The question ‘can you file for bankruptcy online’ is a tricky one in 2022.
Because the answer is: You can’t, unless you have a specific certification that typically only goes to attorneys, or unless you live in a specific area of California.
Otherwise, it’s next to impossible to file online.
Really, the question should be: Can you file online without an attorney?
And the answer is: Let your attorney file online on your behalf.
Yes, forms can be downloaded online, and much help and advice are available online, but the actual filing of forms in almost every instance has to be done at the local bankruptcy court, in person (preferred and best) or by mail (with different rules for different areas).
The exception is if a person is ECF Certified. That means being certified for Electronic File Cases, which means taking classes and being approved by the court to earn the certification.
Attorneys are ECF certified. You, me, Joe across the street and Uncle Bob the baker are not.
Yes, you can download and fill out forms, but it’s not like ordering carry out dinner. The forms are specific and tricky, so even that brings challenges. So, it’s not really recommended to go through bankruptcy without an attorney.
However, if you live in the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Ana, Santa Barbara, and the San Fernando Valley, you can file online using their Electronic Self Representation (eSR) system – but even that option is not used much.
The best and safest approach is to file in person, preferably with an attorney.
Can I File for Bankruptcy Online?
On your own, not really. Through an attorney, yes.
If you are filing on your own, any filings typically should be done in person with the local bankruptcy court. Going online can help with some parts of preparing the filing, but filing should be done in person. Can you file by mail? Different courts have different rules. To find out you’d have to research the court for the area where you are filing.
Bankruptcy can be a simple process or a complex one. The more complex the case, the more complex the process. And the more complex the process, the more the services of an attorney are important.
Generally, a Chapter 7 (liquidation) or Chapter 13 (payment plan) bankruptcy filing includes three basics:
- Filling out required forms.
- Filing with the local Bankruptcy Court
- Attending what is called a 341 meeting with the trustee or official overseeing your case. A 341 meeting is between you and the bankruptcy trustee and the creditors you owe to go over your case. It’s informal, not in in a courtroom and does not include a judge. Basically, it allows the trustee to ensure the facts in your filing.
Though you are allowed to file on your own, also called pro se, it’s much wiser and safer to hire an attorney who understands the system and the process. Statistics from the American Bankruptcy Institute show that more than 95% of Chapter 7 cases filed with a lawyer end with debts being discharged, while less than half the cases filed by individuals were successful. Individuals fared even worse in Chapter 13, winning just 2% of the cases.
Lawyers can help. When it comes to your financial well-being it’s well worth considering the expense to hire a bankruptcy attorney as an investment in your future.
» Learn More: Do I Need a Lawyer to File Bankruptcy?
Online Bankruptcy Can and Can’t Do’s
Since not everything in bankruptcy can be done online, it’s worth understanding what can and cannot be done on the laptop at home for online bankruptcy.
What can you do online?
- Take required bankruptcy credit counseling online, as well as debtor education courses.
- Download forms from the U.S. Courts and other forms required by the local bankruptcy court.
- Gather your financial information – bank statements, credit report. pay stubs, etc.
- Receive email correspondence about your case.
- Track the payment plan set up if you file Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
- File through an attorney, which means paying the associated costs to the attorney.
Note that none of those specifically state filing online.
What can’t you do online?
- File with the court (see above) on your own. One exception: If you live in the Central District of California, you can file online through a tool called eSR. It’s complicated, but the eSR explanation includes a zip code link to see if you live in the one area of the country (Los Angeles and surrounding areas) that allows this process. This can only be used for Chapter 7 online filings, though, not for Chapter 13 online. It’s also not commonly used: Numbers provided by the Central District of California show that there were 1,132 total eSR filings from 2014 through 2020, or 161.7 per year. In 2020 alone, there were 23,910 Chapter 7 filings.
- Pay fees.
- Receive printed copies of your documents, which many trustees require.
- Conduct a 341 meeting.
- Attend court hearings.
An attorney – remember the original certification? – can file forms online. The average Jane Doe cannot.
Why Lawyers Can File Online
The simplest explanation is that filing bankruptcy cases is what these lawyers do for a living. it’s not a one-time thing. Bankruptcy attorneys know the ins and outs of what papers need to be filed on what deadlines. They also have the certification required to file online.
They have to know their stuff; they have to know their system.
“There’s really no reason why somebody shouldn’t have a lawyer, unless you have the most basic Chapter 7, but even that can create problems,” said Jon Lieberman, a bankruptcy attorney with the law firm Sottile & Barile in Ohio, and an associate editor of the American Bankruptcy Institute Journal. “Most people don’t know what to bring, what the court needs or is talking about.”
In addition, bankruptcy court rules and regulations can vary from district to district. Attorneys understand the rules for their region.
“They say that all politics is local,” Lieberman said. “Well, all bankruptcy is local too. Things may be done differently in Ohio than they are in Indiana.”
