Written by Attorney Eva Bacevice.
Updated July 27, 2020
Washington state is known for beautiful landmarks such as Mount Rainer and gorgeous waterfalls. It is also home to the ring of fire (including Mount St. Helens) and the largest ferry boat system in the world. It’s no wonder that people flock to live in this beautiful state. Hard times can happen anywhere, however, despite the grandeur of the setting. If you find yourself in financial difficulty and are considering a bankruptcy filing, this guide can help you through the process. The Evergreen state has the distinction of being the only one in America to be named after a president, so it is fitting that Washington bankruptcy laws offer a choice between the federal bankruptcy exemptions and the state bankruptcy exemptions. This offers Washingtonians the choice of whichever system gives them better protection for their property based on their personal circumstances. For those who have considerable equity in their home, Washington state exemptions offer significantly more protection (up to $125,000) than federal.
How to File Bankruptcy in Washington for Free
This article will address a number of helpful topics to assist you in filing for a Washington bankruptcy, including how to do so for little or no money. The topics will be tailored to Washington bankruptcy laws and include important specifics, such as a comparison between Washington State and Federal bankruptcy exemptions to highlight the favorable Washington State homestead exemption. Please note that the guide does focus on Chapter 7 bankruptcy, however if you would like to learn more about the differences between a Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 please feel free to do so. Additionally, the Western District United States Bankruptcy Court offers resources for debtors who file on their own, also known as filing “pro se”. They offer a live chat with court staff to answer questions. Do keep in mind, however, that the court staff cannot give legal advice or answer legal questions.
Collect Your Washington Bankruptcy Documents
The first step in considering a Washington bankruptcy is to gather all of the documents you will need to verify you are eligible to file and to fill out the necessary forms. For this, you will need to have any and all information regarding your income for the past 6 months, including pay stubs and any other proof of income. You should also have ready the past two years of tax returns (both Federal and State) and bank statements for the past few months for all accounts. You should also gather any documents regarding your assets, like the deed to your house (along with the most recent mortgage statement and proof of insurance), and your car title (along with the most recent statement for any payments on it, and again proof of insurance.) You also want to make certain you have a complete list of all of your debts. It can be difficult to recall all of them and/or know which addresses to use, so we recommend that you get a copy of your credit report to assist. You can get a free copy on AnnualCreditReport.com, which can help insure that you list all creditors and collection agencies you owe money to.
Take Credit Counseling
The next step to filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington is to take the first of two required debtor education courses. The first course must be complete before you file your case. It is important to use one of the approved credit counseling agencies for this, and many will offer the opportunity to sign up and pay for both at the same time. For both the Eastern District and the Western District, there are many agencies that offer online or phone options. If you prefer to go in person, that is an option at a couple of agencies in the Western District; Money Management International, Incand American Financial Solutions of North Seattle Community College Foundation, both located in Seattle. Unfortunately, none of the approved agencies for the Eastern District offer a physical location.
Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
Once you have gathered your paperwork to fill out the forms, and have completed your first round of credit counseling course, it is now time to begin filling out the official bankruptcy forms to file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington. If you are still not certain if bankruptcy is the right move for you, please consider going through this screening tool to see if it could be a good fit. If you are working with an attorney on your bankruptcy, they will find out the necessary information from you to fill out the forms on your behalf. If you work with a trusted partner, like Upsolve, you can answer a questionnaire that will populate your responses into the proper forms. If you are continuing pro se without any assistance, it is important to be checking the court websites to make certain that you are completing all the necessary federal and local forms. In the Eastern District, for example, there are local forms which are necessary regarding the submission of your pay stubs (Declaration Regarding Payments), for a liquidation analysis (Ch 7 Liquidation Analysis) an opportunity to potentially waive the credit counseling if you are disabled, in active service or lack the capacity to do so (Motion for Waiver of Credit Counseling Requirement), and one to lay out the specific guidelines for the creditor mailing matrix (Matrix Format Guidelines.) In the Western District, by contrast, the Western District Court offers a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Form Package with all the necessary forms included to complete as well as instructions along with some examples.
Get Your Filing Fee
Next, when filing bankruptcy in Washington, you will need to get together your filing fee. The current filing fee for a Chapter 7 is $338. Traditionally, the full amount is due at the time that you file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case with the court. The payment must be paid by cashier’s check or money order in U.S. funds, payable to “Clerk, United States Court” for exact payment or “not to exceed” amounts only. Unless you're in the Eastern District of Washington, you cannot make this payment using a credit or debit card. As of April 16, 2020, filers in the Eastern District can pay their fees online. If you feel that you cannot afford this fee, it is possible to request a fee waiver with the court. It is important to review the instructions carefully to see if you qualify for a waiver by earning less than 150% of the federal poverty line with all combined family income. If the waiver request is not granted (or you do not qualify), you can also request to pay the filing fee in installments.
Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
After filling out all the necessary forms to file bankruptcy in Washington you will need to print out all the paperwork to file the case with the court. Make certain that you are printing on only one side of paper (double-sided is not accepted) and that you have as many copies as needed. If you are unsure, you should reach out to the court clerk (EasternorWestern) to check. It is always a good idea to have a complete set for yourself, both for your own records and to use for your 341 hearing. If you do not have access to a printer at home or one you can use at work, you might check the rates at your local library or go to a local office supply store, like Kinkos or Staples.
Go to Court to File Your Forms
After you have completed and printed all forms and dealt with your filing fee, it is time to go to court to file you documents and officially begin your Chapter 7 in Washington. If you are working with an attorney, they will file the forms on your behalf, usually through an electronic filing system. If you are filing pro se, it is best to go in person rather than send someone else in case there is a quick correction to make or an additional signature needed. Here again, it is a great idea to reach out to the court clerk (EasternorWestern) in advance to make certain you are filing at the proper location and double check the hours of operation. If you are filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington’s Eastern District, you can also request to join the Debtor Electronic Bankruptcy Noticing system (DeBN) for any subsequent notices or orders.
Mail Documents to Your Trustee
After you have filed your documents, you will be assigned a trustee to oversee your Chapter 7 in Washington bankruptcy case. You will need to send documents to your Chapter 7 trustee prior to your scheduled 341 hearing, or “Meeting of Creditors.” If you are filing in the Western District,you can check the “Chapter 7 Debtor(s) Requirement” list and gather the documents right away. You should still be on the lookout for a specific notice from your trustee in case they require any additional documentation beyond this first list. In the Eastern District, you will need to wait to hear from your trustee, but the list of documents is likely identical or very similar. For both districts, the documents must be sent to your trustee at least seven (7) days prior to your 341 hearing, so if you have not received any notice from your trustee two weeks after filing your case, you should reach out to the court clerk (EasternorWestern) and your assigned trustee for further guidance.
Take Bankruptcy Course 2
After mailing your documents to your Chapter 7 trustee, and before your required hearing, is the ideal time to complete your second credit counseling course. The timing is good because when filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington, the certificate of completion needs to be filed with the court within 60 days of your scheduled 341 hearing. By completing the second course sooner rather than later, you are less likely to forget to do so and if you need to file the certificate yourself (as opposed to the credit counseling agency doing it on your behalf), there is a good chance that you can file it with the court on the date of your 341 hearing, saving yourself an extra trip later. Just be certain to file it with the clerk just like your original bankruptcy documents. It will not be sufficient to hand the certificate to your Chapter 7 trustee at the hearing along with other paperwork.
Attend Your 341 Meeting
When filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington, you are required to attend one hearing. The 341 hearing, also called the “Meeting of Creditors” will take place before your Chapter 7 trustee rather than a judge. You can learn more about what to expect at this hearing in this 341 meeting preparation video, but generally the hearing is relatively quick (usually between 5 and 15 minutes) and consists of the Chapter 7 trustee asking you questions about the information you provided in your paperwork and documents. They are generally looking to confirm that the information you provided is true and accurate. It is also possible for your creditors to attend this meeting and ask questions, however, it is unlikely that most or any will do so. The one time you might see a creditor appear is if you are still making payments on a vehicle you intend to keep, in which case they might attend to ask that you sign a reaffirmation agreement.
Dealing with Your Car
If you have a car, or even if your name is on what you consider to be someone else’s car, it is very important to make sure to properly list the vehicle(s) in your schedules. When filing Chapter 7 in Washington, you will need to make a decision about what you plan to do with your car. The default is usually to plan to keep your car, but you should take this opportunity to think about what is the best decision. If you have a car, and you are behind on the payments without any hope of catching up, you do have the opportunity to surrender the car in your bankruptcy, which will relieve you of the obligation to keep making payments as well as any deficiency in your payments, late charge etc. If you are current on your car payments or you own the car outright and wish to keep it, you will need to also properly list the car in your exemptions schedule to protect the equity. To determine the equity in your car, you should first find out the current fair market value of the car based on its age and condition (you can use either Kelley Blue Book or NADA for this), and then subtract any outstanding loans you have on the vehicle. When filing bankruptcy in Washington you have the choice between taking either the state or federal exemptions, although when it comes to protection for your vehicle they are very close - under Washington State exemptions, you can protect up to $3,250 in one motor vehicle. Spouses filing jointly can each protect a vehicle (RCW § 6.15.010(1)(d)(iii)), whereas under federal exemptions you can protect up to $4,000 for your motor vehicle. (11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(2)).
Washington Bankruptcy Means Test
In order to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington, you will need to show that you are qualified to do so. You can show that you are qualified through the Means Test based on your income and family size. your current monthly income is below a certain threshold or income cutoffs, you qualify for filing Chapter 7 in Washington. If you do not qualify under that threshold, you can still complete the full Means Test, which involves a closer look into your income and household expenses, and qualify through that route.
