Live in Pennsylvania and need help filing for bankruptcy and can't afford an attorney? Our legal aid nonprofit guides Pennsylvania debtors through the chapter 7 process.
Written by Attorney Eva Bacevice.
Updated July 29, 2020
Pennsylvania is well known for being home to the first capital of our country, the Liberty Bell, and the first American flag. Pennsylvania also has a number of tasty claims to fame, including the chocolate capital of the United States (Hershey, PA) and the Philly cheesesteak. What you might not realize, however, is that even though we now associate some food industry giants to Pennsylvania, the road to success was not always easy. Both Milton Hershey, founder of the Hershey chocolate company, and Henry Heinz of Heinz ketchup filed bankruptcy in Pennsylvania before achieving the success they are known for today.
Pennsylvania is an interesting state when it comes to bankruptcy laws. Generally, whenever someone is considering filing bankruptcy, especially a Chapter 7 case, one of the first questions asked is: “will I be able to keep my property?” People are often relieved to learn that there is a mechanism built into bankruptcy laws to allow you to protect property up to varying amounts, called “exemptions”. When you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, you have the option to choose between state and federal exemptions, which usually is the best of both worlds because you can decide which exemptions to take based on your personal situation and what property you want to protect. Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws are distinct from bankruptcy laws of other states as there is no applicable specific exemption to protect your home and your car.
How to File Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania for Free
This guide will give you the tools to file bankruptcy on your own under Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws, step-by-step. Filing on your own, and without an attorney, is called filing “pro se.” We will focus on filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, however, if you are interested in exploring other bankruptcy options, please feel free to check out this article about both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. You can also use resources which are provided by the United States District Courts in Pennsylvania, which vary by district, for assistance with the below topics:
Collect Your Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Documents
In order to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, you will need to gather your financial documents to be able to fill out the paperwork properly. To start, you will need paystubs or other proof of income for the past 6 months prior to filing, your last two years of tax returns, most recent two months of statements from all bank and investment accounts, any deeds for property (including mortgage statements and proof of homeowners insurance), any titles for vehicles along with proof of insurance, and copies of all of your bills and creditors’ information. If you are not certain of all of your debt information, you should get a copy of your credit report, which you can get for free through annualcreditreport.com to make certain you are listing all creditors and collection agencies.
Take Credit Counseling
Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws require that you complete credit counseling prior to filing for a Chapter 7. You can find a list of approved providers on the court’s website. There are two debtor education courses to complete during your bankruptcy and often you can sign up for both together, which should cost you approximately $50 or less. There are many providers who offer online or phone options for this first course. If you prefer to go in person, and you are in the Eastern District, you can go to the Credit Counseling Center, which offers the course at various locations, or Northwest Counseling Services. In the Middle or Western District of Pennsylvania, you can go to Advantage Credit Counseling Services, Inc in person.
Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
If you are still trying to decide whether bankruptcy is the right decision for you this, screening tool may be of assistance. Once you have made the decision to file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, the next step is to complete your bankruptcy paperwork. If you are working with an attorney they will get the information that they need from you to complete the paperwork on your behalf. If you are continuing “pro se,” you can access the forms online on the court’s website. If you are filing in the Eastern District, the court provides a handy checklist for you. And if you are getting assistance from Upsolve, you can answer a questionnaire that will populate your forms for you. The bulk of the forms are federal forms, but always make certain to check the District Court Websites for local forms needed as well. You can find information and resources for the Eastern District which offers the checklist and links to the forms, the Middle District which also offers a checklist and runs a “self-help program” where you sign up to meet with a volunteer attorney, and the Western District which will link you to all of the necessary forms and instructions.
Get Your Filing Fee
You will need to pay your filing fee at the time you file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania with the court. Currently, the cost to file a Chapter 7 is $335. Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws specify that pro se debtors must make all payments in cash (exact amount) or by money order made payable to “CLERK, U.S. BANKRUPTCY COURT.” If you feel that you cannot afford this expense, and your income is less than 150% of the federal poverty line, you can file for a waiver of the filing fees. If the court declines the request, you can still file paperwork to pay the filing fee in installments.
Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
Once you have dealt with your filing fee and completed filling out your forms, the next step will be to print out the forms to file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania. Wherever you print your forms, make certain to do so on one-sided pages. The court will not accept double-sided print-outs. It is also a good idea to print out or photocopy an extra set for yourself to have with you at your hearing and keep for your records. If you do not have access to a printer of your own or a friend’s you can borrow, we recommend checking out rates at your local library or going to a local office supply store, like Kinkos or Staples.
