Thousands of Milwaukee residents file for bankruptcy each year. A good number believe they can't afford a lawyer but are intimidated by the idea of trying find their way through a legal system they don't understand.
These citizens have critical questions about the bankruptcy process:
"Can I keep my car?"
"Do my husband and I both need to file?"
"Will my child support arrearage be discharged?"
Many turn to bankruptcy petition preparers for those answers and pay $100 to $250 to get them. But most do not realize that petition preparers are simply typists. They are not trained in the law and do not know the answers to the questions that debtors need to ask.
Some preparers answer the questions anyway, often giving the wrong information.
Some take the debtors' money but do not complete the papers or do not file the papers or do not file the correct papers.
Milwaukee's bankruptcy judges have grown weary of being forced to dismiss cases because the debtor paid money he or she did not have to a petition preparer who gave the debtor the wrong information, did not file all of the required documents or filled out the documents incorrectly.
People who consider filing for bankruptcy already are hurting, without losing precious dollars to someone who cannot give them the advice they need.
To make it clear that the law does not allow petition preparers to give legal advice, and that they are not qualified to do so, the Milwaukee judges have established a new policy: Beginning Jan. 1, a petition preparer may charge only $75 for completing bankruptcy papers.
If the preparer is following the law, simply filling out the papers without giving legal advice, $75 is a reasonable price for that service. If a debtor needs more than typing services - and most debtors do - the bankruptcy court has a Help Desk, where from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. every Thursday morning, bankruptcy lawyers will answer questions and help debtors with their paperwork.
And it's free of charge.
Pamela Pepper is chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, sitting in Milwaukee.