Data on Median income levels for Washington
Washington Median Income Standards for Means Test for Cases Filed On or After May 1, 2021
|Household Size||Monthly Income||Annual Income|
Data on Poverty levels for Washington
Washington Fee Waiver Eligibility for Cases Filed On or After May 1, 2021
Eligible for fee waiver when under 150% the poverty level.
|Household Size||State Poverty Level||Fee Waiver Limit (150% PL)|
Washington Bankruptcy Forms
Washington state uses primarily federal forms as bankruptcy is a federal proceeding. There are, however, local forms which are also required and vary by district. It is important to make certain that you have completed and filed all the necessary Washington Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms when filing your case.
Eastern District of Washington Requirements
The Eastern District of Washington has two divisions: Spokane and Yakima. Spokane covers the counties of: Adams, Asotin, Benton, Columbia,Ferry, Franklin, Garfield,Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla, and Whitman, whereas Yakima will service the following counties: Kittitas, Klickitat, Yakima, Chelan, Douglas, Grant, and Okanogan.
Western District of Washington Requirements
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court Western District of Washington has two divisions: Seattle and Tacoma. If you live in one of the following counties, you must file your case in Seattle: Clallam, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, or Whatcom. If you live in one of the following counties you must file your case in Tacoma: Clark, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, Skamania, Thurston, or Wahkiakum.
Washington Bankruptcy Exemptions
As we briefly discussed above, exemptions allow you to protect both your real (referring to a home or other real estate) and personal property. In Washington you have the choice to use either the Washington bankruptcy exemptions or the federal bankruptcy exemptions. Whichever you choose to utilize in your case, it is important to note that you cannot mix and match between the two. You will need to commit to one entire set. Below, we will compare some of the most frequently used exemptions for both Washington state and federal exemptions
Washington state: The homestead exemption protects up to $125,000 of equity in a debtor’s home or principal residence, including a manufactured or mobile home. The exemption is reduced to $15,000 for other personal property used as a residence(RCW §§ 6.13.010, 6.13.020, 6.13.030).
Federal: You can protect $25,150 of equity in your principal place of residence under the federal exemptions ($23,675 in cases filed before April 1, 2019). (11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(1)).
Motor Vehicle Exemption
Washington state: one motor vehicle. Spouses filing jointly can each exempt a vehicle(RCW § 6.15.010(1)(d)(iii)).
Federal: $4,000 for your motor vehicle(11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(2)).
Tools of the Trade Exemption
Washington state: Up to $10,000 in tools, instruments, and materials used to carry on his or her trade. Special exemptions are available for farmers, physicians, attorneys, and clergymen. (RCW § 6.15.010(1)(e)(i)-(iii).)
Federal: $2,525 for tools of the trade including implements and books
Washington state: A filer can exempt up to $3,000 worth of any type of personal property other than wages with the following limitations: no more than $1,500 total in cash, $500 for bank accounts, and $2,500 toward educational loans(RCW § 6.15.010(1)(d)(ii)).
Federal: $1,325 plus $12,575 of any unused portion of your homestead exemption is available to exempt any property of your choosing. The figures for cases filed before April 1, 2019, are $1,250 plus $11,850 respectively(11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(5)).
Washington Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost
The cost of a bankruptcy lawyer in Washington state can range between $1,100 and $1,500. While many bankruptcy attorneys will offer an initial free consultation, it is also important to note that most bankruptcy attorneys will require all of the costs to be paid in advance of filing your case.
Attorney cost estimate: $1,100 – $1,200
Washington Legal Aid Organizations
There are many legal aid options in Washington for low-income individuals and for seniors. Some legal aid in Washington organizations will offer a full service legal coverage, whereas others focus or specialize in a couple of areas such as bankruptcy. Both the Eastern District and the Western District offer some suggestions for pro se debtors in bankruptcy.
Washington Bankruptcy Judges
|Eastern District of Washington||Hon. Frederick P. Corbit|
|Eastern District of Washington||Hon. Frank L. Kurtz|
|Eastern District of Washington||Hon. John A. Rossmeissl|
|Western District of Washington||Hon. Brian D. Lynch|
|Western District of Washington||Hon. Marc Barreca|
|Western District of Washington||Hon. Timothy W. Dore|
|Western District of Washington||Hon. Christopher M. Alston|
|Western District of Washington||Hon. Mary Jo Heston|
|Matthew J. Anderton||EDWATrustee@gmail.com|
|John D. Mundingfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Kevin D. O'Rourkeemail@example.com|
|Ronald G. Brown|
|Brian Lowell Budsberg||Trustee@budsberg.com|
|Virginia A. Burdette|
|Dennis L. Burmanfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Charles D. Carlsonemail@example.com|
|Terrence J. Donahue|
|Kathryn A. Ellis|
|Russell D. Garrett|
|Nancy L. James|
|Michael P. Kleinfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|John S. Petersonemail@example.com|
|Donald A. Thackerfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Mark D. Waldron|
|Edmund J. Wood|