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Keeping Personal Information Private in Bankruptcy Court

Many folks worry that by filing bankruptcy in Massachusetts their personal information will become public.  Will my landlord find out?  My boss?  Do I have to get my wife’s tax return even if she is not filing?

What Information is Revealed and to Whom

The bankruptcy petition and schedules are public.   However, note that the media is not usually trolling for information about folks that are not public figures.  Can your landlord find out?  Sure, if he or she looks it up.  Will your landlord find out from the Court is the more important question.  The answer is that the Bankruptcy Court sends out notices to creditors.  If you owe your landlord money and list him or her on your Petition or Schedules, a notice will go out from the Court to the creditor.  The same is true of your friends, ex-partners, etc.  – if you owe them money and list them, they will get a notice.

The information that is revealed is simply that you have filed and that they have the right to file a proof of claim or objection to discharge.  A proof or claim will not have any validity if you have a no asset Chapter 7 case.  An objection to discharge will only have validity if they file a lawsuit, within the Bankruptcy Court; and that lawsuit will only proceed if there is a valid reason for objecting to discharge.  Absent fraud, most dischargeable debts are absolutely dischargeable.    You should talk to an experienced bankruptcy lawyer about what debts are not likely to be discharged, however.

What Information is Not Revealed

In a case that came down from the Bankruptcy Court on January 15, 2015, the Court made it clear that it would protect individuals from personal disclosures.  Rule 9037(a) prohibits anyone from filing a document with the Bankruptcy Court that contains a social security number, tax identification number, birth date, a minor, or a financial account number.  When an attorney inadvertently filed a document with much of the above information, and not withstanding his defense, the Bankruptcy Court entered a $1,000 sanction against the attorney “to deter not only the careless behavior that led to the original unredacted filing, but also to motivate Attorney [Jane Doe] to take swift action to notify the Court and request redaction in the event of any subsequent filing containing information protected by Rule 9037(a).”

While your attorney may need many documents, including a spouse’s tax return even if not filing, an experienced attorney will not reveal any private information.  For example, your social security number is submitted on a separate document from the Petition and at the 341 Creditors Hearing when your Social Security card is matched to the filing, the number is not stated out loud or publicly.  Further, your attorney will only file the documents that you have reviewed and signed.  And, as described above, while the Petition and Schedules are public, the only people that are notified are the debt holders.

Retain An Experienced Bankruptcy Attorney

Before you worry that your personal information will be revealed to too many people, if you need a “fresh start” retain the services of an experienced bankruptcy attorney.  It is rare that an experienced bankruptcy attorney would file a document with the Bankruptcy Court containing protected information.  It is worth noting that the attorney in the above-mentioned case, while experienced, does not claim to have any bankruptcy experience in the law firm website.  Attorney Neil Burns has represented clients in the Bankruptcy Court since 1985.  Call for a free consultation:  617-227-7423.

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