MLSA’s File Your Own Bankruptcy Program: A New Approach to Helping Debtors Find a Fresh Start

By: Jessie Lundberg, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, Montana Legal Services Association – Consumer Law Unit  Bankruptcy is a powerful word. It carries many connotations, most often negative. For many, it symbolizes failure. Crisis. Even personal and moral shortcomings. After all, what kind of a deadbeat runs up a bunch of bills they can’t pay?Everyday Montanans like:Bill, a Viet Nam veteran, and his wife, Marianne. Already faced with continuing emergency surgeries and mounting medical bills, their expenses rose yet again when their adult daughter and grandchildren became homeless and had to move in with them. On their fixed income, Bill and Marianne knew they would never be able to afford the basic necessities of an extended household while paying off the hundreds of thousands of dollars they owed for their medical care.Mark and Melissa. When Mark was laid off, they thought the setback would be temporary. Melissa took a low-paying job while Mark continued to look for work and cared for the couple’s three children. Several months later, nothing had opened up that was even close to the income Mark had earned before, and Melissa’s job just couldn’t keep up with the expenses of a family of five.Julie. Julie was left with numerous bills and collections after a recent divorce. She had a good job as a nurse, but her moderate income meant that her wages could be garnished. When a debt collector began taking hundreds of dollars out of her monthly paycheck, Julie’s checks for rent and other bills bounced, incurring even more fees, and putting Julie’s housing at risk.Everyday Montanans – our friends, family and neighbors – are struggling to make ends meet. Unemployment, disability, and financial mistakes can quickly derail families that were once financially stable.Of the hundreds of calls MLSA receives each month, around half are seeking information and services for possible bankruptcy. These individuals may not be able to afford the fee charged by a private bankruptcy attorney.Due to the growing demand for bankruptcy assistance, MLSA has worked to identify innovative ways to reach more clients, more effectively, within the limitations of existing resources. One strategy has been to put user-friendly tools and information directly into clients’ hands, so that they can help themselves. For example, MLSA has developed introductory and self-screening materials that debtors can now use to learn about bankruptcy and decide whether a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is appropriate for them.

Likewise, debtors can now access online all the forms and instructions they need to file a basic Chapter 7 bankruptcy, on montanalawhelp.org. The new resources include:

  • Thinking About Bankruptcy?– This introductory “self-screening” handout educates the debtor on basic bankruptcy information, factors to consider in deciding whether to file, services offered by MLSA and eligibility requirements, and other bankruptcy resources.
  • Where to Start– Once a debtor has decided that Chapter 7 Bankruptcy is appropriate for their situation, this checklist helps a debtor get started on important preliminary steps, including gathering current information on their assets, debts, income, and expenses.
  • Guide and More – These comprehensive resources gives debtors all the information and forms they need to file a basic Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.

By making this information accessible to Montana debtors, many will be able to inform themselves about bankruptcy, and fill out most or all of their own Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms.At the same time, MLSA recognizes that many debtors will need and want additional help and advice. MLSA’s File Your Own Bankruptcy Program will continue to provide that help to debtors most in need. Low-income debtors who are at risk of being garnished or losing housing or transportation can apply to MLSA for services. While MLSA does not represent debtors in bankruptcy cases, it can answer pro se debtor’s questions about filling out their forms, and look over their final forms before they are filed. MLSA bankruptcy clients will have access to Bankruptcy Advocates (pro bono and MLSA attorneys, law students, and trained MLSA staff) to ask questions about completing and filing their bankruptcy forms.By putting more information directly into debtor’s hands, while continuing direct assistance for those who need it most, MLSA can increase the impact and sustainability of its resources. At the same time, MLSA’s new bankruptcy program also continues the organization’s long history of thinking outside the box when it comes to using technology to increase Montanans’ access to legal services. Rural Montanans will have access to largely the same bankruptcy resources online or by telephone as those who can walk into an MLSA office. Development of interactive computer training modules is also in the works, to increase accessibility for people with different learning styles and abilities. MLSA is also researching technology options for allowing greater pro bono involvement from attorneys around the state, by using remote access to connect them with MLSA clients regardless of geographical distance.By giving our clients the tools they need to help themselves, and continuing our tradition of embracing technology to serve our rural state, MLSA looks forward to offering an effective, sustainable bankruptcy program designed to meet the needs of low-income Montanans for years to come.

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