How to File Bankruptcy for Free in California (2019 Guide)
How to File Bankruptcy in California for Free
Chapter 7 bankruptcy is an important debt relief tool for Americans in severe financial distress from losing a job, getting injured, or getting divorced.
A good bankruptcy lawyer is a great resource whenever considering filing for Chapter 7. Unfortunately, many low-income California residents who need a fresh start cannot afford the $1,500 that it often costs to hire an attorney. Our nonprofit Upsolve was founded in Harvard Law’s Access to Justice Lab to help low-income Americans who need a fresh start.
If you need a fresh start in California and cannot afford a lawyer, this article is for you.
We will first explain the pros and cons of filing. If Chapter 7 is a good fit, we will give you a 10 step checklist to follow for filing in California.
Whether or not you choose to file Chapter 7 using our free nonprofit Upsolve.org, this article will leave you much better prepared to obtain a better financial future.
First, you need to know whether you need to file for bankruptcy. You may not need to file bankruptcy. Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a very effective tool for erasing credit card bills and medical debt. But you can only be use it once every 8 years.
So it often doesn’t make sense to file unless you know that you’re going to be able to discharge a significant amount of debt, at least $10,000. And you’re confident that all of our property is protected by exemptions. If not, you should diligently explore alternatives to Chapter 7.
If you prefer to get help of an attorney in your bankruptcy case, you can find listings of local bankruptcy lawyers from the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. A good bankruptcy lawyer should be able to advise you on how to maximize the economic value of your bankruptcy filing. On the other hand, if you simply have too much credit card debt you may be able to do it yourself. And if are very low-income, you may also be able to get help from a legal aid organization in your area.
1. Collect Your Documents
Before getting started, you need to collect all your financial documents so you understand the current state of your finances.
First, you need to obtain a copy of your credit report from Experian, Transunion, or Equifax to learn how much debt you owe. You can obtain your credit report from all three at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Some of your debts may not be listed on your credit report, like medical bills, personal loans, or tax debts. Make a list of any missing debts as you will need to list all of them on your bankruptcy forms.
In addition to your credit report, you will need the following documents:
- Tax returns for the past 2 years
- Pay stubs or other proof of your income for the last 6 months
- Recent bank account statements
- Recent retirement account or brokerage account statements
- Valuations or appraisals of any real estate you own
- Copies of vehicle registration
- Any Other Documents relating to Your Assets, Debts, or Income.
Having these documents next to you will help you get an accurate picture of your finances.
2. Take Credit Counseling
Credit counseling courses like this one give you an idea of whether you really need to file for bankruptcy or whether you could get back on your feet through some type of informal repayment plan.
In many cases, this exercise only confirms that you don't have any feasible options for addressing the debt other than bankruptcy. But it’s a valuable exercise even still.
The course takes at least one hour and can be completed online or by telephone. The course fee ranges from $10 to $50, depending on the provider. But if your household income is under 150% of the federal poverty line, you should be able to get this fee waived.
Once you complete the course, you will receive a certificate of completion. Keep it. You will need to give a copy of this certificate to the court when you file your bankruptcy forms in Step 5
3. Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
This is the most time-consuming step. The Bankruptcy Forms include 23 seperate forms totalling roughly 70 pages. The forms ask you about everything you make, spend, own and owe.
If you download and print out the forms online, you will have to enter repetitive data and make lots of math calculations.
So if you’re not able to hire a lawyer, you probably want to buy a bankruptcy software program or use Upsolve.org’s free online bankruptcy service.
4. Get Your Filing Fee
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy normally requires a $335 filing fee, which must be paid to the court in person in exact change.
If you don’t have the funds to pay the filing fee now, you can complete a special form, asking to pay your fee in installments. You can ask to pay the $335 fee in up to 4 payments within 120 days of your filing date.
If paying in installments isn’t even possible, you can submit another form to apply for a fee waiver. To qualify, your total household income must be under 150% of the federal poverty line. The court will decide whether you get a fee waiver after you file. If your application is denied, the court will order you to pay the fee in installments.
