The first thing to do is meet with a bankruptcy lawyer in Gainesville. Make the phone call and schedule your free 90-minute consultation. We'll email or snail mail you a short form to fill in with a map to our office. When you arrive, we will show you a video we made ourselves that explains the basics of bankruptcy law. We routinely get high marks for the video as being very informative. After the video, you meet with either attorney Eric Ruff or Lisa Cohen to discuss your case. The consultation is a two-way exchange of information. You explain your situation to us and we explain how the bankruptcy law would work in your case. If bankruptcy makes sense for your situation, we will explain which chapter of bankruptcy is best for you and why. At the end of the consultation, you should have a firm understanding of what bankruptcy law can do for you. We do not charge for the initial consultation, and so there is no obligation, but you will learn a great deal in a relatively short amount of time
Learn more about the Chapter 7 timeline below:
Some folks are ready to get started on their bankruptcy case immediately at the end of the initial consultation; some people go home and think about it for a while and then call us back days or weeks later, letting us know they are ready to start their bankruptcy case. In either case, once you decide to retain our services for your case, we sign a contract with you to make things official and you pay the retainer. You are free, and encouraged, to ask questions about the contract before you sign. Also, the law requires all new clients to read and sign a series of government authored, informative documents. They are somewhat boring, because already learned most of what you are reading from our video and meeting with the attorney, but the law requires you as a new bankruptcy client to read these documents, so you just get through them.
Once the contract is signed, you pay an initial retainer, either some or all of the fees and expenses. Some clients are able to pay the full amount at once and that will speed things along; others folks prefer to pay a partial initial retainer and then make payments over time and we will work with you on that. The minimum retainer is $200 towards the total we have agreed upon. For those clients who elect to make payments towards fees and costs, you must understand that your case cannot actually be filed with the court until the full amount is paid. We will start work on you case immediately, but the case will not be filed with the court until the full amount is paid. This is because if you still owe us money when the case is filed, that turns our firm into one of your creditors! We can’t be a creditor in your case and also represent you at the same time; it is called a conflict of interest. Also, if we file the case and you still owe us money on our contract, we have to list our law firm as one of your creditors and file bankruptcy against our own fees, which we are understandably reluctant to do. So, the whole amount has to be paid before the case is filed. Therefore, the quicker you are able to pay the full amount, the quicker you will get a bankruptcy case number. That is why some people pay the full amount when they sign the contract with us.
Once the contract is signed, we are ready to move full steam ahead to prepare your bankruptcy papers for the court. Even if you can't pay in full right away, we still want to work on your case and get it ready for filing. The papers we will file for you will be very detailed and that means we need a good deal of information from you including creditor names and addresses, account numbers, income records, bank records, tax returns, property lists, deeds, financial history and so forth.
At this point in the process some bankruptcy lawyers simply hand their clients a copy of the official bankruptcy forms and tell their clients to fill them in and bring them back. We believe these forms can be difficult to understand and they are not very well organized, so we have developed our own, simplified forms. We will explain these to you, page by page, exactly how to fill in our forms. You take these home, fill them out, gather some documents, and return them to our office without an appointment.
We will show you how you can get a free copy of your credit report if you'd like, which might remind you of some old debt you had completely forgotten about and which you will want to include in your case. We caution you not to depend on credit reports. Credit reports can be incorrect, they can have information that is out of date, and not everyone you owe even reports to the credit bureau. Use a credit report as a tool, but not as a crutch.
We can, for a modest fee (we charge you only what it costs us) run a credit report for you in our office. It takes only a few seconds and gives us a report with information combined from Transunion and Experian (but not Equifax). The advantage of this report, besides speed, is that it is very well organized. For example, if your account with a creditor has been sold to another company, these are often noted which is very helpful.
Current bankruptcy law requires you to complete two educational counseling sessions, one before you file bankruptcy and one after you file. Our attorneys can provide you with a choice of approved counselors. Both counseling sessions can be done over the phone or over the Internet. Most people take the courses at home on their computers. While we are busy working on your first draft you will take the first credit counseling session. It should take one to two hours. Once you complete the course, you will be awarded a Certificate of Completion and the counselor will deliver the Certificate to our office. You do not have to arrange for payment of this course; it will charged our account (this is one of the expenses you are paying us for). All you have to do is take and complete the course.
When we have completed the first draft of your bankruptcy papers (using the information you provided by completing our simplified forms) and you have completed your payments, we will schedule with you a conference appointment to review and sign your papers. This is an important meeting with your attorney. We want your papers to be perfect and we take pride in our work. You will see that a great deal of work goes into your petition, schedules, Statement of Financial Affairs, and other documents we prepare for you. At this meeting we will update information, add missing information, make additions and corrections, and review everything. This is not a short meeting. The documents required by the court often run 60 pages in length, or more. There is a lot of detail, and we all want it done right.
