How To File Bankruptcy for Free in Washington
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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 May 11, 2023
When it comes to Washington state’s Ring of Fire you probably never thought you’d be referring to your financial situation. Unfortunately, unparalleled natural beauty is no guarantee against hard times. If you find yourself in financial difficulty with beautiful Mount St. Helens in your backyard, you aren’t alone!
Many Washington state residents have found themselves considering their debt relief options when faced with an unmanageable financial situation including filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. While you may feel like filing bankruptcy is admitting defeat, bankruptcy laws are there for a reason. They help ordinary folks get relief from crushing debt and start fresh in just a few months.
This guide covers the steps of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington.
How To File Bankruptcy for Free in Washington
Filing bankruptcy may seem like something you’d need a lawyer to do for you. Attorneys are often part of the process and are the biggest expense of filing for bankruptcy. But many people file for bankruptcy without an attorney. This is known as a “pro se” filing. If filing on your own feels too difficult, keep in mind that you can also apply for low-cost or free legal help.
Before you dive in, take a minute to check which Washington state bankruptcy district you live in. Each district has slightly different rules. District courts also offer resources for people working to file without an attorney that you can contact as you research or start the bankruptcy process.
|County You Live In||Your Bankruptcy District||Resource for Self-Filing|
|Clallam, Clark, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Thurston, Wahkiakum, and Whatcom.||Western District||live chat|
|Adams, Asotin, Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Ferry, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla, Whitman, and Yakima.||Eastern District||resources for pro se filers|
The following are the steps of the bankruptcy process in Washington.
- Collect Your Washington Bankruptcy Documents
- Take a Credit Counseling Course
- Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
- Get Your Filing Fee
- Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
- File Your Forms With the Washington Bankruptcy Court
- Mail Documents to Your Trustee
- Take a Debtor Education Course
- Attend Your 341 Meeting
- Dealing with Your Car
Collect Your Washington Bankruptcy Documents
The first step in the bankruptcy process is gathering all the documents you need to verify your eligibility to file and to fill out the bankruptcy forms. Must-have documents include:
All information regarding your income for the past six months, including pay stubs and any other proof of income,
The past two years of tax returns (both federal and state), and
Recent bank statements. When you actually file your paperwork with the court, you must also turn in a bank statement that includes your filing date.
There are also some documents that are helpful to have, including:
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 proof of insurance).
A complete list of all of your unsecured debts including credit cards, tax debt, medical bills, and student loans. It can be difficult to recall all of them and/or know which addresses to use. To help with this, get a copy of your credit report. You can get a free copy once a year from each of the three consumer credit reporting agencies. If you use Upsolve’s free filing tool to prepare your Chapter 7 paperwork, it will pull the report for you.
Bank statements covering the past 6-12 months, which will help you create a clearer picture of your expenses.
Any bills or collection letters for secured debts, like your home or car. This may include foreclosure and repossession notices.
Take a Credit Counseling Course
The next step to filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington is to take a credit counseling course. This is the first of two required debtor education courses. You need to take the course from a Washington-approved credit counseling agency for it to count. There is a fee but you can apply for a waiver if needed.
There are many agencies that offer both online and phone options. If you prefer to go in person, that is an option in the Western District through Money Management International, Inc and American Financial Solutions of North Seattle Community College Foundation. They are both located in Seattle. Unfortunately, none of the approved agencies for the Eastern District offer a physical location.
You need to complete this credit counseling course in the 180 days before you file your case. Once you’ve completed the course you’ll receive a certificate. Submit this certificate with the rest of your paperwork when you file your bankruptcy petition.
Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
After you’ve gathered your paperwork and completed your credit counseling course, it’s time to begin filling out the official bankruptcy forms to file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington.
If you’re working with an attorney on your bankruptcy, they’ll have you fill out a questionnaire, and then they’ll fill out the forms on your behalf. If you use the Upsolve filing tool, you’ll go through an online questionnaire, and then Upsolve’s software will generate the forms for you.
If you’re continuing pro se without any assistance, start with this checklist. There are also instructions you can use.
Get Your Filing Fee
Next, you’ll need to make a plan to pay the$338filing fee. The fee is due when you file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case with the court. You can request a fee waiver from the court if you earn less than 150% of the federal poverty line. You can find the Washington Fee Waiver Eligibility table below.
If you don’t qualify for a fee waiver, and you need to file quickly, you can also request to pay the filing fee in installments. If you’re facing wage garnishment or other serious collection measures, you might want to do this because as soon as you file your bankruptcy petition, an automatic stay goes into effect. This stops all collection activity, creates some breathing room from creditors, and potentially frees up some money for you to pay the rest of the filing fee. If you’re paying in installments you have to stick to the payment plan. If you don’t, you risk having your case dismissed. This is also why it’s best to wait until you have the full fee before you file if you can.
Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
Printing used to be mandatory for anyone filing their bankruptcy petition without an attorney. Things are changing though! If you live in the Eastern District, you can skip printing and use the Electronic Self Representation (eSR) system to upload your petition online. If you live in the Western District, you may be able to use the temporary electronic filing for non-attorneys that’s currently in place because of COVID-19.
Regardless of where you live, you can still file a paper copy of your petition with the court. In this case, you’ll need to print everything out. If you do, only print on one side of white letter-size paper using black ink. The court may not accept your packet if you print double-sided.
You’ll need to print each form out individually. To stay organized and make sure you don’t miss anything, refer to your checklist. If you file using Upsolve’s tool, it provides your forms as a single download with dividers to flag the signature pages.
Sign on every signature line, and then make a copy of your packet. You only need one set to give to the court, but it’s a good idea to have a complete set for your records. The court clerk can stamp your copy so you have proof of your filing date. If you have any questions, contact the court clerk (Eastern or Western). They are friendly people who’ve worked with many individuals filing on their own. If you don’t have access to a printer at home or one you can use at work, your local library might have printers you can use.
File Your Forms With the Washington Bankruptcy Court
You have your forms, now it’s time to file! If you’re working with an attorney, they’ll file the forms on your behalf, through an electronic filing system. If you’re filing bankruptcy on your own and you want to submit your forms electronically, all you need is an email address and internet connection to upload your petition.
If you’re filing a paper petition, rules are also in flux because of COVID-19. Check current guidance as your first step. You can mail your petition in. There is also currently a drop box option. If you have someone you trust, they can drop your petition off for you.
If you’re planning to go in person, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to the court clerk in advance to make certain you’re 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) to receive notices and court orders via email.
Mail Documents to Your Trustee
After you’ve filed your documents, the court will assign a bankruptcy trustee to oversee your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. You’ll need to send documents to your Chapter 7 trustee prior to your scheduled 341 hearing, also known as your meeting of creditors. (More on this below.)
These documents are:
A bank statement that includes the date you filed your petition, and
Your two most recent federal income tax returns.
You need to send these documents to your trustee at least seven days before your 341 hearing. If you don’t receive a notice from your trustee within two weeks after filing your case, reach out to the court clerk and your assigned trustee for further guidance.
If you’re 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 look out for a specific notice from your trustee in case they require any additional documentation. In the Eastern District, you’ll need to wait to hear from your trustee, but the list of documents is likely very similar.
Take a Debtor Education Course
Once you’ve filed your petition, go ahead and make plans to take the debtor education course. As with the credit counseling course, you have to work with an approved Washington-state provider. While the credit counseling course goes over your debt relief options, the debtor education course is a financial management course that will help you make the most of your fresh start.
Once you’ve taken the course, you’ll receive a certificate of completion. You need to file this certificate with the court within 60 days of your scheduled 341 hearing. While you have up to 60 days after your 341 meeting to take the course, you can do it any time after your file your case. If you do it sooner rather than later, there’s a good chance that you can file your certificate of completion with the court on the date of your 341 hearing, saving yourself an extra trip later. You’ll file it with the clerk just like your original bankruptcy documents. You can’t hand the certificate to your Chapter 7 trustee at the hearing.
Completing the course is a requirement of your bankruptcy filing. The court can close your case without a discharge if it doesn’t receive your certificate by the deadline.
Attend Your 341 Meeting
When filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington, you’re required to attend a 341 hearing also known as the meeting of creditors. These meetings are usually held in person, but they’re currently being held via video conference or phone due to COVID-19.
The 341 meeting will be run by your trustee. Your trustee is not a judge, so hopefully, that helps you feel less nervous. The meeting is usually relatively quick (5-15 minutes) and consists of your trustee asking you questions about the information you provided in your bankruptcy petition, which is the paperwork you gave the court. They’re just looking to confirm that the information you provided is true and accurate. Go ahead and do a little prep so you know what to expect. The good news is that not much can go wrong at these meetings.
Your creditors can attend this meeting and ask questions, but they rarely do. The best part about your 341 meeting is how close you are to your fresh start once it's over.
Dealing with Your Car
If you have a car, you need to be clear in your bankruptcy petition about what you plan to do with it. This applies even if your name is on what you consider to be someone else’s car. It’s very important to include the vehicle(s) in your bankruptcy petition schedules.
While you can keep your car, it’s a good idea to take this opportunity to explore your options. If you own the car outright and wish to keep it, you’ll need to list the car in your exemptions schedule to protect it. When filing bankruptcy in Washington you have the choice between using either state or federal exemptions. When it comes to protecting your vehicle the state and federal exemptions are very close. Under Washington State exemptions, you can protect up to $3,250 in one motor vehicle, and spouses filing jointly can each protect a vehicle. Under federal exemptions you can protect up to $4,000 for your motor vehicle.