5. Print Your Bankruptcy Forms and Bring them To Court
Once you have prepared your bankruptcy forms, you will need to print them out for the court. You must print them single-sided. The court won’t accept double-sided pages.
You will also need to sign the forms once they are printed.
Most bankruptcy courts require just 1 copy of the petition, but some courts like the bankruptcy court in Manhattan require 4 copies. So call your local bankruptcy court to find out how many copies you will need to bring.
6. Go to Court to File Your Forms
It’s now time to bring the bankruptcy forms and your Course 1 certificate to the court to file them.
The court is open from Monday through Friday excluding federal holidays during normal business hours. Call ahead of time if you want to know when it is open. If you have questions about how to get to the court, you can call the court staff.
Once you enter the doors of the court house, you will be greeted by security guards, who will ask you to pass through a metal detector. Once you pass security, you will go to the clerk’s office. And you will tell the clerk, “I’d like to file for bankruptcy.” You’ll hand the Clerk your bankruptcy forms, along with your filing fee of $335 in exact change. Or if you are filing a fee waiver or installment plan, you hand the clerk the fee waiver form or fee installment form instead of the cash.
The clerk will take your bankruptcy forms and ask you to take a seat in their waiting room. It shouldn’t take long for the clerk long to process your case - about 15 minutes. During this time, they will scan your forms and upload them to the court’s online filing system.
As soon as they are done processing your forms, the clerk will call you back to the front desk. The clerk will give you:
- Your bankruptcy case number
- The name of your bankruptcy trustee
- The date, time, and location of your meeting with your trustee (this is called the “Meeting of Creditors” or “341 Meeting”)
At this point, your case has been filed! Congrats! Something very important has just happened. Your debt collectors are now legally prohibited by bankruptcy’s Automatic Stay from contacting you to collect your debts, from garnishing your wages, or foreclosing on your property. This lasts until the end of your bankruptcy case, at which point most, if not all, of your debts will hopefully be erased.
But you’re not home yet - there are other steps you need to complete to get a fresh start!
7. Mail Documents to Your Trustee
The bankruptcy trustee is a official appointed by the court to oversee your case. Pay attention to mail you receive from the trustee after filing. The trustee will send you a letter asking you to mail them certain financial documents, like tax returns, pay stubs, and bank statements. If you don’t mail the the trustee the requested documents, you will not get a discharge of your debts.
8. Take Bankruptcy Course 2
As soon as possible after filing your bankruptcy forms, you also need to take your second mandatory bankruptcy course. The second course, called the Debtor Education Course, is similar to the credit counseling course. But it is designed to educate you on making smart financial choices so that you won’t have to seek bankruptcy relief in the future.
Course 2 can be completed online or by phone and takes at least 2 hours to complete. The fee for the course ranges from $10-$50. But the fee may be waived if your household income is under 150% of the federal poverty level.
If you don’t complete the course, you will not obtain a fresh start. So make sure to complete the course as soon as possible after filing.
9. Attend Your 341 Meeting
Finally, you need to attend your 341 meeting. The location of the 341 Meeting depends on where you filed your bankruptcy case.
Usually, the 341 Meeting takes place about a month after filing. The main purpose of the 341 Meeting is to ensure that you are not hiding any expensive assets that should be distributed to creditors. If your papers were done correctly, you should have no trouble answering the questions. Most meetings last only about 5 minutes. Creditors are allowed to attend, although they almost never do.
Important note: You must bring your government-issued ID and social security card to the meeting. If you don’t bring them, the trustee cannot verify your identity and the meeting cannot go forward. You should also bring a copy of your bankruptcy forms to the meeting, along with your last 60 days of pay stubs, your recent bank statements, and any other documents that your trustee has asked for.
In most cases, the trustee “closes” the case at the end of the meeting. In that case, unless something very unusual happens, you get a letter two months later from the Court stating that your debts have been discharged.
10. Optional - Dealing with Your Car
Finally, there’s an additional step in the bankruptcy process if you own a car with outstanding debt. If you want to surrender the car to the lender, the lender will file a motion with the bankruptcy court to ask permission to retake the car.
