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 Eva Bacevice.
Updated February 15, 2022
Are you having a hard time paying your credit card bills or student loans? Are you behind on your mortgage payments and facing foreclosure? If you’re thinking about filing for personal bankruptcy, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed. For Americans struggling with crushing debt, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy may be the best way to get a fresh start financially.
Rather than filing for bankruptcy, you could also enroll in a debt relief program that lets you restructure your debt into a new repayment plan. But if you’ve already tried this or it isn’t going to get you the relief you need, think about filing bankruptcy instead. Filing for bankruptcy doesn’t have to be difficult, and you don’t have to hire a bankruptcy lawyer to do it if your case is simple. You could be done with the entire bankruptcy process within six months of filing.
How To File Bankruptcy for Free in Pennsylvania
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy costs money. The costs include a $338 court filing fee, a credit counseling and debtor education course fee, and attorney fees if you hire a bankruptcy lawyer. Courts may waive the filing and credit counseling fees if you can show you can’t afford them. Attorney fees are the most expensive part of bankruptcy. The good news is that you can file for bankruptcy on your own and avoid expensive attorney fees. In this guide, we’ll walk you through 10 steps to file your Pennsylvania bankruptcy without a lawyer.
- Collect Your Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Documents
- Take a Credit Counseling Course
- Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
- Get Your Filing Fee
- Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
- File Your Forms With the Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Court
- Mail Documents to Your Trustee
- Take a Debtor Education Course
- Attend Your 341 Meeting
- Dealing with Your Car
Collect Your Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Documents
Regardless of whether you have an attorney, you have to submit certain documents to the bankruptcy court or the trustee when you file for bankruptcy, including:
Your tax returns for the past two years,
Paycheck stubs for the past two months, and
A bank account statement covering the bankruptcy filing date.
It’s helpful to gather additional documentation, so you have all the information you need about your income, expenses, debts, and creditors to fill out your bankruptcy forms. If you can, gather up to a year of past bank account statements (you won’t get the one that covers your filing ate until after you file), your credit report, creditor bills, and letters from collection agencies or third-party debt collectors.
You can get a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once a year. If you use Upsolve’s filing tool, it will pull your credit report for you.
Take a Credit Counseling Course
Federal bankruptcy law requires everyone who files for bankruptcy to take a credit counseling class within the six months before they file. The course teaches you about your debt relief options, including bankruptcy, so you can decide if filing for bankruptcy is right for you. You have to file a certificate of completion with the bankruptcy court along with the rest of your forms. Although course administrators do charge a fee, you may be able to get a waiver. You must take the course from an approved provider for Pennsylvania.
Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
The bankruptcy forms are federal forms, and they’re the same for everyone, no matter where you live. They come with detailed instructions, and you can download them as fillable PDFs for free at USCOURTS.gov. This is where the documents you gathered in the first step will come in handy. You should be able to find the information you need in those documents. Be careful filling out the forms so you get them right the first time.
If a bankruptcy attorney is representing you, they or their staff will ask you questions then fill out the forms for you. If you use Upsolve’s filing tool for your Chapter 7 case, you’ll fill out a questionnaire on the website. Upsolve’s software will then generate the required forms based on the answers you give in the questionnaire.
Get Your Filing Fee
The fee for filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition is $338. You can pay this fee with a cashier’s check or money order made payable to "Clerk, U.S. Bankruptcy Court.” If your current income is below 150% of the poverty guidelines, the court may agree to waive the filing fee. (See Pennsylvania’s Fee Waiver Eligibility table below.)
When you file your bankruptcy petition, the court will assign a number to your case. At this time, an automatic stay goes into effect. The automatic stay requires creditors to immediately stop trying to collect on your debts. For example, if your house is about to go into foreclosure or a creditor is about to start garnishing your wages, these debt collection actions have to stop. If your wages are already being garnished, the creditor has to stop the garnishment once the case is filed.
