“Emergency” Bankruptcy cases or petitions, and “skeletal” petitions, are terms that are used fairly often in the Bankruptcy world and you may come across the terms in various websites (such as this one). The terms are related, but have different meanings. An “emergency” Bankruptcy case is, as the name implies, a Bankruptcy case that has to be filed quickly to stop an event that is about to happen. That could be a foreclosure, an eviction, a trial, judgment, vehicle repossession or any number of other things. Immediately upon the filing of the case (literally, the very instant the clerk stamps the petition), the automatic stay takes effect to stop these events. When Bankruptcy lawyers and clients have to act quickly, they usually file a “skeletal Bankruptcy petition” to initiate the Bankruptcy case. A skeletal Bankruptcy petition is the bare minimum of paperwork the Clerk will accept to open a Bankruptcy case. The one document that is absolutely required is the Bankruptcy Petition, which is a three page document that includes your name, address, chapter under which you are filing and a few other items. It must be signed, under penalty of perjury, by you and your lawyer. In addition, the filing fee must be paid or the filer must complete an application for a waiver of the fee. In most Bankruptcy court districts, the signed petition alone (with the filing fee) will allow a person to file and open a case, even if there are technically other documents “required” to be filed with the initial petition. It is unusual for a Clerk to refuse to open a case if a person submits the petition, as the Clerk’s office typically will not want to place themselves in a position of making a substantive decision about which additional documents are, or are not, required. The refusal to open a case could lead to negative consequences for the filer, so the Clerk’s office leaves those decisions to the Judges. In fact, many Clerks have been instructed to accept almost any document submitted to them that is related to a case (however meaningless it may be).
In practice, when people go to the Clerk’s office to file a skeletal petition, the Clerk will normally have them complete one or two other short forms while they are there. In the Northern District of Georgia, they also have scanners set up and ask people to scan their own documents. Of course, it is always a good idea to comply with these instructions and have peace of mind that the case is filed when you leave. It is important to understand that a skeletal petition filed with the Court on an emergency basis is only the bare minimum to initiate a case. Several other documents will be due almost immediately, including the name and address of all creditors. Within a couple weeks, all Schedules will be due, along with the credit counseling certificate and a few other documents. Remember, although the counseling certificate can be filed after the case is opened, the actual counseling must take place before the case is filed or the case will ultimately be dismissed.
Within a day or two after a case is filed, the Clerk’s office will normally send out a notice of all the missing documents and the deadline to file each. For some documents, such as the name and address of all creditors, they must be filed almost immediately or the case will simply be dismissed with no further notice (pursuant to “standing orders” of the Judges that apply to all cases).
We do have to mention a word (or two) of warning about filing emergency cases, with or without a lawyer. In most situations, the “emergency” of having to file a case with a day or so notice is one that is avoidable. We usually have at least a few weeks notice of foreclosures, evictions, judgments and other events mentioned above. As humans, we sometimes just avoid the realities of a situation or believe we can work them out with the other party. Waiting to meet with a Bankruptcy lawyer, or file a pro se petition, leads to mistakes that could turn out to be disastrous. Many very good Bankruptcy lawyers will not consider last minute appointments (such as the day before Foreclosure Day) because they do not have the opportunity to meet with the client to determine the best court of action. On a more practical note, the potential client has often not planned ahead to have funds available for the filing fee or the lawyer’s fee. In addition, the filing of a case just to stop one thing from happening, without serious thought and consideration about the ramifications of the case as a whole, can have serious repurcussions. If you are in a lawsuit or get a notice of foreclosure or eviction, make an appointment with one or two Bankruptcy lawyers in your area for free initial consultations. If you are in Georgia, please contact us and we will make sure we take care of you, or at least give you enough information so that you can make informed decisions long before the “emergency” comes around.