Go to Court to File Your Forms
The next step for filing your Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania is to physically go to the courthouse to file your forms. If you are working with an attorney, they will be able to submit your paperwork electronically, but if you are pro se (filing on your own), you will need to submit your paperwork yourself. It is always a good idea to go in person in case there is a quick change or correction you need to make, which will save you a return trip. Additionally, you should check in advance to make certain you are going to the proper location, know the hours of operation, and when the courthouse is open (as courts close for federal holidays). As soon as your paperwork is time-stamped as “filed,” you will enjoy the protection of the automatic stay, which makes it illegal for your creditors to continue to try to collect on the debt that you owe.
Mail Documents to Your Trustee
Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws require that a trustee oversee your case. You will be assigned to a Chapter 7 trustee either when you file your paperwork with the court, or soon after. Once you know who your assigned Chapter 7 trustee is, you can gather together the paperwork they require in advance of your hearing. These documents are likely the very same ones you used to fill out your paperwork initially (proof of income, assets, ownership, insurance and debts). The trustee’s office should communicate a specific list of what they require with a specific deadline, which is generally at least 7 days prior to your scheduled 341 hearing. If you are getting close to that deadline and have not heard from your trustee, you should reach out to make certain you can provide them the documents required in advance of your deadline.
Take Bankruptcy Course 2
Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws require that you also complete a second credit counseling course within a specified time-frame of filing your case. It is best to do so soon after filing your case, and before your scheduled 341 hearing. Depending on what type of agency you are working with on your debtor education courses, either the agency will submit the certificate of completion on your behalf directly to the court, or they will provide it to you at the end of the course. In the latter case, you will need to file this certificate with the court, so here it makes sense to do so on the same day as your 341 hearing (presuming that the hearing is at the same location where you originally filed your Pennsylvania Chapter 7 case) to save an additional trip. Just be certain not to hand or send the certificate of completion for course 2 to the trustee. It needs to be officially processed by the clerk just like when you initially filed your Pennsylvania bankruptcy forms.
Attend Your 341 Meeting
Your 341 hearing, or “Meeting of Creditors”, will be scheduled within 50 days of your petition being filed. This hearing takes place before your assigned Chapter 7 trustee, not a judge, and allows for an opportunity for your creditors to appear and participate in asking questions. Chances are few to none that your creditors will appear. Any questions asked will primarily, or completely, be from the Chapter 7 trustee. The trustee will ask questions about your bankruptcy forms and pre-submitted documentation to ascertain if you provided complete and true information pursuant to the Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws. These hearings are often brief and fairly formulaic. So long as you have answered the questions honestly on the forms and in person, you should be fine. You can also watch this 341 meeting preparation video to learn more about what to expect.
Dealing with Your Car
Your decision to keep your car will affect which exemptions you apply. When you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, you can choose whether you want to use the Pennsylvania state exemptions or the federal exemptions, but not both. If you have a car that has equity of more than $300 you will likely be better off choosing to apply federal exemptions as Pennsylvania bankruptcy exemptions do not offer a specific motor vehicle exemption. To determine the amount of equity in your car you need to find the current fair market value (FMV) by using either Kelley Blue Book or NADA information. You determine the current FMV by assessing the condition of the car in addition to its age. Then, you subtract any and all outstanding loan balances against the car, and the result will be your equity figure. If you own the car outright, the equity you have in the car is the same as its fair market value. You can use the Pennsylvania “wildcard exemption” for up to $300 in equity in your vehicle, but if it is worth more, you cannot protect the remaining value by applying the state exemptions. Federal exemptions, by contrast, allow you to protect up to $4,000 worth of equity in your vehicle. If you are still making payments on your car, and have $0 equity, you will need to remain current to avoid repossession. Your car lender may request a reaffirmation agreement to continue your obligation for payments on the car.
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Means Test
In order to file a Chapter 7 case, you will need to qualify under Pennsylvania bankruptcy laws by passing the Means Test. You can do so in one of two ways. First, based on your monthly income and household size, you might immediately qualify for a Chapter 7 if you are under the average median income in Pennsylvania. Second, even if you earn more than the income limit allows, you may still qualify by completing the second portion of the Means Test.
Data on Median income levels for Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania 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)|
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Forms
All people filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Pennsylvania will use the federal bankruptcy forms, which can be found online. There are also additional local forms which vary by district. Pennsylvania is divided into three federal districts - the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and the Western District of Pennsylvania.
Eastern District of Pennsylvania Requirements
The Eastern District of Pennsylvania is further divided into two court jurisdictions: Philadelphia and Reading. The Philadelphia court includes the following counties: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Montgomery and Philadelphia County. The Reading court includes: Burks, Lehigh, and Northampton. The court provides specific instructions on how to submit your creditor matrixhere.
