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How to File Bankruptcy for Free in California

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In a Nutshell

Filing for bankruptcy doesn’t have to be scary and confusing. We provide helpful tips and resources to help you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in your state without a lawyer.

Written by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated April 4, 2023

California is a popular place to live. But living in a popular location often comes with a higher cost of living. So it’s not surprising that many people in California struggle to afford to live in this state and acquire various types of debts. There are many debt relief options out there, but none of them provide the financial fresh start that’s possible by filing bankruptcy

Whether you file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you can soon stop wage garnishment, credit card debt collection calls, and/or seemingly endless bills. To explain how this process works in California, we created the following guide. 

Whether you’re a successful restaurant chain like California Pizza Kitchen that filed in 2020 thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, or an average citizen with too many medical bills, learn how to file bankruptcy, even without the help of a bankruptcy lawyer.

How To File Bankruptcy for Free in California

Filing bankruptcy seems like a bit of a catch-22. You don’t have money to pay your bills, yet it takes money to file bankruptcy. But if you’re willing to file without the help of an attorney, you can save a lot of money. This is often possible if your case is simple. Bankruptcy attorneys tend to be the most expensive cost of bankruptcy. The following steps will walk you through how to file a bankruptcy on your own.

Collect Your California Bankruptcy Documents

Much of the information the court needs to process your bankruptcy petition will come from the bankruptcy forms you fill out. You’ll need to look back at some of your financial documents to get the information for these forms. You’ll also need to gather additional documents to submit to the bankruptcy trustee during the bankruptcy process. The following are documents you’ll need at some point during the bankruptcy process, even if you hire an attorney:

  • Paycheck stubs from the last 60 days.

  • Income tax returns from the last two years.

  • Recent bank statements.

The following is a list of other documents that are helpful to have during the bankruptcy proceeding:

  • Bank statements from the past 6-12 months. These can help you calculate your current living expenses.

  • Bills and statements from creditors and lenders.

  • Any letters from collection agencies or other third-party debt collectors.

  • Your credit report. Federal law entitles you to one free credit report each year from each of the three consumer credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). 

In addition to keeping an eye on your credit, credit reports will help you identify your debts and creditors. If you use Upsolve’s free filing tool to file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it will pull your credit report for you.

Take a Credit Counseling Course

The Bankruptcy Code requires that you complete a credit counseling course 180 days before you declare bankruptcy to the court. The purpose of this class is to inform you of other debt-relief options that are available. This class isn’t free, but it shouldn’t cost more than $50. If you shop around, you can often find a class that’s approved for California for less than that. In some cases, you can get a fee waiver and take the credit counseling course at no cost to you.

You’ll see that most of these classes can be completed remotely, either over the internet or by telephone. When you’re done with your class (which should only take a few hours), you’ll get a certificate of completion. You’ll submit this certificate to the court along with your other bankruptcy forms. 

Complete the Bankruptcy Forms

Most of the forms you’ll need to file bankruptcy are the same forms everyone else uses to file bankruptcy in the U.S. You can get these for free as fillable PDFs from the United States Courts website. There are also some local forms that are specific to the California district (Northern, Eastern, Central, or Southern) where you file your bankruptcy petition.

If you’ve hired an attorney to handle your bankruptcy, you probably won’t need to complete these forms yourself. Instead, you’ll probably hand over documents and fill out a questionnaire for your attorney. They will then fill out these forms for you. 

If you use Upsolve to file your bankruptcy, then you’ll complete an online questionnaire and Upsolve’s software will generate your bankruptcy forms based on the information you gave.

Get Your Filing Fee

When you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you have to pay a fee of$338.But if your income is less than 150% of the federal income poverty guidelines, then you qualify to apply for a fee waiver. To see what these guidelines are, you can scroll down to the California Fee Waiver Eligibility table below.

If you don’t qualify for the fee waiver and can’t afford to pay the $338 filing fee, you have another option: applying to the court to pay your filing fee in four installments within 120 days of filing bankruptcy. 

Taking advantage of the installment payment plan is best for situations where you need to file bankruptcy as quickly as possible to make use of the automatic stay. You might need to do this if you’re dealing with wage garnishment. But if you can wait to file, it’s usually a better idea to forgo paying the filing fee in installments. This way you don’t risk the court throwing out your case because of a missed payment.

