It started with me getting pregnant with my son. I don't want to get into too much detail, but as much as I wanted a second child, I thought very seriously about getting an abortion. I had experienced severe nausea and vomiting of pregnancy (Hyperemesis Gravidarum, the same thing Kate Middleton had) when I was pregnant with my daughter, and I dreaded going through the same.
It was so much worse than with my daughter, though. I went through a three-month period where I could not take in food or water by mouth. I slept with a washrag in my mouth, because swallowing saliva would induce vomiting. I was on six different medications and had to go in at least once or twice a week for hydration and emergency nutrition during that period. It was so intense. I was never more glad than when I got sterilized after having my son. No more pregnancy for me!
My doctor lobbied with the insurance people hard to decrease the costs of my medication. Even so, we really struggled to pay for it all. Then, when my son was born, it turned out he was allergic to milk proteins. We tried different formulas until we got one that wouldn't cause him to bleed, but it cost nearly $500 for a case of 4. All totally uncovered by insurance. Between me missing work and school during the Hyperemesis, missing work after having my son, and then my husband needing to stay home to take care of our kids due to the prohibitive cost of childcare--well. We ran through our savings. And we couldn't pay the medical bills as they rolled in. Especially not once I added my son to my insurance, and my deductible went up from $5,000 to $13,000. (We have better insurance now, thanks to Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion passing in Arkansas. I'll probably diary about that at some time, but I digress.)
I went back to work and school very quickly -- within an month and a half after having my son. That helped, but it wasn't enough.
To add insult to injury, there were numerous bills that the insurance said "didn't count towards the deductible." It was truly an awful time after that. Endless phone calls, endless people talking down to me about how I needed to pay.
What finally tipped the scales in favor of bankruptcy was not the constant demands for payment, the smarmy lectures from creditors, or the nights lying awake wondering if I was going to be able to make rent or not this month. It was getting an envelope in the mail, and on the outside of the envelope, on the flap, were the words "I think I can help you" handwritten in blue ink.
I stared at those words for a minute straight and blinked away tears. Someone wanted to help me. They cared enough to go to the extra step of writing those words, just for me. It wasn't a total trust, not instantly, but it was a heck of a start.
I took a few minutes to get myself under control, and then I opened the envelope up and read the letter inside. I forget what the precise words were, but the gist was that the woman who had written written me was telling me that she knew (through public records) that I was being sued and she wanted me to come in for a consultation. The consultation would be free. We would talk about my legal options. And then if I decided to pursue bankruptcy, she would walk me through the process.
I was terrified of going, but more terrified of not going, so I decided to call and set up an appointment.
My lawyer's name was Jennifer Lueker DuCharme, for those of you who are wondering. She works with the law office of Steven H. Kay and Associates. The person who answered the phone (probably her paralegal, Betty), was efficient and professional. I wondered how much lecturing I would have to go through to finish the meeting, and cried all night before my appointment.
I arrived there armed with my folder full of vital documents, and it was totally unlike anything that I had expected. First off, she apologized that she couldn't offer me soda because they were out at the moment. I hadn't expected to be treated with any courtesy. People like me, who couldn't pay their bills, did not deserve such things (in my mind). I expected the bankruptcy process to be invasive, with lots of me justifying every transaction I'd made and a lot of needing to explain why I had accrued debt I couldn't pay for. What I got was compassion, and understanding, and promises that the process would be smooth and would maintain my dignity. I cried in her office and thanked her. She said, not a direct quote but close enough, "You've done all you can. Let us carry some of the weight on your shoulders." I left feeling like things were doable for the first time since I'd gotten pregnant.
So, here are the tips she gave me and what I've gleaned from the process.
I am not a lawyer. If you are being sued, the best advice that I can give you is to immediately, right now, before you even finish this story, go and get a good lawyer. (I obviously recommend Jennifer DuCharme if you're in the Northwest Arkansas area.) Now, that being said, here are some dos and don'ts:
1. Finish all of the paperwork your lawyer gives you, in exhaustive detail, before you next see him or her. My lawyer gave me a list of assets I needed to value and how I needed to list them. I gave her values down to the penny, to the best of my knowledge. Basically, what I had to do was look at all my property and ask, "How much would I pay for this at a slightly expensive garage sale?" Then I did the same with bank accounts, stocks, big property (like cars), etc. It turned out that all of my property was exempt, so I didn't have to give anything up. To be sure, I overvalued everything a little bit. If something was more damaged than what I would buy, I valued it as if it was not damaged at all (to a certain point, at least). You will be surprised at how much you can keep. If you turn out owing too much, you can always hash it out with your lawyer later.
2. Do not lie to your lawyer. Do not try to hide assets. It's not worth it. Your entire bankruptcy could be thrown out and all collection activities will resume. Take your lumps, if there even end up being any. There weren't many for me -- affording the fees was a bit of a stressor, but other than that, smooth sailing. (In case you're wondering, yes, I think Jennifer and her team earned every penny and it was worth paying her a fair price for the work she did.)
3. Keep good records. Keep every piece of paper relating to your bankruptcy in one ORGANIZED place. I recommend a cheap accordion folder. It gets the job done. There will probably be at least one time when you need to be able to send your lawyer info, and you do not want to have to spend a ton of time digging it up. Take good records of anything you think might be an issue. Which leads me to my next point . . .
4. Know your rights. Creditors are not supposed to contact you once your bankruptcy is filed. Creditors are not supposed to contact you at work, period. If you ask in writing for them not to contact you, they must respect your wishes. If you get any kind of contact after the bankruptcy is filed, report it to your lawyer. The creditors will probably just get a stern warning, but believe me, this is enough when you get to listen in on the paralegal giving said warning! (Yes, this did happen to me. You know how I mentioned that creditors spent a lot of time treating me like dirt? I'd feel worse about the ICE BURN Betty laid down on them if they hadn't been like that. I had to mute the phone call because I was giggling so hard.) It takes work to enforce your rights, but it is worth the small measure of control you regain after being harassed for so long.
5. Don't stress about the hearing. It really is perfunctory. Unless there is some kind of evidence you've hidden assets or done something else your lawyer will warn you not to do, they'll ask you questions from a list and then they will ask you simple questions to show that they read your case. Mine was relating to a car accident I'd had; they asked if I was liable or if I had the right to sue anyone, and I said that it had been a wash due to the circumstances, and no. That was all that was needed.
6. Most of all, know that bankruptcy is way less stressful than dealing with creditors. The court does not get to look at every detail of your personal finances. They do not get to ask you why you bought your daughter a cake while you were being harassed by creditors. They do not get to question you about specific transactions unless they are hugely major. The worst thing that could happen is they might ask for verification of one number, such as what your bank balance was when the day you filed, or how much you owned in stock the day you filed. That's only if you're randomly chosen for an audit, but that's also why you should go into detail on your preparations.
So don't stress. If I can make it through bankruptcy, so can you!