Middle District of Pennsylvania Requirements
The Middle District of Pennsylvania is divided into three divisions: Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre. What makes the Middle District of Pennsylvania different from the other districts is that you can sign up to receive electronic notices and orders from the court through the Debtor Electronic Bankruptcy Noticing (DeBN) system.
Western District of Pennsylvania Requirements
The Western District of Pennsylvania has three divisions: Pittsburgh, Erie, and Johnstown. The Pittsburgh division serves the following counties: Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Lawrence, Washington, and Westmoreland. The Erie division serves the following counties: Clarion, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, McKean, Mercer, Venango, and Warren. Finally, Johnstown serves these counties: Bedford, Blaire, Cambria, Clearfield, Indiana, and Somerset.
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Exemptions
Pennsylvania is a state where you are able to choose between applying the federal exemptions or the Pennsylvania bankruptcy exemptions. Exemptions allow you to protect your property up to varying amounts depending on the type of property you own. Chapter 7 bankruptcy exemptions in Pennsylvania are unusual in that there is no specific “homestead exemption” or specific “motor vehicle exemption”. Homeowners, however, should not be too quick to set aside the state bankruptcy exemption option because if you are married, filing jointly and own your home in a particular manner called “tenancy by the entirety”, you can protect any and all equity in your home in full under the Pennsylvania bankruptcy exemptions. Keep in mind this is a specific legal definition (a type of concurrent ownership in real property that occurs when the owners of the property are married) so it would be best to consult an attorney to see if it applies in your case. Additionally, married couples filing together can double the exemption amount for any property that belongs to both of them. Below is a comparison of Pennsylvania and federal exemptions for common items:
Pennsylvania Homestead Exemption - none
Federal Homestead Exemption - You can protect up to $25,150 of equity in your home. (11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(1))
Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Exemption - none (can use wildcard exemption below)
Federal Motor Vehicle Exemption - up to $4,000 in equity for your motor vehicle. (11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(2))
Pennsylvania Personal Property Exemptions - Clothing, bibles, school books, sewing machine, uniforms protected in full. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. 8124)
Federal Personal Property Exemptions - $625 per individual item with a $13,400 aggregate value on household goods, furnishings, appliances, clothes, books, animals, crops, musical instruments. (11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(3))
Pennsylvania Wildcard Exemption - Up to $300 of any personal property (not real estate) or cash of the filer’s choosing. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann.8123)
Federal Wildcard Exemption - You can apply the federal wildcard exemption to any property you own. Currently, $1,325 plus $12,575 of any unused portion of your homestead exemption is available to exempt any property of your choosing. (11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(5))
Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost
The average cost of a bankruptcy lawyer in Pennsylvania is about $1,250, however it can range from just under $1,000 up to $1,500 depending on the complexity of the case and where you are physically located. There is an online attorney cost calculator where you can double check the range of attorney costs in your area.
Attorney cost estimate: $995 – $1,450
Pennsylvania Legal Aid Organizations
You will be able to find a number of organizations that offer legal aid in Pennsylvania. For bankruptcy, specifically, you may want to try Community Legal Services of Philadelphia if you are in the Philadelphia area. Additionally, you might contact:
Pennsylvania Court Locations
Robert N.C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building
900 Market Street Philadelphia, PA 19107
400 Washington Street Reading, PA 19601
600 Grant Street Pittsburgh, PA 15219
17 South Park Row
17 South Park Row Erie, PA 16501
Max Rosenn United States Courthouse
197 South Main Street Wilkes Barre, PA 18701
Ronald Reagan Federal Building
228 Walnut Street Harrisburg, PA 17108
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|
|Bonnie B. Finkelfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Robert H. Holberemail@example.com|
|Michael H. Kalinerfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Gary F. Seitz|
|Christine C. Shubert|
|Steven M. Carr||Carr20@aol.com .com|
|Mark J. Conwayemail@example.com|
|Lawrence G. Frankfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Leon P. Halleremail@example.com|
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|John P. Neblettemail@example.com|
|William G. Schwab||Schwab@uslawcenter.com|
|Robert P. Sheils Jr.||firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Markian R. Slobodianemail@example.com|
|Lawrence V. Youngfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Eric E. Bononiemail@example.com|
|Natalie A. Cardiellofirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Rosemary C. Crawfordemail@example.com|
|John C. Melaragnofirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Tamera Ochs Rothschildemail@example.com|
|Robert B. Shearerfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Jeffrey J. Sikiricaemail@example.com|
|Robert H. Slonefirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Joseph B. Speroemail@example.com|
|Lisa M. Swopefirstname.lastname@example.org|
|James R. Walshemail@example.com|
|Pamela J. Wilsonfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Charles O. Zebley Jr.||COZ@Zeblaw.com|