Many individuals choosing to represent themselves in their bankruptcy matter will be filing their bankruptcy forms in person or by mail. This means printing out hard copies of the completed bankruptcy forms. If you have access to a computer and printer, this shouldn’t be a major issue. If you don’t have access, you’ll need to find a library, copy shop, shipping store, or office supply store that can print the forms for you (often for a fee). Regardless of where you print your forms, keep the following requirements in mind:

  • Print the forms in black ink, not color.

  • Use white, letter-size paper (8.5” x 11”).

  • Only print on one side.

If possible, print out two copies of your completed bankruptcy forms. Having a second copy for your records may come in handy. Also, many of the bankruptcy forms look the same or consist of multiple pages. So use a checklist to double-check your packet of forms to ensure they’re all there, in the proper order, and you signed all the necessary pages. 

If you use Upsolve’s filing too to prepare your forms, you’ll get your bankruptcy documents electronically with special dividers that tell you where you need to sign. If you’ve hired an attorney, they’ll most likely print out the forms for you or file your documents electronically. This means you don’t need to print them unless you want a copy for your records.

File Your Forms With the California Bankruptcy Court

California is divided into four districts. Each district has its own filing rules for individuals handling their bankruptcy cases without an attorney. In all districts, individuals can file by mail or in person. You can go yourself or have someone else drop off your forms for you. Also, the Central, Southern, and Eastern Districts allow individuals filing on their own to electronically file some or all of their bankruptcy forms. 

Each district may also have special rules in place for filing court documents during the coronavirus pandemic. These rules are constantly changing, so it’s best to check with the COVID-19 webpage of the Northern, Central, Southern, and Eastern Districts to check for the most up-to-date news about court operations.

Mail Documents to Your Trustee

Filing bankruptcy is the hardest part, but there’s still a little bit of work to do after your forms get filed. For example, you’ll get assigned a bankruptcy trustee, which is an independent party to the case. The trustee’s job is to help ensure the information you’ve provided is accurate and that creditors get paid from the sale proceeds of any non-exempt property. To help accomplish these tasks, you’ll need to send your trustee certain financial documents at least seven days before your 341 creditors’ meeting. These documents include:

  • Bank statements for any bank account you had open when you filed for bankruptcy. These statements must cover a time period that includes the date you filed bankruptcy.

  • Your two most recent federal income tax returns.

If you’re not sure what to send or who to send it to, don’t worry. You’ll most likely get a letter from your trustee explaining who they are and what they need from you.

Take a Debtor Education Course

To be eligible for bankruptcy discharge of your debts, you’ll need to take a second financial course that covers personal financial management topics. There’s some flexibility in when you must take this class, but you must finish it within 60 days of the 341 creditors’ meeting. If you fail to do so, the court could close your case without discharging any of your debts. Many organizations offer this class, but you’ll need to complete it from an approved provider.

Once your class is done, you’ll receive a certificate of completion. Depending on how the course provider operates, they’ll either file this certificate with the court for you or have you do it yourself.

Attend Your 341 Meeting

For most filers, the 341 meeting (also known as a 341 creditors’ meeting or meeting of creditors) will be the only time you need to go to court. That said, currently all courts are holding these meetings virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Most in-person 341 meetings take place in a meeting room in front of your trustee with you and sometimes your creditors present. The purpose of this meeting is to let the trustee and creditors ask you questions. But most of the time, creditors won’t attend this meeting, so it’ll just be the trustee asking you questions about your case and finances. 

This might seem intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. As long as you’ve been honest on your bankruptcy forms and you answer the trustee truthfully, you should get through the 341 meeting without issue

To help make this meeting go according to plan, it might help to prepare for your 341 meeting. You also need to bring acceptable forms of identification and proof of your Social Security number. You’ll be done with your 341 meeting before you realize and ready for the next step in the bankruptcy process.

Dealing with Your Car

If you want to keep your car, California has exemptions in place that make it possible for most people to keep their car during bankruptcy. But even with applicable exemptions, how bankruptcy law deals with your car will largely depend on whether you want to keep it and how much it’s worth.

If your vehicle has a lease and you want to keep it, you’ll need to continue making your lease payments. You’ll also need to inform the court of your decision with a Statement of Intentions. If you don’t want the leased vehicle anymore, then the terms and procedures for returning your vehicle will depend on what your lease agreement says.