You may be in a rush to file for bankruptcy to stop creditors’ actions. But what if you can’t pay the $338 filing fee all at once? You can apply to the court to allow you to pay your fee in regular monthly installments until it’s paid off. You’ll have to make an initial payment of 25% of the filing fee within 30 days of filing the petition. After that, you’ll pay monthly installments of no less than 25% of the filing fee until the fee is fully paid. Make sure to make all of your payments or the court may dismiss your case.
Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
The next step is to print and sign the bankruptcy forms. A lot of the forms look alike, so make sure you print all of them. Print the forms on one side only, in black ink, and on 8.5" x 11" letter-size paper. You should make a copy for yourself and keep it with your other important documents.
If you file your Chapter 7 using Upsolve’s tool, you’ll receive all your forms in a packet as a single download, with dividers that flag all the signature spots.
File Your Forms With the Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Court
There are three districts in Pennsylvania: the Western, Middle, and Eastern Districts. Attorneys use the federal courts’ Electronic Court Filing System (ECF) to file documents electronically.
Usually, all other filers must file paper copies of their documents. You can either hand-deliver the documents to the court or mail them in. Here’s the Eastern District’s mailing address and the Western District’s mailing address. If you file in person, you must show your picture ID to the clerk when you file your documents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the Middle District and Western District bankruptcy courts have adopted an electronic filing system for all users to file their documents electronically.
Mail Documents to Your Trustee
When you file for bankruptcy, the court will then appoint a bankruptcy trustee. The trustee is responsible for making sure the process goes smoothly and for selling any unprotected property (known as non-exempt property) you may have to pay debts you owe to creditors. Your trustee will likely reach out to you soon after they’re assigned to your case, and the court will let you know who your trustee is in your Form 309A.
Once you’re assigned a bankruptcy trustee, the court also schedules a meeting of creditors. You’ll need to send your trustee some documents at least seven days before the creditors’ meeting. This includes your most recent two federal income tax returns and a bank statement for dates that include your bankruptcy filing date. The trustee may also ask for pay stubs.
Make sure you respond to your trustee’s requests quickly and send in the information the trustee asks for. Refusing to hand over certain documents could make the trustee think you’re hiding something about your finances.
Take a Debtor Education Course
You must complete an approved debtor education course to get a discharge order from the bankruptcy court. You’ll need to complete the course within 60 days of the creditors’ meeting. Though you can take the court before the meeting if you choose. Then, be sure to submit your certificate of completion to the court in that 60-day timeline.
If you don’t complete your debtor education course, the bankruptcy court may close your case without entering the discharge order, so, without erasing your unsecured debts like credit card debt and medical bills. You must take a course that’s been approved by the court where you file to erase your dischargeable debts. The Pennsylvania bankruptcy courts maintain a list of approved course providers.
Attend Your 341 Meeting
The 341 meeting is also called the creditors' meeting. It’s informal and it’s usually held in a courthouse, but not in a courtroom. A creditors’ meeting will happen about a month after you file for bankruptcy. Usually, only the debtor and the trustee are at the meeting — creditors’ don’t usually attend.
You have to bring a government-issued picture ID and acceptable proof of your Social Security number or the meeting won’t go forward. Your trustee will place you under oath and ask standard questions that are asked in every Chapter 7 creditors’ meeting. The trustee may also want some additional information to get a clearer picture of your finances. After the meeting, the bankruptcy process is almost over.
Creditors’ meetings are usually straightforward, though every now and then things can go wrong. The main problem is usually when the debtor forgets to bring a picture ID and proof of their Social Security number, so don’t forget these documents.
Pennsylvania districts are currently holding creditors’ meetings via telephone or videoconference as a COVID-19 precaution.
Dealing with Your Car
You may be wondering if you’re going to have to surrender your car when you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The answer is, “It depends.” Whether you’re leasing your car, financing it with a car loan, or you own it free and clear, you have options.
