Live in California and need help filing for bankruptcy and can't afford an attorney? Our legal aid nonprofit guides California debtors through the chapter 7 process.
Living in California comes with a lot of benefits, but it also often comes with a high cost of living, which makes slipping into debt really easy. After all, if most of your income is likely spent on just housing and transportation expenses, not much is left for any other expenses. Filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California can help you wipe your slate clean and get a fresh start. Whether you are an Oscar-winner like Kim Basinger, who filed in 1993, or just a regular Californian trying to make a living in the Golden State, it's important to remember that bankruptcy options are available for everyone. It doesn't matter how much money you make if it is not enough to meet your basic monthly needs.
How to File Bankruptcy in California for Free
If you are looking for guidance on how to file bankruptcy in California, you should know that you may be able to do so completely for free. If you think you will be filing Chapter 7 in California, you’ll have access to a wide network of legal aid organizations that help folks file bankruptcy without an attorney (“pro se”). Upsolve may also be able to help you navigate the California bankruptcy laws. The bankruptcy court may even agree to waive your court filing fee, or at least allow you pay it in installments after your bankruptcy case is filed and creditors can no longer garnish your wages.
Collect Your California Bankruptcy Documents
There is a little bit of legwork involved that you want to complete - if possible well before filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California. Even though a majority of the information you are required to give to the court will be on the national bankruptcy forms that you file with your bankruptcy petition, there are some additional documents you will need to have handy. To correctly calculate your income, you will need to collect your paycheck stubs from the last 6 months. You will also need to provide a listing of all your creditors to the court when filing bankruptcy in California. You can get a free credit report to help with this but you should also review any collection notices you are getting in the mail. That way you can make sure you capture even those creditors that are not showing up on your credit report.
Take Credit Counseling
Before your California bankruptcy can be filed with the court, you have to complete a credit counseling course from an approved provider. You do not have to go anywhere to do so as most providers offer an online or telephone option. It will be useful to have your bankruptcy documents handy when you are going through the course, so you can refer to them during the course if needed. There is a small cost associated with taking the course, but several non-profit companies are approved to offer the course in California. The Academy of Financial Literacy, for example, offers the course for $17.95, and Start Fresh Today has options to complete the course either online for $24.99 or over the phone for $34.99. As long as the course provider has been approved, it doesn't matter who you choose, though if you are being quoted $50 or more for the course, you can probably save a little bit of money by choosing one of the more affordable non-profit options. The bottom line is, if you are filing bankruptcy in California, you have to take credit counseling unless one of the very narrow exceptions applies.
Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
When filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California, the bankruptcy forms are the same for everyone that files in the same district as you. Some of the national forms are pretty self-explanatory and easy to complete by yourself (a listing of your monthly expenses, for example), while others can be a little more technical (such as the schedule listing your exemptions). Since you are the one signing the bankruptcy forms before they are filed with the court, it's important for you to carefully review everything. If you are using an attorney, they will ask you all the questions that they need answered in order to complete the bankruptcy forms based on California bankruptcy laws. If you are working with Upsolve, we will take you through the process to make sure everything is in order and you know what to expect after filing bankruptcy in California. If you live in California's Eastern, Northern, or Southern districts you can learn more about how to file bankruptcy in California by visiting the court's self-help center in San Diego, the bankruptcy self-help desk in Sacramento, or by taking advantage of the various other pro bono services available. Folks that file without an attorney (“pro se”) in California's Central District, are also given the option of completing their forms using an online tool made available on the court's website.
Get Your Filing Fee
If your income is less than 150% or the federal poverty guidelines, you may be able to get the filing fee waived by the court. In order to accomplish this, be prepared to file an application to have the filing fee waived when filing Chapter 7 in California. If you do not meet the requirements for a fee waiver, but are unable to pay the full $335 all at once at the time of your filing, you can apply to pay the court filing fee in installments instead. If you are able to pay the court filing fee in full, you should bring it with you when you go to the courthouse to file all of your bankruptcy documents. California bankruptcy courts generally accept US Postal Service money orders, cashier's checks from an acceptable financial institution (this probably means major bank), or cash (exact change only). If you are mailing your documents to the court to file your California bankruptcy, do not send cash. You cannot use a credit card, debit card, or personal check to make this payment when filing bankruptcy in California.
Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
Once you have (1) taken credit counseling, (2) collected your documents and completed your California bankruptcy forms, and (3) made a game plan on how to handle the court filing fee, you are ready to officially begin the process of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California. If you have completed all documents on your computer, print everything out twice so you have a copy for your own files. If you are filing without any help, keep in mind that there are a lot of different forms that make up the full filing package, so having a checklist will come in handy. Also, make sure you are keeping track while printing your California bankruptcy forms, so you end up with two complete sets, and don't have to figure out what's what when you are at the courthouse.
