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California Bankruptcy Records

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Are California Bankruptcy Records Public Information?

Yes, California bankruptcy records are typically public information, as stated in 11 U.S.C. § 107. Members of the public can request to review or copy these records, provided the documents have not been sealed. 11 U.S.C. §§ 107 and 112 specify parts of a bankruptcy record (mainly personal data identifiers) that are redacted to prevent public viewing, including:

  • Whole social security numbers (only the last 4 numbers are revealed)
  • Full tax identification number (only the last 4 digits are shown)
  • Complete names of minor children (only the child's initials are shown)
  • Financial account numbers
  • Complete birth dates (only the year is shown)

The bankruptcy court may also seal information at its discretion, especially if there is a risk of harm or injury to a party of the case.

Record seekers looking for an alternative to government sources may obtain bankruptcy records from third-party websites. These non-governmental websites often come with tools that help simplify the search for single or multiple records. However, record availability on third-party sites tends to vary because they’re independent of government sources. To obtain bankruptcy case information using third-party sites, record seekers may need to provide:

  • A complete name of the debtor involved in the record
  • A bankruptcy case number

Bankruptcy in California

Bankruptcy is a process established by federal laws and rules to assist individuals and companies who are unable to pay creditors. Declaring bankruptcy in the State of California frees sincere debtors from financial hardships and allows them to settle debts by liquidating their assets or systematically repaying creditors (reorganization). Bankruptcy filings and proceedings take place at any of the four U.S. Bankruptcy Courts based in California. The appropriate court to begin a case depends on the area where the debtor lives, has a business, or has a principal asset. For instance, persons residing or running a business in Calaveras, Tuolumne, or Stanislaus county must file for bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of California (Modesto Division). The state courts have no authority to hear bankruptcy cases.

What are California Bankruptcy Records?

California bankruptcy records contain the personal and financial details of individuals or companies filing for bankruptcy. They provide details of the creditors and other essential case information. Per 11 U.S.C. § 107, the federal courts create public records with each filing made. The bankruptcy courts allow any member of the public to examine or duplicate records through a federal online records service (PACER), via telephone, by mail, or at the courts' physical locations through the Clerk of Court's office, provided the desired record is not sealed from public access. Nevertheless, non-governmental websites still offer online access to bankruptcy information and records.

What Do California Bankruptcy Records Contain?

California bankruptcy records have the identifying information of debtors and creditors, their financial information, and other details relevant to the petitioned case. These records can be in the form of documents, reports, audio files, court opinions, and transcripts. Some information that may be found in a record includes:

  • The names, addresses, and contact information of debtors and creditors
  • The debtor's assets (if any) and income
  • The name and phone number of the debtor's attorney (if any)
  • List of creditors, type of debts owed (secured, unsecured), and the owed amounts
  • The status of the case
  • Case number
  • The name of the U.S. trustee and judge assigned to the case
  • Closing and discharge dates
  • Details on the 341 creditors’ meeting
  • Filing date and type (voluntary or involuntary)
  • The bankruptcy chapter that was filed

How to Find California Bankruptcy Records

There are several ways to obtain a bankruptcy record in California:

  • Online through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (or PACER) or Courts’ Case Management/Electronic Filing System (CM/ECF)
  • Telephone via the Multi-Court Voice Case Information System, or McVCIS
  • In-person or mail request to the Clerk's office
  • From the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA)

Obtaining bankruptcy records through Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) and CM/ECF:

PACER provides members of the public with access to bankruptcy case information and court documents. To use this web-based records system to obtain bankruptcy information, requesters must have a PACER account.

There are fees required to search or download records. The PACER fee schedule provides information on service costs. Some persons and groups may be exempted from paying fees, including academic researchers and other parties (indigent persons, pro se litigants, bankruptcy trustees, etc.).

To search for court records on PACER, a requester must have a party's name, the case number, a tax identification number, or a social security number (SSN).

Note that it is not possible to obtain sealed court records through PACER. Also, documents filed before December 1, 2003, and which have been closed for over a year cannot be accessed through PACER by members of the public. However, everyone still has access to the docket sheets and information. Persons authorized to access the pre-2003 cases are the case participants. These parties can do so through the court's CM/ECF or at a court's public computer terminal (if without a CM/ECF account).

The PACER Service Center can be contacted at (800) 676-6856 from 8:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays (Monday to Friday) to get information on unavailable records. To acquire more details about a case from the internet, interested parties need to access the CM/ECF sites of the bankruptcy courts. The Court CM/ECF Lookup tool can be used to find the CM/ECF sites of the California bankruptcy courts.

