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How To File Bankruptcy for Free in California Without a Lawyer

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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 September 28, 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

Filing personal bankruptcy (Chapter 7 or Chapter 13) can put a stop to wage garnishment and debt collection calls. Plus, Chapter 7 usually only takes a few months. To explain how this process works in California, we created the following guide. 

How To File Bankruptcy for Free in California (Without a Lawyer)

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 you're filing Chapter 7 and 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 at some point during the 180 days before you file your bankruptcy case in 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 in California are the same forms used in across 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 (or Apply for a Fee Waiver)

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: You can apply 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.

If you choose to represent yourself in your bankruptcy matter you will usually file your bankruptcy forms in person or by mail. This means you must print out hard copies of your 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”)

  • Print your forms one-sided

If possible, print out two complete 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, you can file by mail or in person. You can go yourself or have someone else drop off your forms for you.

If you are filing your bankruptcy petition in the Central, Southern, or Eastern District of California, you can electronically file some or all of your bankruptcy forms. 

Mail Documents to Your Trustee

Completing and filing your bankruptcy petition is the hardest part of the bankruptcy process. 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 if you have non-exempt property that is sold. (This is rare in Chapter 7 cases.)

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 a bankruptcy discharge, you need to take a second financial course that covers personal financial management topics. Many organizations offer this class, but you’ll need to complete it from an approved provider.

You have some flexibility around when you schedule this course, 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.

Once your class is done, you’ll receive a certificate of completion. Some course providers file the certificate with the court for you, but others have you do it yourself.

Attend Your 341 Meeting of Creditors

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, many courts continue to hold these meetings virtually (a practice started during the 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.

Figure Out What You Want To Do With Your Car (if You Have One)

The fate of your car during and after bankruptcy will largely depend on whether you want to keep it and how much it’s worth. Generally speaking, California's bankruptcy exemptions allow most people to keep their car during bankruptcy.

If you are leasing the vehicle 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 Intention. 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 you own your vehicle and it's 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. In this case, the equity you have in the car must be less than the available exemption.

If you're still paying on a car loan, but the car is worth less than what you owe on it — the car loan is “underwater” — then you can surrender it if you don’t want it anymore. When you surrender the vehicle, you get rid of car itself and the outstanding balance on the car loan. 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 purchasing 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 they'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. If your income fluctuates each month (for example, it 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 2024
Household SizeMonthly IncomeAnnual Income

Data on Poverty levels for California

California Fee Waiver Eligibility for Cases Filed In 2024

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 district where you file your petition. California has four districts: Eastern, Central, Northern, and Southern. 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 district you file your case in is determined by the county you live 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 file your bankruptcy documents and how to pay your filing fees.

Central District of California Requirements

The Central District, which includes Los Angeles, is the most accommodating of the four California Districts when it comes to filing bankruptcy. 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.

You must pay your filing fees with 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 pay your filing fee in full.

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 online with the Debtor Drop Box.

To pay your filing fee, you can use cash (exact change only), cashier’s check, or money order. If you want 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 — by mail or in person at one of the court’s locations. And if you want to pay any filing fees, you can only do so by cashier’s check or money order. You may be able to pay your filing fee in installments, but you must 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 mail or in person in the Southern District. The court’s primary location is San Diego. If you've yet to prepare your Chapter 7 forms and you're filing without an attorney, you can also use the Electronic Self-Representation (eSR) online tool. This allows you to find some forms online, but others 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)

Exemptions help ensure that you get to keep property that provides for a basic standard of living. They're also in place to prevent a bankruptcy filers from having to start from scratch after their case is complete.

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 use exemptions provided under California law. The good news is that many of these exemptions are more protective or generous than federal bankruptcy exemptions. 

What Does a Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost in California?

Many products and services cost more in California than in other states, and bankruptcy legal assistance is no exception. Most bankruptcy lawyers charge a flat fee for Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases. The fee often varies based 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, you'll want to consider the cost, but also consider other factors that will affect your experience.

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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