Go to Court to File Your Forms
This is the day when all of the hard work you have put in so far in collecting your California bankruptcy documents, completing your California bankruptcy forms, and completing your credit counseling class pays off in the form of the automatic stay that goes into effect and protects you from your creditors the second you are done filing bankruptcy in California. While you can file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California by mail, it is better to actually go the court in person to do so. That ensures everything gets done and you can walk out with your case number in hand. California has 4 federal districts, which means there are four bankruptcy districts. You can find out which district your case needs to be filed in using this tool provided by the Eastern District of California. Keep in mind that the court is a federal building, so you will be required to pass through security on your way in. This also means that you shouldn't plan on using a federal holiday to file bankruptcy in California, because the court will be closed on federal holidays.
Mail Documents to Your Trustee
Once your California bankruptcy is filed with the court, most of the heavy lifting is done. The court will assign a trustee to handle your Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The trustee's job is to make sure all of the information provided to the court is accurate. The trustee is entitled to a copy of your most recent federal income tax return before the 341 meeting takes place. They may send you a letter asking you to send them bank statements, paycheck stubs and similar documents as well. Since filing bankruptcy in California imposes a duty to cooperate with your trustee, it is important that you pay close attention to any such requests you may receive from your trustee. Even though trustees are not judges, they have a lot of power as they are charged with ensuring that everyone is treated fairly in accordance with California bankruptcy laws.
Take Bankruptcy Course 2
The Bankruptcy Code requires you to take a second counseling course to learn basics on financial management. Everyone has to take this course even if there is nothing you could have done differently to avoid a California bankruptcy. It is important to take this course from one of the approved providers, and while you don't have to get it done before your 341 meeting, you certainly can. Once you have completed bankruptcy course 2, your certificate of completion will need to be filed with the bankruptcy court. Make sure you ask your course provider whether they will file the certificate in your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case for you, or if you are required to do it yourself. If you do not complete this course, you will not receive your discharge; however, the case administration continues. In other words, if you do not take the second bankruptcy class, your trustee may end up liquidating your non-exempt assets regardless before asking the court to close your case without a discharge. Since the discharge is the main benefit of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California, it is important not to forget this step.
Attend Your 341 Meeting
In most cases,the 341 meeting, or "meeting of creditors," is the only time a person filing bankruptcy in California will have to appear in court. You will not end up meeting with a judge or other court official on this day. Instead, the trustee that is handling your case will meet with you to ask you some standard questions about your case. While it's not required, there are some easy tips and tricks on how to prepare for your 341 meeting. Other than showing up, the most important part of the 341 meeting for your California bankruptcy is that you bring a valid picture ID and proof of social security number. The trustee will only accept certain forms of identification, so if you do not know where your actual social security card is, make sure to check whether you have an acceptable alternate. Fun fact: While your passport can serve as your picture ID, it cannot be used to verify your social security number (because it does not actually contain your social security number).
Dealing with Your Car
Filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California is a great way to get out from under a car loan with a balance that is much higher than what the car is worth and/or with payments that you cannot reasonably make. Surrendering your vehicle, along with filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, allows you to walk away from the car loan without worrying about how much the car itself will fetch at auction. Your personal liability on the car loan will be discharged. Alternatively, if you have the ability to pay the value of your vehicle in a lump sum, you can basically purchase the car for its current value from the bank and the discharge absolves your responsibility on any remaining balance. Finally, if the car, the car loan, and the monthly payments (and other loan terms) work for you, you can also keep everything the same by entering into a reaffirmation agreement with the bank to let them know that you will continue to make payments on the loan. By entering into a reaffirmation agreement, you are agreeing to remain responsible for the balance of the car. If you own your car free and clear (or it is worth more than what you owe), make sure to claim the appropriate exemption under California bankruptcy laws to protect this value.
California Bankruptcy Means Test
When Congress amended the Bankruptcy Code in 2005, it created the “means test” to make sure folks do not abuse the United States bankruptcy system. The California means test for bankruptcy starts by comparing your household income to the median household income of a household of the same size in the Golden State. If you are not a regular wage earner, and instead get paid on commissions or per job assignment, it is important to remember that this test is based on the 6 months prior to filing a California bankruptcy, not including the month you file in. So, if you are filing in the month of July, you will have to provide information about your income between January and June. Especially if you are busier/earning more in some months than others, this limited window may make it look like your income is too high, even though it really is not when reviewed on an annual basis. This is why planning ahead is important and completing a Chapter 7 online means test early on in the process may be helpful to determine what the proper timing for filing your case would be.
