Is bankruptcy in California a reasonable way to take control of your finances, or is it a disaster that will potentially haunt you for years? It can be either, or both, depending on a person's outlook and circumstances. One thing is true in either case: it's a complex legal proceeding that generates an incredible amount of paperwork. Maybe that's because both federal bankruptcy rules and California-specific court rules apply to the procedures and filing requirements. Many bankruptcy records in California are public, and you can access them online or at the courthouse. It is easier to find the records you want if you have a basic understanding of the bankruptcy court, its requirements and its filings.
Bankruptcy in California Basics
Bankruptcy is a legal proceeding that takes place in the federal bankruptcy courts. Every state has at least one bankruptcy court, and that state's laws can impact the procedures required. In California, there are four different bankruptcy courts which have multiple locations serving various geographical areas. The courts in California are:
the Northern District
of California Bankruptcy
Courts, that have courts in San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Ana and San Jose
* the Southern District
of California Bankruptcy
Courts, with a location in San Diego
the Central District of California Bankruptcy Courts, that include locations in Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Ana, San Fernando Valley and Santa Barbara
the Eastern District
of California Bankruptcy
Courts, with locations in Sacramento, Bakersfield, Modesto and Fresno
Each of the district offices often has a separate web page. You can get information about each court's hours, address, mailing address and phone number at its website. You can also check on fees, get local forms required by the court and find out about court filings.
Different Types of Bankruptcy
Many people have heard about two different forms of bankruptcy called Chapter 7 and Chapter 11. But fewer people have a good grasp of the differences between them. In fact, there are four common types of bankruptcy cases. Each is described in a specific chapter of the federal Bankruptcy Code, and is named after that chapter. Two are for individuals, one primarily for corporations or partnerships and one for family farmers.
Some types of bankruptcy filings are intended to reorganize the finances of a person or a business in a way what allows the bankrupt to pay off debts over time. Other types are intended to result in liquidation, meaning that the bankrupt assets are sold and the cash used to pay off creditors to the extent possible.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the most common form of bankruptcy for individuals in California. It is a liquidation bankruptcy. The individual gets to keep assets exempt from sale under federal or California law. (California is one of the few states that lets you choose between two different lists of exemptions.) Then, after the exemptions are claimed and in place, all other assets are sold and the proceeds used to pay off creditors. Not every individual is eligible for this type of bankruptcy in California; you have to pass a "means test" to establish that you don't make a lot of money. In California, once an individual files a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, she cannot file again for six years.
Both Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 are bankruptcies intended to reorganize the finances of the person or company filing. Chapter 11 is quite complex, so although it can be used by individuals, it is more often used by businesses like corporations or partnerships. Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a simpler form of reorganization bankruptcy for individuals. In both these types of bankruptcy, the debtor gets to keep all assets but tries to work out a repayment plan with creditors. With Chapter 13, it is appropriate only for individuals with regular income, since the person keeps her assets but arranges to use her income to pay debts over three to five years.
Chapter 12, on the other hand, is a reorganization type bankruptcy proceeding for family farmers. Again, the debtor gets to keep her assets but must work with creditors to come up with a repayment plan.
Forms and Petitions in Bankruptcy Court
When you are looking up bankruptcy records in California, it also helps to know the type of filings a case is likely to contain. Bankruptcy is a type of legal case that is form-driven, and petitioners must start the process by filling in all kinds of financial information on official bankruptcy forms. Many filers use downloadable, fillable versions of the forms that can be found on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court forms website. In addition to the federal bankruptcy court forms, petitioners in California must use the type of paperwork specified in the local courts.
Bankruptcy petitions can include these types of forms:
- Forms providing identifying information, such as the person's name and address, Social Security number, business names, bankruptcy chapter, whether the person owns or rents her main residence, whether she filed for bankruptcy before and when, and whether she has done a credit counseling course;
- Forms identifying property owned, including real property, vehicles, boats and watercraft, household items and electronics, financial accounts, debts owed to you, business property;
- Forms listing exempt property;
- Forms listing collateralized debts, in which the creditor can take and sell the person's property to cover the debt, like vehicle loans and home mortgages;
- Forms listing other debts, including legal claims against the person, government taxes owed or family support owed, as well as credit car and medical bills;
- Forms listing contracts and leases;
- Forms listing co-debtors who are on the person's loans or debts;
- Forms listing income and job information;
- Forms listing the person's monthly expenses; and
- Forms setting out the person's financial affairs.