When your papers are as perfect as they can be, we will let you sign everything. Then, we will file the papers with the Bankruptcy Court. These days, everything is electronic. You will see us file your case electronically with the Bankruptcy Court. The Court will respond by indicating your papers have been filed and the Court will provide us with your case number for you. Getting a case number is a hugely important event. Everything up to that point is just talk and preparation, but the case number means that you have filed a bankruptcy case and all the protections of the bankruptcy code have just been activated for you. Creditors often are relentless in the phone harassment of your clients. The moment you get a bankruptcy case number, you can tell the very next creditor who calls you that you have just filed bankruptcy, your case number is so and so, and that they must not call you again. Goodbye. You will be surprised at how effective this is. The creditor can get into serious trouble with the bankruptcy judge by continuing collection efforts after being informed of the filing of a bankruptcy case. As a result, you will probably sleep better that night and some of the stress will be relieved. You will, of course, have some new stress because you are now engaged in a bankruptcy case, something you have likely never done before. People are always nervous to some extent anytime they do something for the first time. But it is not our first time. Both Eric Ruff and Lisa Cohen have gone through this process - literally- thousands (not just hundreds) of times. We will guide you through this process. Read reviews by other folks on the Internet (for example do a search for “Ruff Cohen Gainesville”) and see how previous clients feel about their experiences with our representation in bankruptcy court. We know what we are doing and we will do our best to take the mystery out of the process. We believe in a lot of effort at the front end in filing correct, accurate bankruptcy papers to make the process as smooth as possible thereafter.
There is a required second financial counseling session (often referred to as “Debtor Education”) but you are not permitted to take that course until after you have actually filed your bankruptcy case. The good news is you now have filed your case; you have a case number and are eligible to take the session. We encourage you to take the second course (again usually over the Internet) immediately after filing your case, maybe the same day or in the next few days, even though the actual deadline is months away. In bankruptcy work we believe it is good to accomplish required activities at the first opportunity rather than at the deadline. We say do it and forget about it. That, in turn, reduces stress. The second course, while easy to take, is a big deal. Debtors who fail to file the second Certificate with the Court before their case is closed, don't get a discharge (forgiveness of debt) and the discharge was the whole reason they filed bankruptcy in the first place! Again, take the second course as soon as possible after you get a case number and avoid getting anywhere near that penalty.
Debtors must attend the Meeting of Creditors. This meeting is generally the one thing a client must “go to.” In general the meeting takes place about a month after the case is filed. It could be more or less, depending on the date in the month the case is filed, but one month after filing is a reasonable rule of thumb. You will probably get at least 3 weeks advance notice of the date of the meeting so you can arrange time off from work. If the exact time and date of the meeting is a huge deal to you, you can call our office the day after you file your papers. We have access to the bankruptcy court docket information and usually the time and date of the creditors’ meeting is set by the Court’s computer during the night after you have filed your case, so creditors’ meeting information is often available to the attorney online the next morning. In any event, the Court’s national noticing center will mail out this information in the days following the initial filing and you will get a notice directly from the Court. You will also get a notice and a reminder letter directly from our office as soon as we get the printed copy from the Court. At the meeting of creditors, the Trustee runs the meeting and questions debtors about the papers they have filed and about their finances and property. Creditors are invited to the Meeting of Creditors but usually do not attend. Meetings for almost all our clients are held in Gainesville or Jacksonville depending on the county of their residence. We have videos we made ourselves showing you how to get to these meetings and what they will be like. Cases filed in the Jacksonville bankruptcy courthouse are assigned randomly to one of a number of available trustees. Jacksonville trustees usually send a letter to the debtor before the creditors meeting asking for additional documents to be mailed to their offices. These typically include bank statements, car titles, deeds, and so forth. The debtor makes copies of all these and mails them to the trustee. The trustee then usually asks the debtor to call their office before the creditors meeting so the trustee can ask any questions they might have because there is so little time for each case at the creditors meetings where the trustee has to plow though so many different cases each half hour. So the debtor makes an appointment to speak to the trustee for a few minutes at a time they agree on. They creditors meeting then usually becomes almost a formality. For clients filing in Jacksonville (the papers are actually electronically filed in the bankruptcy Court in Tallahassee, the trustee typically does not hold pre-creditors meeting telephone conferences and asks all questions at the creditors meeting itself.
See this video for directions to the Creditors' Meeting in Gainesville as well as tips for parking, seating arrangements at the meeting, and documentation you will need:
See this video for directions on how to get to the creditors' meeting in Jacksonville:
Then what does happen at the meeting? It is usually a very short meeting in which the trustee asks the debtor some questions. It is important that you understand these meetings take place at the rate of 5 to 6 meetings every half hour. That means your creditors' meeting will likely lasts only 5 minutes or so.
Usually, no creditors show up notwithstanding the fact that it is called the Meeting of Creditors. Of course, if any creditors have appeared, they may ask questions. However, there is a practical time limit on how long creditors can question the debtors because there is usually a very long line of other cases waiting to be heard. At some point the trustee will halt the questioning and advise the creditor to seek further examination of the debtor at what is called a "Rule 2004 Examination" which is a deposition of the debtor. A 2004 examination is held at a private location usually agreed upon by the creditor and the debtor’s attorney. At that meeting there is usually a court reporter recording what is asked and answered. 2005 Examinations are not common and can result in additional attorney fees.