Obtaining bankruptcy records through Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (McVCIS):

McVCIS is a 24-hour electronic records system accessible by telephone at (866) 222-8029. It aids interested persons in procuring unsealed bankruptcy information at no cost. Like PACER, the McVCIS provides limited case information. Interested persons must dial the phone number above, enter the specific court's extension (obtainable by clicking the court's name on the Court CM/ECF Lookup page), and provide certain case information:

  • The name of a party to the case
  • A case number
  • A social security number or tax I.D. number

Individuals unable to obtain information from the McVCIS may contact the relevant court by phone during business hours.

Obtaining bankruptcy records from the Clerk of Court's office:

Each bankruptcy court in California has a Clerk's office in its divisional offices responsible for the court's administrative and clerical functions, and the release of public information. Thus, members of the public can visit or mail the specific divisional office (the one where the petition was initiated) to obtain bankruptcy records.

If visiting the court, an individual can view records through public access terminals located at the Clerk's public counter lobby for free. The party may also request paper copies or certified copies of records from the Clerk's office. If mailing the Clerk's office, paper and certified copies can also be provided to the requester. The street and mailing addresses of the four courts and their divisional offices can generally be obtained from "location" webpages of the courts:

  • U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of California
  • U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Central District of California
  • U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of California
  • U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of California

A PDF document published by the Eastern Bankruptcy Court titled 'United States Bankruptcy Courts within California' also has this information.

To receive certified or paper copies from the court, it is necessary to have the case number and docket number of the document(s). These numbers can be obtained from the McVCIS at (866) 222-8029 (as described above). Furthermore, mail requests must contain the debtor's name, requester's daytime phone number, and self-addressed, stamped return envelope, in addition to the case and docket numbers. There is a fee for copy requests, which is uniform across courts. Mail requesters should note that the courts accept only USPS money orders and bank cashier's checks addressed to the United States Bankruptcy Court. The cash option is usually reserved for in-person requesters.

Obtaining bankruptcy records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA):

NARA provides access to older and closed bankruptcy records (prior to December 1, 2003) for a fee. Sometimes, older records may be available through CM/ECF. For instance, cases filed before February 2001 in the Los Angeles Division of the California Central Bankruptcy Court can be accessed through the court's CM/ECF or by calling (855) 460-9641. Other times, an interested person must request from the Federal Records Center (FRC) of NARA because the records have been archived and are no longer maintained by the courts.

The appropriate FRC to send a request is the Center in charge of storing the filing court's records. For instance, the San Francisco FRC maintains the Northern and Central Bankruptcy courts' older records while the Riverside FRC serves the Southern California Bankruptcy Court.

Requests for copies of archived records can be made directly to the FRC. or through the court to FRC (especially if requesting to examine a record). Methods for requesting copies include fax, USPS mail, email, and online. If submitting a copy request by fax, mail, or email, a requester must complete the NATF Form 90 (National Archives and Records Administration Order for Copies of Bankruptcy Case) and forward it to the relevant FRC. It is not possible to obtain records from NARA without a location number, box number, and transfer number. These details can be retrieved from the court (Clerk's office) where the bankruptcy petition was filed. The Southern Bankruptcy Court also provides an online search tool in this regard. A party will need a case number to obtain the necessary information from this tool.

Parties requesting to examine an archived record must ask the Clerk's office to retrieve the record. This is because the FRCs do not process inspection requests at their locations. A fee must be paid to the Clerk's office before a record is retrieved ($64 for the first box and $39 per extra box). Once obtained, the interested party must visit the office to view the record. The California Central Bankruptcy Court provides a form that individuals can use to make this request.

Where to Conduct a Free Bankruptcy Case Search in California

Bankruptcy in the United States is a federal court matter. Therefore, anyone looking for where to conduct a free bankruptcy case search in California should contact the United States bankruptcy courts based in the state, specifically the United States bankruptcy court that heard the case. Generally, the federal courts provide the following means to view bankruptcy records at no cost:

  • Public access computers/terminals at the U.S. bankruptcy courthouses
  • The automated Voice Case Information System (VCIS) at (866) 222-8029 (toll-free)

Note: The California bankruptcy courts (and the National Archive and Records Administration) provide other means to perform a bankruptcy case search, but these methods are fee-inclusive.

How Do I Find Out if My Bankruptcy Case is Closed in California?

When a bankruptcy case is closed in California, it means that all activities and proceedings of the case have been concluded. However, it does not mean that the court discharged the petitioner's debts. This non-discharge can occur because of a failure to comply with court procedures, submit certain financial documents, or complete a financial course.

