Living in California comes with a lot of benefits, but it also often comes with a high cost of living, which makes slipping into debt really easy. After all, if most of your income is spent on just housing and transportation expenses, not much is left for any other expenses.
Filing bankruptcy in California can help you wipe your slate clean and get a fresh start. Bankruptcy law provides for an automatic stay of debt collection actions. This means wage garnishments and repossessions have to stop as soon as your case is filed.
Whether you are an Oscar-winner like Kim Basinger, who filed in 1993, or just a regular Californian trying to make a living in the Golden State, it’s important to remember that you can seek bankruptcy protection by filing either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
How to File Bankruptcy in California for Free
Getting debt relief through bankruptcy doesn’t have to be expensive. If you can’t afford to hire a bankruptcy lawyer, you can file bankruptcy without one. This guide will take you through the 10-steps of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California without a lawyer.
- Collect Your California Bankruptcy Documents
- Take Credit Counseling
- Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
- Get Your Filing Fee
- Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
- Go to Court to File Your Forms
- Mail Documents to Your Trustee
- Take Bankruptcy Course 2
- Attend Your 341 Meeting
- Dealing with Your Car
Collect Your California Bankruptcy Documents
You’ll submit most of the information for your California bankruptcy case by submitting the official bankruptcy forms to the court. Collecting certain documents that contain the information you’ll need beforehand will make that part a lot easier for you. Plus, there are a few things – like your last income tax return – that have to be submitted to your trustee during the bankruptcy process.
To correctly calculate your monthly income, you’ll need to collect your paycheck stubs from the last 6 months. If you’re self-employed or a gig worker, document your monthly income in a way that makes sense for your situation.
You’ll also need to provide a list of all your creditors to the bankruptcy court. You can get a free credit report to help with this but you should also review any collection notices you’re getting in the mail. That way you can make sure you’re not missing anyone.
Take Credit Counseling
You’ll have to complete credit counseling in the 6 months before filing your bankruptcy case. Federal law requires it, no matter what type of bankruptcy someone files. Make sure to sign up for this course with one of the providers approved for California bankruptcy cases.
You don’t have to go anywhere to complete this requirement; most providers offer it online or over the phone. There is a small cost associated with taking the course, but several non-profit companies are approved to offer the course in California. So, if the first phone number you call ends up quoting you $50 – the maximum allowed under federal law – shop around. There’s bound to be more affordable options available.
Complete the Bankruptcy Forms
The bankruptcy forms are the same for everyone that files in the same district as you. Some of thenational forms are pretty self-explanatory and easy to complete by yourself. Others, like the one asking you to list your exempt property, can be a little more technical.
If you hire a bankruptcy attorney, they’ll ask you all the questions that they need answered to prepare the California bankruptcy forms. If you’re using Upsolve’s free app, it’ll walk you through all of the questions on the forms, then generate them for you.
Since you are the one signing the bankruptcy forms before they are filed with the court, it’s important for you to carefully review everything. You can learn more about the California bankruptcy process by visiting the court’s self-help center in San Diego or the self-help desk at the Sacramento courthouse.
Get Your Filing Fee
If your income is less than 150% of the federal poverty guidelines, you can file an application to have the filing fee waived. If you don’t meet the requirements for a fee waiver, but are unable to pay the full $338 all at once – maybe due to an ongoing garnishment -, you can apply to pay the court filing fee in installments instead.
If you are able to pay the court filing fee in full, you should bring it with you when you go to the courthouse to file all of your bankruptcy documents. You can’t use a credit card, debit card, or personal check to make this payment. California bankruptcy courts generally accept US Postal Service money orders and cashier’s checks from an acceptable financial institution (this probably means major bank). Cash usually works too, but many bankruptcy courts are not accepting cash at the moment due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Print Your Bankruptcy Forms
Once you have (1) taken credit counseling, (2) collected your documents and completed your California bankruptcy forms, and (3) made a game plan on how to handle the filing fee, you’re ready to officially begin the process of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California.
If you completed all documents on your computer, print everything out twice so you have a copy for your own files. If you’re filing without any help, remember there are a lot of different forms that make up the full filing package, so having a checklist will come in handy.
Go to Court to File Your Forms
California has 4 federal districts, which means there are four bankruptcy districts. You can find out which district your case needs to be filed in using this tool provided by the Eastern District of California. You can file your case by dropping the California bankruptcy forms off in person, or by mailing them to the bankruptcy court. Folks that file without an attorney (“pro se”) in California’s Central District, can file their bankruptcy case online using the court’s Electronic Self-Representation (eSR) Bankruptcy Petition Preparation System.
If you’re going in person, Keep in mind that the court is a federal building, so you’ll be required to pass through security on your way in and that you can’t file your case on a federal holiday.
Mail Documents to Your Trustee
Once your California bankruptcy is filed with the court, most of the heavy lifting is done. The court will assign a bankruptcy trustee to handle your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. The bankruptcy trustee sells nonexempt property and pays it to creditors in order of priority, depending on the types of debt someone has. Most Chapter 7 filers don’t have any nonexempt property.
They may send you a letter asking you to send them bank statements, paycheck stubs and similar documents in addition to your federal income tax return. It’s important that you pay close attention to any such requests you may receive from your trustee.
