Generally, a trustee sells most of the debtor's assets to pay off creditors. However, certain debtor assets will be protected to some extent by bankruptcy exemptions. These include Social Security payments, unemployment compensation, limited equity in a home, car, or truck, household goods and appliances, trade tools, and books. However, these exemptions vary from state to state.
The alternatives to hiring a bankruptcy lawyer are scary. Although you should be careful of attorneys fees, your goal should never be to do a cheap bankruptcy. A cheap bankruptcy would consist of you either filing for bankruptcy alone, or hiring a “document preparation” company. Filing bankruptcy alone is not an option. A typical bankruptcy petition is over 50 pages long and requires intimate knowledge of the Federal Bankruptcy Code. You may apply an exemption erroneously and may possibly lose property that could have been protected.
If you file for personal bankruptcy under Chapter 7 a so-called “automatic stay” is placed on all your creditors, including the foreclosing lender, by the court. In fact, Chapter 13 bankruptcy is actually designed to stop foreclosure and may provide you with the protection and relief you need to stay in your home while you catch up on your mortgage.
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Your lawyer will probably have you fill in a questionnaire about your property, debts, expenses and income. A good lawyer will be able to determine quickly what kinds of debts will be dischargeable in bankruptcy. The lawyer should advise you to get credit counseling before you file, and will may even have a computer terminal in their office where you can do the counseling right there, online. Many lawyers have preferred credit counselors that they work with.
If you're trying to figure out if you should file, your credit is probably already damaged. A Chapter 7 filing will stay on your credit report for ten years, while a Chapter 13 will remain there for seven. Any creditors you solicit for debt (a loan, credit card, line of credit, or mortgage) will see the discharge on your report, which will prevent you from getting any credit.