Usually, when a case is closed, the debtor or the debtor's attorney will receive a notice from the court by mail regarding the closing order. A principal party can also determine if a case has been closed from the PACER and McVCIS databases. Furthermore, the Clerk's office can provide this information.

Can a Bankruptcy Be Expunged in California?

Expungement is a legal process by which court records are erased or destroyed. The expungement procedure is more commonly seen in the criminal justice system to give certain ex-offenders access to housing, credit, immigration, and employment. Though bankruptcy is not a criminal act and the federal bankruptcy code does not explicitly state expungement procedures, judges have the right to issue orders at will (11 U.S.C. § 105) in the fulfillment of their duties and the law. This includes an order of expungement. Although parties can file motions to expunge with the courts, it is mostly granted in limited situations - when a bankruptcy case occurs because of fraud or identity theft, or when the debtor did not consent to the filing (for example, In Re O.G.M. Case No. 2:13-bk-32922-RK).

The judges also have the authority to remove certain materials classified as scandalous or defamatory from the public record to protect a party (11 U.S.C. § 107) or prevent access to trade secrets and confidential business information.

What is the Downside of Filing for Bankruptcy in California?

One of the immediate downsides to filing for bankruptcy is its impact on the subject’s credit report. More often than not, filing for bankruptcy in California will result in a lower credit score. Just how steep the drop is will depend on the individual’s original credit score. A person with an average credit score of 680 could lose as much as 150 points, while people with an above-average score may lose almost 240 points. This effect can last for years. Depending on the type of claim, bankruptcy remains on a credit score for 7 to 10 years. Some of the other downsides to filing for bankruptcy include:

  • Loss of real estate and personal property (for Chapter 7 bankruptcy)
  • Difficulty getting new lines of credit or credit cards in California
  • Difficulty securing mortgage
  • May negatively affect the ability to secure new employment
  • Possible denial of tax refunds for cases not covered by California’s Bankruptcy Exemptions Code (Section 703 or 704)

For people with low credit scores (400 to 500), filing for bankruptcy may result in a slight increase by boosting their debt-to-credit ratio.

What is Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in California?

Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a form of bankruptcy that provides a means for corporations in California to restructure and reorganize their debt. Under this bankruptcy structure, the company creates a plan - subject to the approval of creditors - that allows for the repayment of all debts, including priority debts, unsecured debts, and secured debts. Details of the reorganization plan may include company downsizing, asset liquidation, and possible renegotiation of debt.

Either the debtor or creditors (three or more) may file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the event of the latter, the debtor is granted anywhere from four to eighteen months to develop a reorganization plan. If the business is unable to do this within the provided period, creditors may create a reorganization plan.

A chapter 11 bankruptcy (sometimes referred to it as a "reorganization bankruptcy".) offers some benefits to debtors such as a reduced monthly payment and a lowered interest rate. It also allows debtors to carry on operating their business - albeit with oversight from the bankruptcy court on all major decisions. Although Chapter 11 bankruptcies are more appropriate for sole proprietors, partnerships, and corporations; they can also be used by celebrities and athletes, depending on the debt condition. It provides an alternative for companies with significant debt who wish to avoid the option of total liquidation, provided under the Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

What is Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in California?

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy provides a structure via which California residents can pay off debts by liquidating assets, such as non-exempt property and real estate, vehicles, and jewelry. Because of this, accountants and lawyers sometimes refer to Chapter 7 bankruptcies as a "liquidation" or "straight bankruptcy".

Do I Qualify for a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in California?

To be eligible for a chapter 7 bankruptcy, a California resident must have an income that falls under the median income for California. Residents who earn an annual salary higher than the state’s median will need to pass a mean test, which helps identify the debtor's disposable income by subtracting all necessary living expenses from all sources of income.

Filing for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a highly complex process that involves multiple steps, some of which include:

  • Meeting the eligibility requirements for a Chapter 7
  • Completing a credit counseling program
  • Filling out and filing the necessary bankruptcy forms
  • Having assets evaluated by a trustee

Depending on the circumstances, bankruptcy laws in California provide exemptions for some assets such as a home.

In 2020, the median income for a California household was $75,277 representing a 4.84 increase from the previous year. The state’s median property value was $546,800 with a 54.8% homeownership rate.

What is Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in California?

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy is a form of bankruptcy that allows Californian debtors to pay off debts while sticking to a supervised repayment plan. It’s restricted to only individuals and sole proprietors and not corporations or small businesses. Debtors may propose a repayment plan that runs from three to five years, depending on their current and future income. A Chapter 13 plan varies from other types of bankruptcy in that it reduces the risk of liquidation or repossession. Under this plan, a California resident may still be able to keep a home, car, or other valuable items.