How to Obtain Case Information
Most bankruptcy court filings are public information, open to viewing not just by debtors, but also by members of the public. Whether you want information on your own filings or you want information on another filing, you will need this information: a case number, a complete name or a SSN or tax identification number. With that information, you can get access to bankruptcy information by telephone, in person or online. You can also obtain copies of bankruptcy documents as well as certified copies of bankruptcy documents.
If you have access to a telephone, you can make a toll-free call to the automated Voice Case Information System of the bankruptcy court. The number to call is 866-222-8029. This is convenient because there are no office hours to worry about. You can call at any hour of any day, even Christmas at midnight. The automated system provides these types of information about a case:
- a bankruptcy case number
- the name of the debtor
- the date the case was filed
- whether it was voluntary or involuntary
- the chapter the petition was filed under
- the name of the judge
- the significant dates, like the discharge date
- whether assets exist
- the status
- the disposition
Are you wondering: "How do I find my bankruptcy case number online?" You can do it with PACER. Access bankruptcy information online using the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, also called PACER. This is a web-based system allowing internet users to open a PACER account and look up, look at and print bankruptcy case documents. Is there a fee? Yes, there is. You'll pay a modest fee for every page you review. You can find PACER information, including instructions for signing up, on the website of the bankruptcy courts.
If you live in a city in California close to the bankruptcy court, you can walk right in and use the public access terminals in each Bankruptcy Court divisional office. Is there a fee? No, there is absolutely no fee for this service. But you will need to find out the business hours and visit during open hours.
How to Obtain Paper Copies
If you need paper copies of bankruptcy documents, it is entirely possible to get them. You can ask for them in person, order them by mail, or look them up on the PACER system and print them. You'll need to have a bankruptcy case number to order documents. If it's your own case, you surely have a filing in your possession with the number. Otherwise, you can get bankruptcy case numbers by phoning the bankruptcy court's Voice Case Information System at 866-222-8029. You can also get the number from a public access terminal in the divisional office of any bankruptcy court.
Although the contact and information is free and the call won't cost you anything, you may have to pay modest per-page fees for photocopying the documents. In some cases, you may also need to pay for the clerk to search the court records. Call the court and ask about what fees apply for the copies you want to make.
In some cases, you may want certified copies of bankruptcy documents. Certified copies are those stamped by the clerk to verify that they are true and correct copies of the original documents. You can get certified copies of bankruptcy documents either in person or by mail from the office where the bankruptcy case was filed. Again, you'll need a bankruptcy case number as well as the docket number of the document to be certified. Docket numbers are those numbers listed on the official court docket. You can get them from the public access terminal in a bankruptcy court office or through the PACER system.
You'll also need the bankruptcy case number and the debtor's name and phone number. There are fees for certified copies of documents. Once you submit your request, the bankruptcy clerk will contact you to let you know the fees you will be charged. You'll need to pay with a cashier's check or U.S. Postal Service money orders made payable to the United States Bankruptcy Court.
Do not send cash or personal checks when paying for certified documents.
Retrieving Old Bankruptcy Cases
If a bankruptcy case has been closed for a year or longer, you may not be able to get copies over PACER or in the active court files. These cases may be found in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Perris, California.
Contact the clerk of court in the bankruptcy division where the case was heard. If it was transferred to archives, you'll need some information from the clerk in order to retrieve it or to obtain copies. That information includes a transfer number, a location number and a box number. You can get that information either in person, by phone or by writing to the Records Department of the divisional office where the bankruptcy case was filed.
Once you get that information, request the records from NARA directly. Go to the NARA website to get the specifics on how to place that request and the fees involved.