Attorneys start by registering with the local Bankruptcy Court to be an electronic filer. In most districts of the Bankruptcy Court system there is a training course and attorneys must sign a certification that they have taken the course.
There are many benefits to both the client and lawyer for filing bankruptcy online
When a lawyer files online, the client receives quicker notice of case activity, creating a longer time for responding to pleadings or motions. Lawyers don’t have to worry about whether the courthouse is open; they can file documents 24 hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week.
The date is stamped on the petition and can be compared for date and time of foreclosure sale. Lawyers know the same day that the documents they file are accepted, rather than waiting for days while those documents are transmitted by mail. Attorneys receive electronic notices as soon as any case activity takes place and is docketed on the case record.
Put more simply, the filing is a more efficient process.
“With lawyers, there is a certain reliability factor – because of their legal training – that you don’t have with individuals,” said Catherine McEwen, a judge in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Middle Florida. “We can predict that a high percentage of the necessary work will be done correctly and that we can have the commensurate number of staff to handle quality assurance and control.”
Finding a Bankruptcy Attorney
If you contact a nonprofit credit counseling agency, they will assist in finding a bankruptcy attorney in your area. Or you can simply go online and search for one. American Bankruptcy Institute has a page that provides names to bankruptcy attorneys, broken down by state. Once you click on your state, there is even a link at the top of the page for pro bono representation, groups or attorneys who may do your case for free.
Why Consumers Can’t File Bankruptcy Cases Online
Look at it this way: There’s a reason so few people in the Middle California District file online even thought people have had that option since 2014.
A bankruptcy filing can be complex and complicated, and a mistake could lead to more problems.
The filing must be coded in such a way that it creates a docket entry and places the paperwork where it needs to be. If the filing is coded incorrectly, it could tangle up the court system and/or cause the consumer to have their case dismissed for any number of mistakes.
There also is the matter of the communication channels and timing necessary if the bankruptcy judge has questions or wants additional information regarding the case. Who performs quality control to make sure that problems are corrected, and the flow of cases is not interrupted because one party or the other didn’t show up?
Paying a lawyer is painful, but it’s more painful to see a bankruptcy court derailed by an incorrect filing or by not knowing the system. And it’s even more painful still to see your case thrown topsy-turvy with incorrect filings.
As Lieberman said: “There are so many issues that can arise.”
Online Bankruptcy Filing Software
The U.S. Bankruptcy Courts have yet to offer easy and simple online filing to individuals who are not lawyers – unless you live in that one district in California. The complexities of the system and the knowledge required make what might seem simple difficult.
Some legal web sites and law firms offer an online portal that allows filers to fill out forms online, but they then must be printed and filed with the courts. The other catch: The law firm may allow you to fill out the forms online, but once you use the law firm to file online that firm will charge you.
Several software companies offer the ability to buy the software and fill out the forms. This could save money and offer a somewhat clearer process. Among them are CINcompass (cloud-based) and Ezbankruptcyforms.com. Be warned: The process still can be confusing.
Some parts of the bankruptcy process that can be handled online include:
- Downloading the forms from your local bankruptcy court.
- Evaluation of your finances to see if you qualify for bankruptcy.
- Mandatory bankruptcy credit counseling from an approved provider before filing.
In 2021, there were 288,327 Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings and 120,002 Chapter 13. Those numbers decreased significantly from 2019, before the pandemic hit. Chapter 7 filings dropped 40% in two years; Chapter 13 filings dropped 58%. This indicates that the pandemic financial assistance and the ban on moratoriums worked in helped keeping people financially solvent.
Online Evaluation & Credit Counseling
If you have not decided what debt-relief option will solve your financial problems, you can go online through a nonprofit credit counseling agency and get an answer in as quickly as 10-15 minutes.
Find the credit counseling agency’s online site and follow the prompts to sign up. You will have to answer questions about income, assets you own and debts you still have. The online service will measure your level of debt compared to income and assets, then offer a suggestion on what is your best debt-relief option.
A counselor will call you to verify that the answers you gave during the online interview were accurate and be sure the right solution was sent your way. Bankruptcy is one of the solutions, along with a debt management program, debt settlement, and debt consolidation.
If bankruptcy is the best solution, you will receive a certificate of course completion and a referral to a bankruptcy lawyer, or you can go online and find one yourself.
Can the Evaluation Process Be Handled by Phone?
Yes. Credit counselors can ask the same questions that you would answer online and use the same program to determine what debt-relief solution best suits your situation.
Online Bankruptcy Pre-Filing Program
Once you make the decision to declare bankruptcy and have consulted an attorney, you must attend a pre-bankruptcy counseling class, also known as a pre-filing counseling session. The class must be offered by an organization approved by the U.S. Trustee Program, except in Alabama and North Carolina, where the bankruptcy administrator approves an agency.
