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Fixing the "Fixed" Forms

posted by Katie Porter

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the Forms Modernization Project's effort to create new forms specifically for consumer bankrupts. The chair of that Project, Judge Elizabeth Perris, offered a lengthy comment that shared some information on the goals and process. I recommend it to you.  She noted that law students were asked to review the forms.

This fall during my seminar on consumer bankruptcy, I had my students do this as a take-home assignment. We had just read a chapter in Broke by Angie Littwin on pro se bankruptcy filers, and the students' task was to assess whether the forms would make the system easier for debtors. The students' observations ranged from the minute to global. My favorites are below.

Favorite Little Observation: The new forms use Arabic numbers instead of Roman numerals to label parts of the form (so it is Part 1, instead of Part I.) I would never have noticed this but the student confessed that they could never figure out Roman Numerals, which usually was only a problem at SuperBowl time.

Favorite Big Picture Observation: The forms have checklists on the opening pages--one for chapter 7, 13, and 11. But the students noted that debtors needed to figure out what chapter to file to even make use of these checklists and figuring out chapter eligibility turned on the means test. So they thought the means test form should come FIRST, ahead of even the petition, so the debtor could check the correct chapter box on the petition and use the applicable checklist. We talked a lot about how many families the means test really screens but I can see the problem in theory--you fill out dozens of pages about chapter 7 only to get to the means test and discover you aren't eligible.

Favorite "Here's How People Really Behave" Observation: One student complained about the block of instructions at the top of each form. The student noted that by FIRST putting the general instructions that apply to all forms and THEN the specific instructions for a particular form, that debtors would likely cease to read the instructions after a couple of forms. Debtors would see the same first sentence in each instructional block would give the debtor the idea that these were all duplicative.  The student thought the specific instructions at the bottom of the instructions that apply to that particular form should go first, with the general stuff like "This form uses 'you' and 'Debtor' to apply to a debtor filing alone" going below the form-specific instructions like "Use Part 2 for creditors with priority claims." You can see the issue that student is flagging in the sample form I posted on the prior post--click here. 

Favorite Suggestion for Revision: One student thought should be two parallel sets of forms--one for joint petitions and one for single filings. The student--who noted that they were single-- complained about having to look at all the "Spouse" columns on every form that would not apply to them. I think the student is correct that the form would be much more stream-lined for single people. I wonder how many pro se filings are by single filings; if the bulk of them are, then this seems like a possibly worthwhile idea for the Modernization Project to consider.

Favorite Technology Idea:  Many students thought the forms should work like TurboTax, where you don't see forms at all, just a series of input boxes. In TurboTax, if you answer you are not a homeowner, you never see the question about mortgage interest deduction. On a paper form this obviously works differently. It will be interesting to see how the Pro Se Pathfinder project that permits electronic filings for pro se debtors works and if it has this kind of functionality.

Favorite "I deserve my money" Observation: A couple of law students noted that it would take someone with training like theirs to even understand what 11 U.S.C. (section symbol) 727 meant, so that having the Code references was really just a way to signal that people should have lawyers. Perhaps the online forms will have hyperlinks to the law itself? The students thought the forms should explain that 11 U.S.C. is the bankruptcy laws and that a section symbol and number refers to a specific part of the law.

The students' opinions may be worth something here, even though they are  experts on neither bankruptcy nor form design. This is in part because the bankruptcy community seems to continue to hope that more law schools will do pro bono bankruptcy clinics and easier forms might help with that. And law students could be a good group to proxy fairly sophisticated consumers who have some knowledge; they might very roughly approximate a college-educated consumer who had read a book like Bankruptcy for Dummies. And lest you think college-educated people are unlikely to file pro se, Angie Littwin's research in Broke, mentioned above, finds that college-educated people have a higher propensity to try a do-it-yourself bankruptcy than those with less education.

The forms have some strong words for pro se filers, which will be the subject of my next post on the forms.

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