When you are hit by a sudden financial shock and need a fresh start, you naturally ask - can I file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy online? The answer, while tricky, is “mostly, yes.” The Chapter 7 bankruptcy process involves (1) completing bankruptcy forms, (2) filing them with the bankruptcy court, and (3) attending a “341 meeting” with the official overseeing your case. That meeting is in person. But completing your forms and filing them can be done online in certain circumstances. In this article, we’ll explain the different options for filing for bankruptcy online and the pros and cons of each.
Written by Attorney John Coble.
Updated July 27, 2020
You live a lot of your life online. You do your taxes online with Turbotax and you diagnose your medical problems online with WebMD. So when you are hit by a sudden financial shock and need a fresh start, you naturally ask - can I file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy online? The answer, while tricky, is “mostly, yes.” The Chapter 7 bankruptcy process involves (1) completing bankruptcy forms, (2) filing them with the bankruptcy court, and (3) attending a “341 meeting” with the official overseeing your case. That meeting is in person. But completing your forms and filing them can be done online in certain circumstances. In this article, we’ll explain the different options for filing for bankruptcy online and the pros and cons of each.
The courts require law firms to file all bankruptcy forms and some mandatory documentation online. Most lawyers provide you with a questionnaire that you can complete at home. This is necessary because the attorney needs you to have time to carefully consider your answers and to provide the necessary documentation. Many law firms now have these forms online so you don't have to fill out the paper form, but instead, can use your computer, tablet, or phone. Some of these firms even allow you to upload the required documentation.
Bankruptcy law firms give you a free initial consultation. Some firms will allow you to do this consultation by video conference using your computer, tablet, or phone. These online capabilities are very helpful for those who would have to make a long drive to reach the attorney's office. Some attorneys will even meet online after-hours for those who can't get off work. It's important to find a qualified attorney that offers the features that work best for you.
Electronic Self Representation in Select Courts
In 2014, the Central District of California Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles became the first bankruptcy court to install electronic Self-Representation (eSR) software. eSR is a free online tool that allows users to prepare and submit Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms online. It is intended to help individuals when they have decided to file bankruptcy without an attorney. Unfortunately, as of 2020, only one other district, the Western District of Missouri Bankruptcy Court, has implemented eSR allowing you to file an online bankruptcy.
The District of Colorado has created its I-File system so you can file your bankruptcy online. This system doesn’t have the preparation capabilities that the eSR system does. As everyone knows, Colorado is a mountainous state. Having this system allows people who file their own bankruptcies to avoid some of the long trips, often on mountain roads, to the Bankruptcy Court. Online web apps like Upsolve can help you prepare your forms online before submitting them through I-File.
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Bankruptcy Petition Preparers
The Bankruptcy Code defines a bankruptcy petition preparer as a person, other than an attorney or an employee being supervised by an attorney who prepares a document for filing with the bankruptcy court for a fee. In simpler terms, the petition preparer is any non-attorney that isn’t connected with a law firm that prepares a bankruptcy petition for you and charges a fee for doing it. Upsolve is not a bankruptcy petition preparer. We provide you with an online web app to simplify the process of preparing your own bankruptcy forms for free.
Bankruptcy petition preparers are heavily regulated. Different courts have different rules limiting the amount a bankruptcy petition preparer can charge. The maximum fees are usually less than $250.00. Bankruptcy petition preparers may not offer legal advice under any condition. Some bankruptcy petition preparers have gotten into serious trouble for giving legal advice. The law restricts these petition preparers to being little more than typists. If you’re experiencing financial distress, why would you pay a typist to prepare your bankruptcy, when you can prepare your bankruptcy forms online for free through Upsolve’s free web app.
