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Woman-Owned Center for Clear Communication Helps Simplify Federal Bankruptcy Forms

February 9th, 2017 - by Center for Clear Communication | Share on:

The federal bankruptcy system uses a series of official and directors forms to collect information in bankruptcy cases. The official forms are mandatory and are the focus of this project.

The official forms had not been revised as a unit in two decades. Over the last 25 years, any changes to forms have been piecemeal. The forms lacked consistency, had been created at different times by different people, lack instructions.

The courts had not stepped back and analyzed the 50 forms from the debtors' point of view. They had also not studied whether they are getting the best or most complete information they need to decide a case.

Plus, the system had not been designed to be data-enabled, therefore, the information is difficult to analyze across cases. Our efforts in this project corresponded with a plan to upgrade the internal system that processes the data.

The Judicial Conference's Advisory Committee on Bankruptcy Rules established the Bankruptcy Official Forms Modernization Project (FMP)to improve the official bankruptcy forms and to improve the interface between the forms and available technology. From the beginning the FMP solicited input from bankruptcy participants both within and outside the government.

The forms are filed by both individuals and non-individuals (such as corporations, municipalities, sole proprietorships, etc.). The current system has one set of forms that all debtors are supposed to use for all different types of bankruptcy cases: chapters 9, 7, 11, 12, 13.

The law allows individual debtors to file without a lawyer (called pro se debtors). Even though this is not a recommended practice, some people do file without the help of an attorney. Also, since debtors sign the forms under penalty of perjury, they must be able to read and understand what they sign. Since many people are unsophisticated in financial and legal matters compared to other entities, the forms must be easier to read and understand than they currently are. The forms cannot give legal advice.

Goals of the redesign effort:
• Clarify the forms and instructions to improve the collection of necessary information
• Increase the completeness and accuracy of responses
• Reduce errors
• Increase comprehension for debtors, both those represented by counsel and those appearing pro se
• Streamline the look and feel of the forms, making them inviting and easier to read
• Increase technological ability to use the data
• Reduce redundant information where possible
• Convene an ad hoc group of members drawn from the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Bankruptcy Rules and representatives of bankruptcy-related groups.

The task force consisted of bankruptcy judges, U.S. trustees, bankruptcy administrators, attorneys, clerks of bankruptcy court, representatives from the Department of Justice, the Federal Judicial Center, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Court, including staff from the technical team.

Because the information collected in the forms for an individual debtor is quite different from information collected for a large corporate debtor, the team created separate series of forms for those two audiences. A number of requirements apply only to individuals - for example, claim exemptions and means testing - and individuals can properly file bankruptcy without the assistance of a lawyer. In contrast, non-individuals must have lawyers and, as a group, are more sophisticated in the related issues than individuals. Dividing debtors into two groups allowed us to provide a clear standard for who must use particular forms.

The project team surveyed constituent groups about the existing forms with research assistance from the Federal Judicial Center. Constituent groups (many through professional associations):
• Consumer bankruptcy attorneys
• Bankruptcy law clerks
• Law professors
• Users of the PACER system

Online surveys ensured that all constituent groups understood the project and had an opportunity to provide early input. Doing so would decrease opposition later in the project.

We collected solid, empirical information on which to base the revisions and obtained early feedback on proposed revisions.

The many facets of the 6-year project included these tasks in which we:
• Learned about forms from people who use the forms or who use the information obtained with the forms. (NABT, NACTT, NACBA, USTs, trustees, mortgage creditors, non-mortgage creditors, software vendors
• Asked a core set of questions, focusing on individual debtors.
• Identified most common errors, omissions, incomplete questions on existing forms.
• Asked about commonly misunderstood terms, additional information needed, information that could be removed.
• Compiled the results and used results to inform the redesign.
• Worked with subgroups to draft, review, revise.
• Sent drafts of forms out to selected members of stakeholder groups, asking for feedback. Included software vendors whose programs run the current forms.
• Presented drafts forms to stakeholder groups at professional meetings.
• Catalogued and addressed all of the comments.
• Had law clerks and law students at two universities fill out forms with sample cases. Had them fill out comment logs so that we were sure to collect data.
• Collected and analyzed the filled-out samples and logs. Conducted series of telephonic focus groups with respondents and stakeholder groups to review their concerns and problems with the draft forms.
• Worked with subgroups to draft, review, revise, review, revise, review, revise.
• Repeated the entire process for the non-individual forms.

The revisions produced forms with a more intuitive layout and a uniform feel, with clearer instructions that explain the process, with prompts and checklists, and with separate, more extensive instruction sheets.

The forms also became longer, but with the additional explanations and instructions it is hoped the information that filers submit will be more accurate and there will be less need for follow-up by the court to hand-enter omitted data or to correct errors. The more accurate the information electronically filed, the more accurate and flexible the generation of reports.

Our guiding principles behind the redesign were:
• Give people a context for the process and for the questions asked.
• Create a package of forms that shows the amount of work needed in the process.
• Set a uniform look and feel.
• In the instructions to the package, set the tone, explain the process, and show the timing of the steps involved.
• Use conversational language.
• Define technical terms if you must use them.
• Give people information they need where they need it. Instead of separate line-by-line instructions, structure questions so that they can stand alone. Give cues and provide instructions and definitions with the question. Chunk questions within the form to clearly subset related questions.
• Simplify the task of giving information. For example, instead of asking open-ended questions or having columns, ask closed-ended questions with check boxes to clarify exactly what information was being sought. As an added benefit, this practice helps process the responses more quickly and easily, and allows data to be sorted and analyzed more readily. Math functions were shown to help debtors understand what numbers were to be summed or subtracted. Signature areas and declarations were made more prominent.
• Tell people specifically what you want to know. Give them examples or choices for answers.

In the end, the entire set of forms were accepted and published this past year. And, as a result of our thorough, persistent work, this project was the winner of the 2016 ABC/APCC Award for Excellence in Communication Consulting and the winner of the 2016 ClearMark Award for Long Legal Documents.

About the Center for Clear Communication:
Founded in 1992, the Center for Clear Communication has established a solid reputation for creating documents and transforming complex or technical information into easy-to-read, easy-to-understand documents. We're a woman-owned, small business with a consistent record of completing projects on time and within budget. Because we are small, you get personal attention from the people who do the work, rather than from a disinterested bureaucracy.

Largely because communication problems know no limits of industry or organizational size, our clients come from all types and sorts of backgrounds. We've worked on projects for a wide range of organizations, including the American Bar Association, American Express, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, IRS, CFPB, NIST, and many more.

The Center for Clear Communication can be contacted via its website (www.centerforclearcommunication.org), by phone (301-340-1747), or by email (clearly@aol.com).

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Article Number: 1258

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