Alternatively, you might choose to keep the car by “reaffirming” the car debt and continuing making payments on it. In that case, your lender would normally send you a reaffirmation agreement that you would need to sign and return within 45 days after your 341 meeting. The lender would then file the signed reaffirmation agreement with the court for approval. If the judge approves your reaffirmation, you would get a notice of reaffirmation along with your discharge. And you would be able to keep the vehicle as long as you stay current on your payments.
Finally, you may also have chosen “redeem” the car by buying it back from the lender in one lump sum, usually obtained from a lender like 722redemption.com. If you chose redemption, you will be required to filing a motion in the bankruptcy case.
On to a fresh start!
Filing for bankruptcy in California takes some careful preparation. Hiring a good bankruptcy attorney is the most convenient way to file. But if you cannot afford one and you need a fresh start, see if you qualify for Upsolve’s free nonprofit bankruptcy service here. Here’s what one of our users had to say about
You’ll be glad you did!
The Means Test is the document used to determine if a debtor exceeds the Chapter 7 income limits. Here are some numbers that can help you quickly determine your eligibility. If you want to learn more about the Means Test, read this article.
Median income levels for California
|Household Size||Income Monthly|
Poverty levels for California
|Household Size||Income Monthly||Fee Waiver Eligible (150%)|
Bankruptcy Forms for California
There are about 23 federal forms involved in a bankruptcy filing, not including the local and optional forms that you might need for your case.
The Petition is a series of different forms that outline your financial resources and obligations. It is how you show that you are unable to make ends meet. At filing, you will need to present a few other documents including your certificate of financial counseling, your redacted tax returns and pay stubs.
For a comprehensive overview of the voluntary petition, A/B, C, D, E/F, G, H, I, J, or other forms read the California guide for bankruptcy forms. Below are details for state and local unique forms.
If you feeel overwhelmed or want assistance, check out Upsolve's free bankruptcy assistance and see if you’re a good fit for our service. We have a free service that makes the bankruptcy process super simple for residents of California.
Northern District of California Requirements
The Northern District of California has no special forms.
- You will need one copy of your forms.
Eastern District of California Requirements
The Eastern District of California has no special forms.
- You will need one copy of your forms.
Southern District of California Requirements
The Southern District of California has no special forms.
- You will need one copy of your forms.
Central District of California Requirements
The Central District of California has no special forms.
- You will need one copy of your forms.
Bankruptcy exemptions protect the equity in certain property. Property that is exempt cannot be used to pay debts. Therefore, a debtor is permitted to keep all exempt property. If you have more questions about exemptions, check out this article.
For expanded descriptions, go to the exemption page for California.
California Court Locations
Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and Courthouse
255 East Temple Street Los Angeles, CA 90012
21041 Burbank Boulevard Woodland Hills, CA 91367
Ronald Reagan Federal Building and United States Courthouse
411 West Fourth Street Santa Ana, CA 92701
3420 Twelfth Street
3420 Twelfth Street Riverside, CA 92501
Jacob Weinberger United States Courthouse
325 West F Street San Diego, CA 92101
Robert F. Peckham Federal Building and United States Courthouse
280 South First Street San Jose, CA 95113
Oakland City Center
1300 Clay Street Oakland, CA 94612
Phillip Burton United States Courthouse
450 Golden Gate Avenue San Francisco, CA 94102
Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse
2500 Tulare Street Fresno, CA 93721
1200 I Street
1200 I Street Modesto, CA 95354
Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse
501 I Street Sacramento, CA 95814
|Central District of California||Hon. Alan M. Ahart|
|Central District of California||Hon. Theodor C. Albert|
|Central District of California||Hon. Martin R. Barash|
|Central District of California||Hon. Neil W. Bason|