In a Chapter 7, there is a limit on how much property, i.e., things of value that you can keep. This is called your "exempt" property. In theory, all property you own above and beyond your exempt property must be surrendered to your Trustee who will sell it and divide the proceeds among your creditors in a one-time distribution. The Trustee will sell the excess property to anyone for the highest price, including selling it to you. Oftentimes the debtor does not want to part with the non-exempt property and so makes an effort to be the highest bidder. So the debtor makes an offer to "buy-back" their excess property from the Trustee. Trustees like this, because it saves them the trouble of sending out someone with a truck to get the debtor’s stuff and find buyers. The debtor makes an offer to the trustee, usually including some period of time in which to come up with the money. This period of time varies between trustees but it is usually about 10-12 months for clients filing in the Tallahassee court through our Gainesville office and a shorter 3 months for clients filing in Jacksonville. Because the debtor is essentially buying back their excess (non-exempt) property from the trustee, this agreement is called a “buy-back” agreement. When there is a buy-back agreement, the non-exempt property never actually leaves the debtor’s home. In any event, whether the debtor buys back the non-exempt property or lets the Trustee actually take and sell the property to someone else, the Trustee ends up with a pile of money. The Trustee can then ask the court for compensation for the Trustee’s time and efforts and so requests as payment a percentage of the money. The rest will distributed to the creditors as a one-time payment.
What happens after the creditors meeting depends on whether the client has filed a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case? In Chapter 7, the case goes into hibernation for 60 days after the creditors meeting. During this time creditors have the right to complain (during the first 30 days) that the debtor is trying to "exempt" more property than the law allows. Trustees can make this objection too.
Trustee in the Jacksonville court, there are a few trustees who never believe the values placed upon assets by the debtors in their bankruptcy papers. These trustees often will file an objection to the exemption claims made buy the debtor. And so the trustee will hire an appraiser to go to the home of the debtor and make an appraisal of all their assets, furniture, cars etc. The appraiser then files his or her appraisal report with the court. Often the appraisers are, shall we say, overly “optimistic” about the true value of the debtor’s assets. Sometimes, to be fair, debtors may be overly “pessimistic” about the value of their possessions and possibly “low-ball” the values. In any event, it is usually not in anyone’s interest to actually litigate (which is costly) the value of these items before the bankruptcy Judge (who will not appreciate being required to hear expert testimony on the value of someone’s couch and cooking utensils), and so the parties enter into negotiations over the value of these items and therefore the true amount of the non-exempt property. Dealing with objections to exemptions and negotiating a settlement is usually not included in the basic bankruptcy attorney’s fees charged in our contract for representation. The end result of these negotiations is either an agreement for the debtors reach a buy-back agreement with the Trustee or a re-selection of exempt property on agreed values followed by the Trustee taking possession of the non-exempt property (and selling it at auction). Not all Jacksonville trustees are so “untrusting” of the debtor’s values; many accept the debtors sworn original estimates of value if they seem reasonable based upon the Trustee’s experience in other cases. In Gainesville, the trustee usually does not hire an appraisal, although certainly having the right to do so if the debtor’s schedules awaken suspicion of low-balling. We ask our clients to be absolutely honest in giving their opinions of the value of their property. We ask them to be realistic, but honest. This entire business about objecting to the values of property and therefore objecting to the debtor’s claims of exemptions (many of which are based upon the values of their assets) has a deadline. The objection must me filed (usually by the Trustee, but theoretically any creditor could do so as well) on or before a date which is 30 days after the creditors’ meeting. Objections not filed are waived.
There is also a 60 day deadline. For 60 days after the meeting of creditors have a right to object to the debtor receiving a discharge, either of all debts or of the particular debt held by that creditor. These are extremely rare, but examples of the grounds for such an objection are fraud by the debtor towards the creditor or dishonest bankruptcy papers. Because of this opportunity for creditors to upset the discharge process, the Court must wait until the 60 days has expired to see if any objections were filed. In the absence of a timely filed objection, the Court is then in a position to award the debtor a Discharge. The Discharge IS the forgiveness of debt.
30 days after first filing a Chapter 13, the client begins laying down a record of regular, timely payments to the Chapter 13 Trustee according to the Chapter 13 Plan proposed by the debtor's attorney. A solid record of making payments on time will convince the trustee and the bankruptcy judge that the client has the ability and willingness to make the payments stated in the clients Chapter 13 plan. After the plan is filed, the Chapter 13 trustee may object to the amount that the debtor proposes to pay, arguing that the debtor could make a better effort. Here is where the experience of the law firm representing the debtor comes in to play. Lisa Cohen handles all the Chapter 13 cases for our firm. She has great experience with Chapter 13 cases and has a long history of dealing with the Chapter 13 Trustees in both Tallahassee and Jacksonville. She understands the trustee’s positions on various issues and will negotiate the very best Chapter 13 arrangement she can for our clients.
The plans are usually 5 years (60 months) long. At the successful conclusion of the 5 years, the court will discharge the debtor of any remaining debts that are of the kind Chapter 7 debtors can discharge.