Bankruptcy Court – Getting Through The Ordeal

21 Sep Bankruptcy Court – Getting Through The Ordeal

Terrified Of Bankruptcy Court

When I first went into practice I had never been to bankruptcy court; in fact, I didn’t even know where it was. And though just about 15 years has passed since that first New Yorker asked me to represent her in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, that unsettled feeling of walking into bankruptcy court for the first time is never far away.

When you think about going to court – any court – your mind fills up with visions of Law & Order or Judge Wapner. And to some extent that’s true; fiction echoes fact in many ways. There’s no dramatic background music as you walk down the halls, but it’s imposing nonetheless. Still, there are certain thing you need to know if you’re going to bankruptcy court.

Getting A Foot In The Door

Bankruptcy court buildings are federal courthouses, so you should expect a certain air of security. After all, this isn’t a Norman Rockwell world in which we live. Metal detectors are the norm, so it’s a good idea to stash the metal in your bag before you find yourself walking back and forth with a wand under your armpits and a scowling federal officer giving out terse instructions.

In fact, I tell my clients that when entering bankruptcy court it’s best to empty your pockets into your bag before stepping into the building. That includes your wallet, credit cards, loose change, gum wrappers, and anything else that might be there. You never know what’s going to set off the alarms, and it doesn’t take more than a minute to do a complete inventory dump to save time getting through the detectors.

Many bankruptcy courts have rules regarding the use of cell phones and pagers, so you should expect to surrender them at the front door. Perhaps your local bankruptcy court will let you keep the device, but there’s n guarantee. Even my local bankruptcy court in Brooklyn regularly plays around with the rules, first allowing cell phones, then banning them, and now (finally) letting the lawyers bring them in. Of course, they assume you’re a lawyer if you’re wearing a suit (which bodes poorly for me, as I routinely go to the bankruptcy court to pick up or drop off various things while wearing jeans and a baseball cap). Keep your photo identification handy so that you can claim your phone on the way out.

Attire Of Respect

You’re filing for bankruptcy, so you’re presumed to fall somewhat shy of billionaire status. That doesn’t mean you have a license to dress in the same clothes you routinely wear to weed the garden or clean the garage. Put on a decent shirt (that means a shirt without a witty saying or mustard stain) and a clean pair of pants. Don’t walk into bankruptcy court wearing jeans or shorts; it’s disrespectful of the proceedings and the judge. More to the point, it gives the impression that you’re not taking your involvement in the bankruptcy process too seriously.

For years I’ve watched otherwise intelligent people walk into bankruptcy court looking like they’d just rolled out of bed. It may be comfortable for you, but the judge or trustee is going to immediately form an opinion about you based on what you’re wearing. Remember that you’re coming into bankruptcy court for relief from your debts, so this person’s got quite a bit of your future in his or her hands. Though your choice of clothing isn’t going to determine the outcome of your bankruptcy case, the attitude you face could make things easier or more difficult.

Breathe Deeply

We tend to speak differently when we’re nervous – I call it “anxiety autopilot.” Like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming tractor trailer, we freeze up when we’re in an unfamiliar situation. It’s a flight-or-fight instinct we’ve all got, but it’s important to curb that fear to maximize your odds of success in bankruptcy court. Take a moment to listen to each question, be sure you understand it, and then answer slowly and simply.

By speaking more slowly, you’re giving your brain the chance to process the question and decipher it. The alternative is to blurt out “yes” or “no,” but frequently people respond without listening to the question at all. As with any act of randomness, such knee-jerk reactions have only a 50/50 chance of being accurate. You’re under oath – answering incorrectly could land you in hot water.

This, Too, Shall Pass

Your time in bankruptcy court is stressful because of the gravity of the situation, as well as your need for relief. But if you follow these tips you’ll make it through with flying colors!

Photo credit: Sakurako Kitsa (Flickr)

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Jay S. Fleischman is a bankruptcy lawyer with offices in Los Angeles and New York. He can often be found on Google+ and Twitter, where he shares information about consumer protection issues and personal finance.
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