First, if you own your car free and clear, you may be able to keep it, depending on its fair market value and any available exemptions. If your car’s fair market value is much higher than any available exemptions, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee may sell the car to pay your credit cards and other unsecured debts. We’ll cover exemptions more later.
If you’re still making monthly car payments, but your car is worth a lot less than what you still owe on it, it may be a good idea to just surrender your car to the lender you financed the car with. You won’t have to make any more monthly payments on it and your car loan will be erased in the discharge.
If you want to keep your car and continue to make the monthly payments, you’ll have to sign a reaffirmation agreement. This is essentially a new pledge to the lender that you’re going to continue to make your monthly payments. It also means you’ll lose bankruptcy protections, so if you don’t make your payments, you put yourself at risk of a deficiency judgment after a repossession.
If you want to keep your car but you don’t want to make any more monthly payments, you’ll have to pay the lender the current value of the car, in what is referred to as redemption. You must make the payment in a lump sum. Once you pay the lender the value of your car, your loan is terminated.
If you’ve surrendered your car and you want to buy another one, you may want to wait until the bankruptcy court enters the discharge order and your credit score has some time to recover. Also, make sure you can afford the monthly payments on the new car. You don’t want to end up back in financial trouble.
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Means Test
The Bankruptcy Code is the federal law that governs bankruptcy. Under the Bankruptcy Code, you have to qualify under a so-called means test to be eligible to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The starting point for the means test is your income. If your income is less than the median income for a similar size household in Pennsylvania, you pass the means test and qualify for Chapter 7.
If your income exceeds the limits for filing for bankruptcy, but you still can’t afford to pay all of your debts, the bankruptcy court will look at your disposable monthly income after your monthly expenses. If you don’t have enough disposable monthly income to pay even a portion of your debts, you can file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
If the means test shows that you do have enough disposable income to repay some of your debts, you can file Chapter 13 bankruptcy and repay a portion of your debt with a 3-5 repayment plan.
Data on Median income levels for Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Median Income Standards for Means Test for Cases Filed In 2023
|Household Size||Monthly Income||Annual Income|
Data on Poverty levels for Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Fee Waiver Eligibility for Cases Filed In 2023
Eligible for fee waiver when under 150% the poverty level.
|Household Size||State Poverty Level||Fee Waiver Limit (150% PL)|
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Forms
No matter where you live, you fill out the same federal forms when you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court in the district you’re filing in may require additional local forms. Pennsylvania has three federal bankruptcy districts — the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and the Western District of Pennsylvania. The Eastern and the Middle Districts have a local form for filers who don’t submit paycheck stubs with their bankruptcy petition.
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Pennsylvania Districts & Filing Requirements
Pennsylvania has three bankruptcy court districts — the Eastern District, Middle District, and Western District. You will file your bankruptcy documents in the district where you live.
Eastern District of Pennsylvania Requirements
The Eastern District is divided into two divisions with courthouses in Philadelphia and Reading.
If you live in Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, Philadelphia, or Chester counties, you file your documents in Philadelphia.
If you live in Berks, Lehigh, Northampton, or Lancaster counties, you file your documents in Reading.
The Eastern District doesn’t have any local Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms, but it does require specific formatting requirements for your creditor matrix, which is a list of all your creditors and their mailing addresses.
In the Eastern District, all hearings are currently being held remotely. The Eastern District has a page providing information on court operations and procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Middle District of Pennsylvania Requirements
The Middle District has three divisions, with offices in Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg, and Williamsport. Williamsport is the only office that holds hearings.
The Middle District offers an electronic document submission system for self-filers to file their documents electronically without having to mail, fax, or bring the documents in person. The district also offers an online portal for debtors filing without an attorney to upload their creditor matrix and an online self-help program. The court doesn’t currently maintain a page on COVID-19 measures, but this is the most recent Standing Order issued.
You must pay your filing fees with cash, cashier's check, or money order. The Clerk’s office can’t make change so you have to pay with exact change if you pay in cash. Checks and money orders should be made payable to the "Clerk, United States Court."