If your vehicle is paid off, then you can keep it as long as its fair market value is less than the exemption provided for personal vehicles under California law, which is $3,525, plus any available wildcard exemption. If you’re still paying on a car loan and you have positive equity — meaning your car is worth more than you owe on it — you can keep it as long as you stay current with your monthly payments and its equity is less than the available exemption.

If your vehicle is subject to a car loan, but its value is less than what you owe on it (it’s “underwater”), then you can surrender it if you don’t want it anymore. Surrendering lets you get rid of the vehicle along with its outstanding loan balance. This is a good approach if you can’t afford your current vehicle during bankruptcy, but you have plans to buy another one after your bankruptcy is over.

If you still want your underwater vehicle, then you can enter into a reaffirmation agreement. This requires you to continue making your monthly car loan payments. 

Finally, you can redeem your vehicle. This lets you keep your vehicle by letting you purchase it for fair market value instead of paying off the remaining balance on your car loan. This makes it possible to own your vehicle outright for less than what you’d have to pay for the car loan. The catch is that redeeming your vehicle requires you to pay for the vehicle in one lump sum.

California Bankruptcy Means Test

To prevent people from abusing the bankruptcy process, everyone has to complete a bankruptcy means test to see if you’re eligible to file. This test begins by looking at your median household income and comparing it to other California households of the same size. 

The goal is to see if your median income is within the Chapter 7 income limits. If your income is higher than the limit, you can still file Chapter 7 if you pass the second part of the means test, which compares your income, debt load, and monthly living expenses. If you don’t pass this part of the test, you can look into filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead.

The means test is specific to each state, so California filers must pass the means test for California. And if your income comes from commissions or per job assignment, keep in mind that the mean test looks at the six months before filing bankruptcy, not including the month you file.

Data on Median income levels for California

California Median Income Standards for Means Test for Cases Filed In 2023
Household SizeMonthly IncomeAnnual Income

Data on Poverty levels for California

California Fee Waiver Eligibility for Cases Filed In 2023

Eligible for fee waiver when under 150% the poverty level.

Household SizeState Poverty LevelFee Waiver Limit (150% PL)

California Bankruptcy Forms

The major bankruptcy forms are the same across the nation. But there could also be special local forms required by the Eastern,Central, Northern, or Southern Districts. Each court handles their local forms differently and might even have special packets already prepared to help save you time.

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California Districts & Filing Requirements

California is divided into the Central, Eastern, Northern, and Southern Districts. The county you live in will decide which district you need to file your bankruptcy in. You can also use this tool to find out where to file based on your ZIP code or city. 

Most of the filing requirements are similar for each district, but there are some small differences in how you can file your bankruptcy documents and how to pay your filing fees. Keep in mind that any changes in filing requirements due to the coronavirus can be found on the COVID-19 webpage for the Northern, Central, Southern, and Eastern Districts.

Central District of California Requirements

The Central District, which includes Los Angeles, is the more accommodating of the four California Districts when it comes to filing. In addition to filing in person and by mail, you can also use an Electronic Drop Box. This lets you file documents electronically, but only if the filing doesn’t require a fee. For filings like your bankruptcy petition, you can use the Electronic Self-Representation, or eSR, system. This lets you prepare and file your Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions electronically if you don’t have an attorney.

When it comes to paying your filing fees, you must do that by providing either a USPS money order or a cashier’s check. If you use eSR, you’re automatically enrolled in a free installment plan that gives you 10 days to fully pay your filing fee.

Eastern District of California Requirements

If you need to file your bankruptcy petition or other documents in the Eastern District, you can do it in person, by mail, or with the Debtor Drop Box. This is an online tool that allows you to file your bankruptcy documents online.

To pay your filing fee, you can use cash (exact change only), cashier’s check, or money order. If choosing to pay your filing fee in installments, you’ll need to complete Official Form 103A. If the court approves this request, you get 120 days to make four payments to pay your filing fee in full. You can propose an amount for the installment payments, but the court could decide to make your payments a different amount.

Northern District of California Requirements

You have only two options for filing bankruptcy documents in the Northern District — in person at one of the court’s locations like San Francisco or by mail. And if you want to pay any filing fees, you must only do so by cashier’s check or money order. Paying your filing fee in installments is also an option, but you’ll need to request court approval by completing Official Form 103A. If approved by the court, you’ll have 120 days to pay your filing fee in full with four payments in amounts approved by the court.