|Central District of California||Hon. Catherine E. Bauer|
|Central District of California||Hon. Sheri Bluebond|
|Central District of California||Hon. Julia W. Brand|
|Central District of California||Hon. Peter H. Carroll|
|Central District of California||Hon. Scott C. Clarkson|
|Central District of California||Hon. Thomas B. Donovan|
|Central District of California||Hon. Mark D. Houle|
|Central District of California||Hon. Wayne Johnson|
|Central District of California||Hon. Victoria S. Kaufman|
|Central District of California||Hon. Sandra R. Klein|
|Central District of California||Hon. Robert N. Kwan|
|Central District of California||Hon. Geraldine Mund|
|Central District of California||Hon. Robin L. Riblet|
|Central District of California||Hon. Ernest M. Robles|
|Central District of California||Hon. Barry Russell|
|Central District of California||Hon. Deborah J. Saltzman|
|Central District of California||Hon. Erithe A. Smith|
|Central District of California||Hon. Maureen A. Tighe|
|Central District of California||Hon. Mark S. Wallace|
|Central District of California||Hon. Scott H. Yun|
|Central District of California||Hon. Gregg W. Zive|
|Central District of California||Hon. Vincent P. Zurzolo|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. Ronald H. Sargis|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. Christopher Klein|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. Michael S. McManus|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. Robert S. Bardwil|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. Fredrick E. Clement|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. Christopher D. Jaime|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. René Lastreto II|
|Eastern District of California||Hon. Philip H. Brandt|
|Northern District of California||Hon. Roger L. Efremsky|
|Northern District of California||Hon. Hannah L. Blumenstiel|
|Northern District of California||Hon. M. Elaine Hammond|
|Northern District of California||Hon. Stephen Johnson|
|Northern District of California||Hon. William Lafferty|
|Northern District of California||Hon. Dennis Montali|
|Northern District of California||Hon. Charles Novack|
|Southern District of California||Hon. Louise D. Adler|
|Southern District of California||Hon. Christopher B. Latham|
|Southern District of California||Hon. Margaret M. Mann|
|Southern District of California||Hon. Laura S. Taylor|
Karl T. Anderson
Wesley H. Avery
Lynda T. Bui
Thomas H. Casey
Arturo M. Cisneros
Charles W. Daff
Howard Marc Ehrenberg
Jeremy W. Faith
Todd A. Frealy
Jeffrey I. Golden
Amy L. Goldman
David M. Goodrich
David Keith Gottlieb
Howard B. Grobstein
Weneta M. A. Kosmala
Brad D. Krasnoff
Heide C. Kurtz
Sam S. Leslie
Richard A. Marshack
Peter J. Mastan
Sandra K. McBeth
John J. Menchaca
Elissa D. Miller
Karen S. Naylor
John P. Pringle
Jason M. Rund
Larry D. Simons
Steven M. Speier
Diane C. Weil
Robert S. Whitmore
Edward M. Wolkowitz
Timothy J. Yoo
Nancy J. Zamora
Sheri L. Carello
Michael P. Dacquisto
Irma C. Edmonds
Gary R. Farrar
Peter L. Fear
Alan S. Fukushima
J. Michael Hopper
Kimberly J. Husted
Michael D. McGranahan
Eric J. Nims
Geoffrey M. Richards
James E. Salven
Susan K. Smith
Henry M. Spacone
Jeffrey M. Vetter
Douglas M. Whatley
Lois I. Brady
Linda S. Green
Frode "Fred" S. Hjelmeset
Timothy W. Hoffman
Janina M. Hoskins
Doris A. Kaelin
Michael G. Kasolas
Sarah L. Little
Paul J. Mansdorf
E. Lynn Schoenmann
Marlene G. Weinstein
Leonard J. Ackerman
Christopher R. Barclay
Gerald Holt Davis
Leslie T. Gladstone
James L. Kennedy
Ronald E. Stadtmueller
Legal Aid Organizations
Bay Area Legal Aid
1735 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland CA 94612
California Indian Legal Services, Inc.
609 S. Escondido Boulevard, Escondido CA 92025
California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
1430 Franklin Street, Suite 103, Oakland CA 94612
Central California Legal Services
2115 Kern Street, Suite 1, Fresno CA 93721
Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc.
1040 Iowa Avenue, Suite 109, Riverside CA 92507-2106
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
California Bankruptcy Attorney Cost
We estimate that attorneys in California cost $1,200 – $1,850. We started Upsolve realizing this was too expensive for Americans, and wanted to give another option with Upsolve's free service. If you are interested, take our screener to see if you qualify for this free service.