Take Bankruptcy Course 2
The Bankruptcy Code requires everyone to take this course after filing bankruptcy even if there is nothing someone could have done differently to avoid it. It’s important to take this course from one of the approved providers, and while you don’t have to get it done before your 341 meeting, you certainly can.
Once you have completed bankruptcy course 2, your certificate of completion will need to be filed with the bankruptcy court. Make sure you ask your course provider whether they will file the certificate in your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case for you, or if you are required to do it yourself.
If you don’t complete this course, you will not receive your discharge; however, the case administration continues. Since the discharge is the main benefit of filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California, it is important not to forget this step.
Attend Your 341 Meeting
In most cases,the 341 meeting, or “meeting of creditors,” is the only time a bankruptcy filer goes to court. You won’t meet with a judge or other court official on this day. Instead, the bankruptcy trustee that is handling your case will meet with you to ask you some standard questions about your case.
While it’s not required, there are some easy tips and tricks on how to prepare for your 341 meeting. Other than showing up, the most important part is that you bring a valid picture ID and proof of social security number. The bankruptcy trustee will only accept certain forms of identification, so if you don’t know where your actual social security card is, make sure you have an acceptable alternate.
Dealing with Your Car
If you own your car free and clear (or it’s worth more than you owe), make sure to claim the appropriate bankruptcy exemption under California law to protect this value. If you have a car loan, bankruptcy law gives you 3 options for dealing with it. You can surrender it to the bank and discharge the loan, you can purchase the car for its current value and discharge the rest of the loan, or you can keep everything the same by entering a reaffirmation agreement with the bank.
California Bankruptcy Means Test
When Congress amended the Bankruptcy Code in 2005, it created the “means test” to make sure folks can’t abuse the United States bankruptcy system. The bankruptcy means test starts by comparing your household income to the median household income of a household of the same size in the Golden State.
If you’re not a regular wage earner, and instead get paid on commissions or per job assignment, remember that this test is based on the 6 months before your bankruptcy filing date, not including the month you file in.
Data on Median income levels for California
|California 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 California
|California Fee Waiver Eligibility for Cases Filed On or After May 1, 2021Eligible for fee waiver when under 150% the poverty level.|
|Household Size||State Poverty Level||Fee Waiver Limit (150% PL)|
California Bankruptcy Forms
California bankruptcy forms can be broken down into two categories: (1) the national forms that are the same in bankruptcy filings in all states, and (2) local forms that vary for every district in California. Once you find out which district your bankruptcy case needs to be filed in (see below for details), make sure you head to that district’s website to find out their specific requirements.
Central District of California Requirements
One of the required documents in this district is a declaration regarding the income you received in the 60 day period before filing your California bankruptcy case. All required forms and their instructions are made available for free on the Central District of California court’s website.
The Central District of California is home to the largest bankruptcy court in the United States and has court locations in Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Ana, Santa Barbara and in the San Fernando Valley. It stretches from the Central Coast area across the entire state to the state border. Folks filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California who live in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo will have their case heard in the Central District.
Eastern District of California Requirements
All the documents needed to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in this district can be downloaded as a single packet from the Eastern District of California court’s website. The Eastern Bankruptcy District’s website also provides pro se filers a free tool to create their creditor matrix.
The Eastern District of California is broken into three divisions, Sacramento, Modesto, and Fresno, and covers 34 counties reaching from the Oregon border in the north, down to Bakersfield in the south, and from the coastal mountains in the west, to the Nevada border in the east.
Northern District of California Requirements
The Northern District has a variety of district-specific forms. There are also specific local forms depending on which of the four divisions is handling your California bankruptcy case. One of the documents that is identical across the entire district is the statement regarding pay advices that you are required to send to your bankruptcy trustee. Note: The statement regarding pay advices is not filed with the court!
The Northern District was established in 1850, only two weeks after California became a state and today encompasses fifteen counties, namely Alameda, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma counties.
Southern District of California Requirements
This district covers the southernmost counties in California: San Diego County and Imperial County and houses a single bankruptcy court building in San Diego. The Southern District also holds 341 meetings in El Centro.
California Bankruptcy Exemptions
Exemption laws determine what property you have that your bankruptcy trustee can’t touch. California residents can choose between two sets of exemptions to protect their assets. One set of California bankruptcy exemptions bankruptcy cases. If you don’t own a home with equity, you’re able to protect up to $25,340.00 in property that’s not protected outside the bankruptcy process.
California Bankruptcy Lawyer Cost
Depending on your situation, having a lawyer help you with your bankruptcy filing may be a good investment. Even though the low end cost of a bankruptcy lawyer can be as high as $1,200 (and the upper end of therange is around $1,850), getting legal advice can save you money in the long run, especially if your property doesn’t seem to fit into the California bankruptcy exemptions.
California Legal Aid Organizations
Legal Aid in California can help if you can’t afford a bankruptcy lawyer but don’t want to go through the bankruptcy process on your own. There are a variety of organizations, non-profits, and other resources available to anyone looking to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in California.
Bay Area Legal Aid
1735 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA 94612
California Indian Legal Services, Inc.
609 S. Escondido Boulevard, Escondido, CA 92025
California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
1430 Franklin Street, Suite 103, Oakland, CA 94612
Central California Legal Services
2115 Kern Street, Suite 1, Fresno, CA 93721
Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc.
1040 Iowa Avenue, Suite 109, Riverside, CA 92507-2106
Nationwide Service (NYC Office)