Southern District of California Requirements

If you’ve already prepared your bankruptcy forms, you must file them by either mail or in person (the court’s primary location is San Diego). But the Southern District also offers Electronic Self-Representation (eSR) to filers who don’t have an attorney and are filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Certain forms must still be filed in person or by mail. This bankruptcy court also requires all filers to submit their creditor matrix in electronic format on a USB drive or a CD. They include instructions on the website about how to get the file into the proper format.

You can pay your filing fees with cash (only when filing in person and with exact change), USPS money orders, and cashier’s checks. The filing fee for your petition can be paid in installments, but only if you fill out Official Form 103A and get court approval. If granted, you’ll pay your filing fee within 120 days of your bankruptcy filing and each of the four installment payments will be amounts approved by the court.

California Bankruptcy Exemptions

Bankruptcy exemptions are special laws that protect certain assets from your creditors. These protections apply to various types of personal property like:

  • A personal vehicle

  • Tools used for work

  • Clothing

  • Food

  • Health aids

  • Any equity in your home (also called the homestead exemption)

The purpose of exemptions is to allow the filer to keep property that provides for a basic standard of living. Exemptions also prevent a filer from having to start from scratch after they’re done with bankruptcy.

Many states let bankruptcy filers choose between exemptions provided by the federal Bankruptcy Code or state law. California doesn’t do this, so it’s an “opt out” state. Instead, California filers must rely on exemptions provided under California law. The good news is that many of these exemptions are more protective or generous than federal bankruptcy exemptions. 

California Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost

Many products and services cost more in California and bankruptcy legal assistance is no exception. Most bankruptcy lawyers charge a flat fee for Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases. But this flat fee may be more or less depending on the case’s complexity. 

In California, you can expect to pay $1,200 to $1,850 to have an attorney represent you in your bankruptcy case. If you decide to hire an attorney, just remember that there are other factors to think about in addition to how much they charge.

If you’re not ready to handle your bankruptcy yourself, but can’t afford a lawyer, that’s okay. There are many nonprofit organizations that offer low-cost or free assistance or legal advice depending on the type of bankruptcy you want to file.

Bay Area Legal Aid
(510) 663-4755
1735 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA 94612

California Indian Legal Services, Inc.
(760) 746-8941
609 S. Escondido Boulevard, Escondido, CA 92025

California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
(510) 267-0762
1430 Franklin Street, Suite 103, Oakland, CA 94612

Central California Legal Services
(559) 570-1200
2115 Kern Street, Suite 1, Fresno, CA 93721

Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc.
(951) 368-2530
1040 Iowa Avenue, Suite 109, Riverside, CA 92507-2106

Nationwide Service (NYC Office)

California Court Locations

Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse

Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse
2500 Tulare Street Fresno, CA 93721

Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse

Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse
501 I Street Sacramento, CA 95814

1200 I Street

1200 I Street
1200 I Street Modesto, CA 95354

Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and Courthouse

Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and Courthouse
255 East Temple Street Los Angeles, CA 90012

Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse

Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse
411 West Fourth Street Santa Ana, CA 92701

3420 Twelfth Street

3420 Twelfth Street
3420 Twelfth Street Riverside, CA 92501

Jacob Weinberger United States Courthouse

Jacob Weinberger United States Courthouse
325 West F Street San Diego, CA 92101

Phillip Burton United States Courthouse

Phillip Burton United States Courthouse
450 Golden Gate Avenue San Francisco, CA 94102

Oakland City Center

Oakland City Center
1300 Clay Street Oakland, CA 94612

Robert F. Peckham Federal Building and United States Courthouse

Robert F. Peckham Federal Building and United States Courthouse
280 South First Street San Jose, CA 95113