A final free option for filing online is Upsolve, a digital legal aid nonprofit for folks who cannot afford a bankruptcy lawyer. Upsolve is a nonprofit founded out of Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab with a mission of expanding access to low-income Americans who need a fresh start. Upsolve is funded by the federal government (the Legal Services Corporation), and leading philanthropists like Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google. Here is a video from our founders. Upsolve only helps low-income users who do not own real estate and want to file for Chapter 7. If you qualify, though, you can go to upsolve.org to create an account. As part of the process, you will take a credit counseling course to make sure bankruptcy is a good fit for you and there aren’t other methods for repaying your debt. You will also answer upload or take photos of financial documents like tax returns and pay stubs. And you will answer a number of questions about your income, expenses, assets, and debts. From your answers, Upsolve will create your bankruptcy forms which will be reviewed by an Upsolve attorney. The attorney will reach out with any questions. Then they will email you the forms with instructions on how to bring or mail them at your local bankruptcy court to file them. That’s the hardest part. But Upsolve’s website guides users through the rest of the process to getting a fresh start. Upsolve can be completed on a smartphone and is completely free.
Things You Can Do Online When Filing Bankruptcy, No Matter What
Whether you are filing your own bankruptcy or you’re using an attorney, there are many things that you can and should do online. Every person that files a bankruptcy case that includes mostly non-business debts has to complete a court-approved credit counseling course before filing. You are also required to take a debtor education course after filing but before your discharge. You can use this online tool provided by the United States Trustee to find a credit counseling agency that your court has approved to provide pre-filing credit counseling and this one to find an approved provider for the post-filing debtor education. Most of these agencies allow you to take their course online. Before deciding to file, you can also try an online Means Test calculator to get an idea of if you can file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
You can get a free copy of the official bankruptcy forms from the federal court system’s website. Local courts may have some additional forms for you to use. These forms are usually available on the local court’s website.
You can get your free credit reports online. These reports will not list all your debts. For example, medical debts that haven’t gone to collections often do not appear on a credit report. Credit reports do not mean you don’t have to look at your bills or remember debts that you may not have a bill for. It’s also important to get all three credit reports. Most debts reported will be on all three reports, but you will have some debts that show on one report, but not on another.
It’s critical that you get and read all notices from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. As with most things, you can do this online. Getting bankruptcy court notices online is better because you get the notices quicker and you never lose the notices. Many courts use the DeBN system which provides free notices to debtors who file the right form with the court. You can find out if your court provides this service by looking at the court’s website or calling the phone number for your court’s clerk’s office. Even if your court doesn’t provide DeBN, you can still use the same electronic bankruptcy noticing (EBN) system that an attorney would use. The difference in DeBN and EBN is that you get one free look at the notices on EBN, so you need to save any PDF image that you receive before closing it. With DeBN, you can look as many times as you want for free.
In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, the National Data Center is an essential online tool that you should use. This allows you to see what creditors have filed claims against you, who is getting paid what, confirm that your payments are current, and more. Another helpful online tool for Chapter 13 bankruptcy filers that some trustees’ offices provide, is the ability for the filers to make their Chapter 13 repayment plan payments by online check.
Things You Can’t Do Online When Filing Bankruptcy, No Matter What
Except for those lucky enough to live in the districts that allow eSR or Colorado with its I-File system, people filing their own bankruptcy case will have to file all their paperwork in person or by mail. Even in the eSR and I-File districts, you still have to pay your filing fees by mail or in person. Documents that you're required to send to the bankruptcy trustee must be sent by mail, unless the trustee specifically instructs you otherwise.
As of 2020, you must attend your meeting of creditors, also known as a 341 meeting, in person. It wouldn’t be surprising if, by 2030, this has changed to allow online conferences. You can’t get a bankruptcy discharge without attending this meeting.
You must attend court hearings, including reaffirmation hearings, in person. This will not change any time in the foreseeable future. In some courts, your bankruptcy judge may not be there in person. Some districts allow the judge to appear at select locations in outlying areas via video conference. Still, you must be at the assigned location in person. This will usually be in a courtroom. Also, some districts will allow an attorney to appear by telephone when there are extenuating circumstances.
These online tools make the process of preparing and filing your own bankruptcy much more convenient. These tools help to provide a more accurate bankruptcy filing. Though the use of these tools are optional for you, some of these tools could mean the difference in a successful bankruptcy and a failed bankruptcy. For example, you could lose a mailed notice from the bankruptcy court. This could cause you to miss an important court hearing. Using the DeBN system, you’ll have the notices in your email inbox. These services are free of charge. It’s especially important that you use the online tools available if you are filing for bankruptcy without an attorney.