Western District of Pennsylvania Requirements
The Western District has three divisions, with offices in Pittsburgh, Erie, and Johnstown. As part of its COVID-19 precautions, the Western District is holding all hearings by telephone. It has also implemented an electronic filing system for filers without an attorney. If a filer doesn’t have computer access, the filer can mail in their documents.
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Exemptions
Bankruptcy law classifies certain types of property as exempt in bankruptcy. Exemptions help protect a lot of personal property such as clothing, books, appliances, jewelry, and vehicles and homes up to a certain value. Certain retirement accounts and pensions are also exempt, no matter what their value is. Also, some kinds of income like child support and alimony are protected through exemptions.
There are both federal and state exemptions. Some states opt out of the federal exemptions and require filers to use state exemptions. Pennsylvania law allows you to choose between the federal exemptions and the Pennsylvania bankruptcy exemptions. Pennsylvania doesn’t specifically have a motor vehicle or homestead exemption, so choosing the federal exemptions may be the better option if you want to protect these assets. The federal homestead exemption protects up to $25,150 of equity in your home. The federal vehicle exemption is $4,000.
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost
Though you can file your bankruptcy case without an attorney, some people feel more comfortable getting legal advice and support. Bankruptcy lawyers in Pennsylvania typically charge fees of between $995 and $1,450. The costs depend on where you live and how complicated your bankruptcy case is. If your situation is complicated, you might want to consider hiring a highly experienced attorney, even if it costs a little more.
The initial consultation with an attorney is usually free. This means you can meet with several law offices to decide which bankruptcy attorney is best for you. Remember, cost is just one of many important factors to consider.
Pennsylvania Legal Aid Organizations
You may be able to get help with filing for bankruptcy through one of Pennsylvania's legal aid organizations. These are nonprofit organizations that help low-income individuals with civil matters like bankruptcy. If you qualify for legal aid assistance, you can get legal help for free or for a low cost.
Laurel Legal Services, Inc.
16 E. Otterman Street, Greensburg, PA 15601-3066
Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania
625-627 Swede Street, Norristown, PA 19401-4801
MidPenn Legal Services, Inc.
213-A North Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17101
Neighborhood Legal Services Association
928 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-3799
Northwestern Legal Services
Renaissance Center, Suite 700, 1001 State Street, Erie, PA 16501-1828
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
1424 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102
Philadelphia Legal Assistance
718 Arch Street, Suite 300N, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
Pennsylvania Court Locations
Ronald Reagan Federal Building
228 Walnut Street Harrisburg, PA 17108
17 South Park Row
17 South Park Row Erie, PA 16501
600 Grant Street Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Max Rosenn United States Courthouse
197 South Main Street Wilkes Barre, PA 18701
Robert N.C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building
900 Market Street Philadelphia, PA 19107
400 Washington Street Reading, PA 19601
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Judges
|Eastern District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Richard E. Fehling|
|Eastern District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Ashely M. Chan|
|Eastern District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Magdeline D. Coleman|
|Eastern District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Jean K. FitzSimon|
|Eastern District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Eric L. Frank|
|Middle District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Robert N. Opel II|
|Middle District of Pennsylvania||Hon. John J. Thomas|
|Middle District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Henry W. Van Eck|
|Western District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Carlota Böhm|
|Western District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Thomas P. Agresti|
|Western District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Jeffery A. Deller|
|Western District of Pennsylvania||Hon. Gregory L. Taddonio|
|Terry P. Dershawemail@example.com|
|Lynn E. Feldman|
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|Gary F. Seitz|
|Christine C. Shubert|
|Steven M. Carr||Carr20@aol.com .com|
|Mark J. Conwayemail@example.com|
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|Lawrence V. Youngfirstname.lastname@example.org|
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|Pamela J. Wilsonfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Charles O. Zebley Jr.||COZ@Zeblaw.com|