Do I Qualify for a California Chapter 13 Bankruptcy?

To qualify for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy in California, residents must prove their secured debt and unsecured debt does not exceed a specific value ($1,184,200 and $394,725 as of 2019). Other requirements include:

  • The debtor must have filed taxes for the four last years prior to the bankruptcy date
  • The candidate must have a regular income that supports the proposed repayment plan

A Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows for the successful reconciliation of debts between three to five years. The exact length of the repayment plan is determined by the debtor’s average monthly income and household income. In addition to salaries, the income used to offset debts may include self-employment wages, social security checks, disability checks, and wages.

What is the Difference Between a Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in California?

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a debt-repayment option that involves the liquidation of assets and property. In contrast, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows individuals to pay off debts with the reduced risk of surrendering assets or liquidating property. The eligibility requirement for each option also varies. While individuals, sole proprietors, and business entities may file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, only individuals and sole proprietors (not businesses or corporations) may file for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. In addition, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy typically takes 90 to 100 days to complete, while a Chapter 13 bankruptcy may take three to five years.

What is Bankruptcy Protection in California?

Bankruptcy protection is a court action that protects debtors by placing an "automatic stay" on the collection of all debt. It provides an individual or company in California with more time to reorganize or restructure debt payments. The court order freezes the actions of most creditors and collectors, including evictions, vehicle repossessions, collector calls, letters, wage garnishments, legal proceedings, and some tax actions. The bankruptcy court mails the order to all creditors or any party seeking payment, informing them of the decision. Depending on the case, bankruptcy protection may last anywhere from 90 days to 63 months. Creditors who violate the court’s automatic stay order risk facing severe penalties such as:

  • Paying court costs and attorney fees
  • Sanctions and fines from the court
  • Paying punitive damages

What are California Bankruptcy Exemptions?

California bankruptcy exemptions protect certain property and assets from liquidation during the debt repayment process. While some states allow debtors to choose between state or federal exemptions, California law only allows residents to choose between two sets of state exemptions: Code Section 703 or Code Section 704.

What is Exempted Under California Code Section 704?

Some of the protections provided under California’s 704 exemptions include:

  • Retirement accounts
  • Household goods
  • Vehicle (up to $3,050)
  • Jewelry (up to $8,000)
  • Home equity ($75,000 for singles, $100,000 for couples and $175,000 for individuals 65 years or older)

What is Exempted Under California Code Section 703?

Some of the items permitted under California’s 703 exemptions include:

  • Homestead Exemption: Debtors may exempt up to $29,275 in interest for property used as a residence
  • Tools of the trade: California allows for the exemption of professional books, implements, or other tools of the trade up to $8,725.
  • Wild card exemption: Debtors may protect assets in any class up to a total of roughly $30,000 (depending on whether home equity is protected).
  • Household and furnishing goods: Residents may protect goods, furnishing, appliances, or apparel up to $725 per item
  • Retirement accounts
  • Jewelry: Code permits exemptions for jewelry up to $1,750

How Much Does It Cost to File Bankruptcy in California?

The total cost to file bankruptcy cases in California depends on several factors, including:

  • The chapter of bankruptcy to be filed (ranges from $278 to $1,738).
  • Fees for legal representation. This amount varies depending on where the petitioner resides (costs in a metropolitan area are usually higher) and the case difficulty.
  • Court costs. For instance, the court fees that apply to convert one chapter of bankruptcy to another (e.g., $922 for Chapter 7 to 11; $25 for Chapter 11 to 7) or file other necessary motions.
  • The fees for credit counseling and debtor education or personal financial management courses ($20 to $100).

For this reason, it is often difficult to estimate how much a person may spend to file a bankruptcy petition in California. However, based on the fixed statutory amounts required to file any chapter of bankruptcy, the total (including the legal fees and costs) can easily amount to hundreds or, most likely, thousands of dollars. It is advisable to speak with an attorney to get an actual price quote or estimate.

Besides being a complex legal procedure, bankruptcy can be costly. Thus, individuals may seek other means to reduce costs, the common one being to proceed "pro se" (the do-it-yourself method). However, this route may have a lower success rate than bankruptcy cases handled by a lawyer, given that a citizen may not be familiar with all bankruptcy laws, requirements, and procedures to discharge their debts. As attorney fees constitute a greater percentage of bankruptcy costs, one expert-recommended way for low-income individuals to reduce bankruptcy costs is to source free legal aid services.