Data on Median income levels for California
California Median Income Standards for Means Test for Cases Filed On or After May 1, 2020
|Household Size||Monthly Income||Annual Income|
Data on Poverty levels for California
California Fee Waiver Eligibility for Cases Filed On or After May 1, 2020
Eligible for fee waiver when under 150% the poverty level.
|Household Size||State Poverty Level||Fee Waiver Limit (150% PL)|
California Bankruptcy Forms
California bankruptcy forms can be broken down into two categories: (1) forms that everyone who files Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California and everywhere else in the U.S. must complete, and (2) local forms that vary for every district in California. Online bankruptcy forms are available from each one of the districts in the state. Your first course of action is to find out which district your case will need to be filed in. Then, utilize the resources provided by that district to get a copy of the California Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms you will need.
Central District of California Requirements
The Central District of California is home to the largest bankruptcy court in the United States and has court locations in Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Ana, Santa Barbara and in the San Fernando Valley. It stretches from the Central Coast area across the entire state to the state border. Folks filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California who live in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo will have their case heard in the Central District. One of the required documents in this district is a declaration regarding the income you received in the 60 day period before filing your California bankruptcy case. All required forms and their instructions are made available for free on the Central District of California court's website.
Eastern District of California Requirements
The Eastern District of California is broken into three divisions, Sacramento, Modesto, and Fresno, and covers 34 counties reaching from the Oregon border in the north, down to Bakersfield in the south, and from the coastal mountains in the west, to the Nevada border in the east. All the documents needed to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California within this district can be downloaded as a single packet from the Eastern District of California court's website; instructions are available as a separate document. Finally, the Eastern District has a very useful and free online tool to create your master creditor mailing list in a format the California bankruptcy court will accept.
Northern District of California Requirements
The Northern District was established in 1850, only two weeks after California became a state and today encompasses fifteen counties, namely Alameda, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma counties. The Northern District has a variety of district-specific forms. There are also specific local forms depending on which of the four divisions is handling your California bankruptcy case. One of the documents that is identical across the entire district is the statement regarding pay advices that you are required to send to your trustee. Note: The statement regarding pay advices is not filed with the court!
Southern District of California Requirements
This district covers the southernmost counties in California: San Diego County and Imperial County and houses a single bankruptcy court building in San Diego. The Southern District also holds 341 meetings in El Centro. Similar to the Eastern District, folks who file their Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California in the Southern District are provided with both instruction packets for free on the court's website. Make sure you pay special attention to the local form providing notice to individual debtors regarding the filing requirements in this district.
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California Bankruptcy Exemptions
Exemption laws determine what property you have that your trustee cannot touch. Californians can choose between two sets of exemption laws to protect their assets, one of which is limited to California bankruptcy cases only. In fact, if you either rent or have no equity in your home, you are able to protect assets worth up to $25,340.00 that you cannot protect outside of California. This means that filing a bankruptcy allows you to access protections from California bankruptcy laws that you cannot otherwise use to protect your property.
California Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost
Depending on your circumstances, having a lawyer help you with your California bankruptcy case may be a good investment. Even though the low end cost of a bankruptcy lawyer can be as high as $1,200 (and the upper end of the range is around $1,850), if you are married and filing with or without your spouse, or if you have an asset that does not obviously fit within one of the exemption schemes available to you, having a legal professional help could save you a lot of money. On the other hand, if you know that your assets are completely protected based on California bankruptcy laws, and your case seems simple enough to file on your own, you may be able to save yourself some money by filing without an attorney. If you choose to represent yourself, consider checking out Upsolve, a web-based bankruptcy filing app to help guide you through the process of filing for bankruptcy in California.
Attorney Cost Range: $1,200 – $1,850
California Legal Aid Organizations
Legal Aid in California can be another great resource for folks who can't afford a traditional private lawyer but don't feel comfortable navigating the process without one. There are a variety of organizations, non-profits, and other resources available to anyone looking to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California.
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 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
"I like that there are lawyers, paralegals, etc. out there that are willing to devote their time to helping people stuck in my type of situation, that can’t afford to file bankruptcy (seems like an oxymoron, huh?)."
California Bankruptcy Judges
|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. Averyemail@example.com|
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|David M. Goodrich|
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|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|
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|Elissa D. Miller|
|Karen S. Naylor|
|John P. Pringle|
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|Michael D. McGranahanfirstname.lastname@example.org|
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|Geoffrey M. Richards||GRTrustee@pacbell.net|
|James E. Salvenfirstname.lastname@example.org|
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|Henry M. Spaconefirstname.lastname@example.org|
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