If you have a car loan, you’re current on your payments and you want to keep the car, you can sign a reaffirmation agreement with your lender.
If you have a car loan and you’re behind on the payments without any hope of catching up, you can surrender the car in your bankruptcy. Surrendering the car means you don’t have to keep making payments on the loan. If you’re leasing your car you can choose to continue with your leasing contract. You can also choose to reject the remainder of your lease in which case you need to make arrangements to turn in the car.
If you’re thinking about buying a car post-bankruptcy, you can absolutely do so. If possible, wait a while to let your credit score recover so you can get the best deal possible.
Washington Bankruptcy Means Test
To file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Washington, you need to show that you’re qualified to do so. You do this through the means test, which looks at your income and ability to repay your debts. If your current average monthly income is below the median income for your family size in Washington, you qualify to file Chapter 7 in Washington.
If your income is more than the median income, you can complete the second part of the means test, which looks at your expenses to see how much disposable income you have. If the means test shows that you have enough disposable income to repay some of your debts, you may need to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which will put you on a repayment plan.
Data on Median income levels for Washington
Washington Median Income Standards for Means Test for Cases Filed In 2023
|Household Size||Monthly Income||Annual Income|
Data on Poverty levels for Washington
Washington 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)|
Washington Bankruptcy Forms
Bankruptcy Code is federal law, so Washington state primarily uses the federal bankruptcy forms. There are some local forms that are also required and vary by district. It’s important to ensure that you’ve completed and filed all the necessary Washington Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms when filing your case.
|District||Filing Packet or Local Forms to Include|
|Western District Court||Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Form Package|
|Eastern District||fillable PDFs here|
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Washington Districts & Filing Requirements
As we mentioned before, each bankruptcy district has slightly different rules and potential resources for residents. Check out your district’s rules as you make your filing plan, it could save you some legwork!
|Your Bankruptcy District||County You Live In|
|Western District||Clallam, Clark, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Thurston, Wahkiakum, and Whatcom.|
|Eastern District||Adams, Asotin, Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Ferry, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla, Whitman, and Yakima.|
Western District of Washington Filing Requirements
The Western District usually requires bankruptcy filers to pay by cashier’s check or money order payable to “U.S. Bankruptcy Court.” Exact cash is also accepted. As part of changes to accommodate for COVID-19, the court is currently encouraging filers to make online payments or mail a certified check and money order to the Clerk’s Office.
In the Western District, the down payment for installment payments is $100.
Eastern District of Washington Filing Requirements
As of April 16, 2020, filers in the Eastern District can pay their fees online. Personal checks and cash are not accepted. You can also pay by cashier’s check or money order to “Clerk, United States Court.” Include your case number in the memo section and mail to:
U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Washington
P.O. Box 2164
Spokane, WA 99210-2164.
The Eastern District doesn’t list a required down payment amount for installment payments.
Check the court’s homepage for current COVID-19 alerts.
Washington Bankruptcy Exemptions
Bankruptcy exemptions allow you to protect your essential property and income like child support, Social Security, and alimony. In Washington, you can choose to use either the Washington bankruptcy exemptions or the federal bankruptcy exemptions. It pays to do your homework and compare the exemptions, especially for potentially big-ticket items like your home.
It’s important to note that you can’t mix and match between the federal and state exemptions. You’ll 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.
The Washington homestead exemption protects up to $125,000 of equity in your home or real estate so long as it’s your principal residence. This includes a manufactured or mobile home. The state exemption provides significantly more protection than the $25,150 offered by the federal exemption.
Motor Vehicle Exemption
When it comes to protection for your vehicle the Washington and federal exemptions are very close. Under Washington exemptions, you can protect up to $3,250 in one motor vehicle. Under federal exemptions, you can protect up to $4,000 for your motor vehicle.
Under the Washington wildcard exemption, 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. Under federal exemptions, $1,325 plus $12,575 of any unused portion of your homestead exemption is available to exempt any property of your choosing.
Washington Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost
Since bankruptcy filings tend to be fairly predictable, bankruptcy lawyers usually charge a flat fee rather than billing by the hour. The cost of a bankruptcy lawyer in Washington state can range between $1,100 and $1,200. It varies depending on how complicated your case is.
While many bankruptcy attorneys offer a free consultation, it’s also important to note that most bankruptcy attorneys require you to pay all of the costs in advance of filing your case. While cost is an important consideration, there are other things to keep in mind when deciding on an attorney.
Washington Legal Aid Organizations
If you’re feeling unsure about filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy on your own, but you can’t afford an attorney, there are many legal aid options in Washington for low-income individuals and seniors. Some legal aid organizations in Washington offer many legal services while others specialize in one area like bankruptcy. Both the Eastern District and the Western District offer specific suggestions for individuals filing bankruptcy without an attorney.
Northwest Justice Project
401 Second Avenue South, Suite 407, Seattle, WA 98104
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)
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|