Warner Center

Warner Center
21041 Burbank Boulevard Woodland Hills, CA 91367

California Judges

California Bankruptcy Judges
DistrictJudge Name
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Alan M. Ahart
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Theodor C. Albert
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Martin R. Barash
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Neil W. Bason
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Catherine E. Bauer
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Sheri Bluebond
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Julia W. Brand
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Peter H. Carroll
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Scott C. Clarkson
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Thomas B. Donovan
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Mark D. Houle
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Wayne Johnson
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Victoria S. Kaufman
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Sandra R. Klein
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Robert N. Kwan
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Geraldine Mund
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Robin L. Riblet
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Ernest M. Robles
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Barry Russell
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Deborah J. Saltzman
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Erithe A. Smith
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Maureen A. Tighe
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Mark S. Wallace
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Scott H. Yun
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Gregg W. Zive
Central District of CaliforniaHon. Vincent P. Zurzolo
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. Ronald H. Sargis
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. Christopher Klein
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. Michael S. McManus
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. Robert S. Bardwil
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. Fredrick E. Clement
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. Christopher D. Jaime
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. René Lastreto II
Eastern District of CaliforniaHon. Philip H. Brandt
Northern District of CaliforniaHon. Roger L. Efremsky
Northern District of CaliforniaHon. Hannah L. Blumenstiel
Northern District of CaliforniaHon. M. Elaine Hammond
Northern District of CaliforniaHon. Stephen Johnson
Northern District of CaliforniaHon. William Lafferty
Northern District of CaliforniaHon. Dennis Montali
Northern District of CaliforniaHon. Charles Novack
Southern District of CaliforniaHon. Louise D. Adler
Southern District of CaliforniaHon. Christopher B. Latham
Southern District of CaliforniaHon. Margaret M. Mann
Southern District of CaliforniaHon. Laura S. Taylor

California Trustees

California Trustees
TrusteeContact Info
Karl T. Anderson
(760) 778-4889
Wesley H.
(626) 395-7576
Lynda T. Bui
(949) 340-3400
Thomas H. Casey
Arturo M. Cisneros
(951) 328-3124
Charles W.
(657) 218-4800
Carolyn Anne Dye90010-1998
Howard Marc Ehrenberg
Jeremy W. Faith
(818) 705-2777
Todd A. Frealy
(951) 784-4122
Jeffrey I. Golden
Amy L. Goldman
Rosendo Gonzalez
David M. Goodrich
(714) 966-1000
David Keith Gottlieb
(818) 539-7720
Howard B. Grobstein
(951) 234-0951
Weneta M. A. Kosmala
Brad D. Krasnoff
(310) 277-0077
Heide C. Kurtz
Sam S. Leslie
(213) 368-5000
Richard A. Marshack
Peter J. Mastan
(213) 335-7738
Sandra K. McBeth
(805) 464-2959
John J. Menchaca
Elissa D. Miller
(213) 626-2311
Jerry Namba
Karen S. Naylor
(949) 748-7936
John P. Pringle
Jason M. Rund
(310) 640-1200
David Seror
(818) 827-9200
Larry D.
(951) 686-6300
(949) 336-1895
Diane C. Weil
(818) 946-1270
Robert S. Whitmore
Edward M. Wolkowitz
Timothy J. Yoo
(310) 229-3361
Nancy J. Zamora
(213) 488-9411
Sheri L.
Michael P.
Irma C.
(559) 221-2233
Gary R.
Peter L.
(559) 464-5295
Alan S.
(916) 449-3949
J. Michael
Kimberly J.
(916) 635-1939
Michael D.
Eric J.
(209) 887-3585
Randell Parker
Geoffrey M.
(916) 288-8365
James E.
Susan K.
(916) 833-2936
Henry M.
Jeffrey M.
Douglas M.
(916) 358-9345
(408) 641-1327
Lois I.
(510) 452-6498
Linda S.
(707) 575-6112
Frode "Fred" S.
(650) 386-5634
Timothy W.
(707) 874-2066
Janina M.
(707) 569-9508
Doris A.
(831) 600-8093
Michael G.
(415) 504-1926
Sarah L.
(510) 485-0740
Paul J. Mansdorf
E. Lynn
(415) 569-4390
Marlene G.
(925) 482-8982
Leonard J.
(619) 906-5593
Christopher R.
(619) 255-1529
Gerald Holt
(619) 400-9997
Leslie T.
James L.
Ronald E.
(858) 564-9310

Written By:

Attorney Andrea Wimmer


Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income families who cannot afford lawyers file bankruptcy for free, using an online web app. Our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have world-class funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and leading foundations. It's one of the greatest civil rights injustices of our time that low-income families can't access their basic rights when they can't afford to pay for help. Combining direct services and advocacy, we're fighting this injustice.

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