This is a 1-2 hour course designed to make the consumer aware of debt-relief options other than bankruptcy. The course will ask the consumer to go through 10-15 aspects of their finances such as preparing a budget and spending plan: organizing records, managing money, understanding credit score and requesting a credit report. There will be questions asked in each category.
When you finish answering the questions, you must call the approved counseling agency and go through a briefing with a credit counselor. The counselor will go over your answers to make sure that you still feel that bankruptcy is the right choice.
When the briefing is over, the counseling agency issues a certificate of course completion, which must be part of the package when you file for bankruptcy. If you don’t have a certificate of completion, your case will be dismissed.
Can I Do the Pre-filing Program Over the Phone?
Yes, the course is offered online, over the phone or in person at the offices of an approved credit counseling agency. Taking the course over the phone normally runs from 90-120 minutes.
What is the Cost to File Bankruptcy Online
The fees for to file bankruptcy online (via an attorney if you don’t live in California) are the same as if you filed at the courthouse, unless you use one of the online vendors/law firms that charge a separate fee for their platform to fill out forms.
Even then, if you do it without an attorney you still have to print off the forms, bring them to the courthouse and pay a filing fee.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy fees total $338 – which breaks down to a $245 filing fee, a $78 administrative fee and a $15 surcharge for the trustee assigned to handle your case. If you have to re-open a Chapter 7 filing, it’s an additional $260.
Chapter 13 bankruptcy fees are $313 – $235 in a filing fee and $78 in administrative fees. If you have to re-open a Chapter 13 filing, the fee is $235. If you have to convert from Chapter 13 to Chapter 7, the fee is $25.
How to Find Chapter 7 & Chapter 13 Forms Online
Bankruptcy forms are available here and can be downloaded for free. Be careful to fill out all necessary forms and include payment for filing fees (listed above) when you take your forms to the courthouse for filing. One of the forms is a checklist of what other forms need to be filled out, depending on the type of case you’re filing.
Be aware that submitting forms not filled out completely, or not included in the filing, could cause your case to be dismissed. Many bankruptcy courts and law schools host free help sessions, staffed by volunteer lawyers for individuals attempting to represent themselves. Check with your local law school or courthouse for time and availability.
Carefully consider your decision before filing as an individual. Be certain you have the time, skill, and resources to file on your own, especially if you have considerable assets that could be lost if your case is not discharged.
Using a Non-Attorney Petition Preparer to Help You File
If you are filing your own bankruptcy, you may be offered the help of a non-attorney petition preparer. These preparers cannot offer legal advice, give answers to legal questions, or help you in court. However, they can help you fill out forms to ensure it’s done properly.
Getting Started Filing Bankruptcy Forms Yourself
The process of filing bankruptcy is not simple, whether it’s with an attorney or on your own, either using forms downloaded or with a petition preparer. The seven general steps include:
- Ensure eligibility: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 both have qualifications you must meet before filing.
- Take the means test: This is a form that measures income, expenses, and household size to determine if you can, in fact, afford your debts without filing.
- Go to credit counseling: Pre-bankruptcy credit counseling is a requirement of the court, and it must be done through an approved agency.
- Download and fill out forms: Find these forms (discussed above) on the S. Courts website.
- File the petition: An attorney can file online, you should file at the courts.
- Attend a 341 meeting: Go over your circumstances with the trustee/court/creditors.
- Attend a financial management course: The list of approved courses can be found through the Department of Justice.
If there’s one thing to remember, it’s that an attorney can and will help understand the process. If you have any hesitancy at all, or if your case is even a tiny bit more than simple, it’s probably wise to consult with an attorney to at least see what he or she can do to help. In most cases, it’s best to use an attorney when filing.
If you decide to fill out the bankruptcy forms yourself, it’s vital they be completed correctly. Not doing so can cause bigger problems. If you have any uncertainty at all about the process, it may be wise to get help filing bankruptcy.
About The Author
Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].
- N.A. (ND) United States Bankruptcy Court, Central District of California 2020 District Profile. Retrieved from https://www.cacb.uscourts.gov/sites/cacb/files/documents/publications/DistrictProfile_2020.pdf
- United States Courts (2022, February 4) Bankruptcy Filings Drop 24 Percent. Retrieved from https://www.uscourts.gov/news/2022/02/04/bankruptcy-filings-drop-24-percent
- N.A. (ND) List of Credit Counseling Agencies Approved Pursuant to 11 U.S.C. 111. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/ust/list-credit-counseling-agencies-approved-pursuant-11-usc-111
- United States Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of Ohio. (2022, January 1) Filing Fees. Retrieved from https://www.ohnb.uscourts.gov/content/filing-fees
- N.A. (ND) Filing Without an Attorney) Retrieved from https://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/bankruptcy/filing-without-attorney