents as soon as possible. At the end of the meeting, your attorney may give you a questionnaire, document checklist, and other forms to complete. (In my Philadelphia bankruptcy practice, I have a packet of forms and other materials that I give to clients at our meeting.) If you decide to retain the attorney, you should try to complete the forms and get the documents back to the attorney as soon as possible. Circumstances change over time, so your attorney’s advice may change if you wait a long time to return the forms.
Remember that your bankruptcy attorney is there to help you. If you are unsure what information you need for your first meeting, feel free to ask. A little preparation can go a long way in helping you make the most out of your initial consultation.