What You Need to Know to File For Bankruptcy in 2021

Find the answers to common bankruptcy questions while learning about the bankruptcy process.

Table of Contents


If you're one of the millions struggling financially due to COVID-19 or another unexpected event, you're not alone—and bankruptcy can help. But first, you need answers to a few important questions:

  • Will I be able to keep my property?
  • Will I be able to wipe out all of my debt?
  • Which bankruptcy chapter is right for me?
  • Do I qualify for Chapter 7 or 13?

The information below will help. The good news is that if you find that bankruptcy is the answer you've been looking for, a weight will likely be lifted from your shoulders. But the best part? Filers say that getting the bankruptcy discharge feels even better.

Bankruptcy Case Examples

If you find examples helpful, keep your eye out for Quinn, Aurora, and Declan. We analyze each of their bankruptcy cases after every major topic to further enhance your understanding.


How Does Bankruptcy Work?

No one is immune from debt or life's challenges, and sometimes people need help getting back on their feet. Federal law established the bankruptcy system for that very reason. It helps by unwinding the contract between you and your creditor. Without a contract, you have no obligation to pay the debt—you get a fresh financial start.

As powerful as bankruptcy is, it won't solve every financial problem, so it's crucial to learn what bankruptcy can and cannot do.

Can I Keep My Property in Bankruptcy?

Everyone needs things to maintain a home and employment. You'd hardly get a fresh start if you lost all of your belongings. So don't worry about losing everything you own in bankruptcy.

Each state decides the type of property a filer will need after bankruptcy, so exemptions vary widely. Even so, you'll likely be able to protect some equity in a home and car, household furnishings, a retirement account, and more.

But you might also learn that some of your assets aren't covered, especially if you own luxury property like artwork, collections, boats, stocks and bonds, and rental property. If you have nonexempt property, check for a “wildcard” exemption you can use to protect the nonexempt property of your choice.

It doesn't matter whether you file for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13—the exemptions are the same regardless of the chapter filed. The chapter will determine what will happen to your nonexempt property, however.

  • In Chapter 7, you'll lose nonexempt property—it will be sold for the benefit of your creditors.
  • In Chapter 13, you'll keep all of your property—but you'll pay its value to your creditors through the Chapter 13 repayment plan.

The system ensures that creditors will receive the same amount in both chapters.

If you want to take a peek at what you'd be able to protect, check out bankruptcy exemption laws by state.


Can I Discharge My Debt in Bankruptcy?

You already know that filing for bankruptcy works by wiping out debt, such as credit card balances. And you'll be able to erase overdue utility payments, medical bills, and personal loans. You can even get rid of a mortgage or car payment if you're willing to give up the house or car you put up as the collateral securing the debt.

But did you know you can't discharge all debts? For instance, child support will never go away in bankruptcy, and student loans are difficult to wipe out (you'd have to win a separate lawsuit). These types of debts are known as nondischargeable debts. Before deciding to file, be sure that bankruptcy will discharge (get rid of) enough bills to make it worth your while.


Which Bankruptcy Chapter Should I Choose?

Not all bankruptcy chapters work the same way, which is good because when your financial situation is unique (as all are), having options helps. Your next step will be determining whether a liquidation or reorganization bankruptcy will be best for you.

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy: The Liquidation Bankruptcy

Chapter 7 bankruptcy is most filers' first choice. It wipes out qualifying debt without creditor repayment. It's also quick, taking about four months to complete. And if you're an individual, you don't lose everything—you can keep the property you need to work and live.

But it comes with downsides. Because it's quick and doesn't involve creditor repayment, Chapter 7 won't help you stop a foreclosure or repossession permanently. Also, it's called “liquidation bankruptcy” because the Chapter 7 trustee appointed to handle the case sells the debtor's property for the benefit of creditors. In an individual bankruptcy, the trustee sells the filer's nonexempt luxury property, so it's common to lose things like sporting equipment, gun collections, boats, recreational vehicles, and rental property. In a bankruptcy brought by a business, the trustee sells all of the business assets.

Reorganization Bankruptcy Chapters 9, 11, 12, and 13

Individuals and businesses who have extra income to pay debts—but not enough to cover current expenses—use "reorganization" bankruptcy chapters. The debtor, creditors, and the court agree on a plan that redistributes the debtor's income among the creditors. Here's who typically uses each of these types of bankruptcy:

Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

This chapter requires a filer to pay creditors through a three- to five-year repayment plan. While the repayment requirement is often too costly for many, it has benefits. For instance, if a creditor is playing hardball, a filer can avoid collection efforts and force the creditor into a Chapter 13 payment plan. However, one of the biggest benefits of Chapter 13 is that a debtor can avoid foreclosure and keep a house that would be lost otherwise.

Because debts aren't treated equally in Chapter 13, a debtor can often channel the monthly payment toward the things the debtor wants to accomplish, such as catching up on a house or car payment and paying off nondischargeable tax balances and support obligations over time. Creditors holding debts that filers don't care much about—credit card, medical, personal loan balances, and the like—are left dividing what remains, which usually isn't much.

Other benefits exist, too. For instance, if a home is significantly underwater, a filer can strip off a junior residential mortgage. It's also possible to reduce the amount owed on personal property or nonresidential real estate if the debtor can pay the reduced amount in full through the plan (known as a “cramdown”).

Overall, drafting a Chapter 13 plan is an involved process, and retaining a bankruptcy lawyer is highly recommended. Other reorganization plans are even more complex. But because they involve extensive negotiations, even more options are available.


Bankruptcy Eligibility

You don't need a particular amount of debt to file for bankruptcy, but there are lots of other eligibility rules—these are the most common.

Multiple Bankruptcy Filings

Debt discharges aren't unlimited. If you've filed for bankruptcy before, you might not qualify immediately. The waiting period will depend on the chapter you filed previously and the chapter you intend to file now. For instance, suppose you filed for Chapter 7 two years ago. The waiting period between a Chapter 7 and 13 filing is four years. It's eight years if you want to file another Chapter 7. So you'll need to wait for another two to six years.

Qualifying for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Almost everyone must pass the "means test." There are three ways to meet this requirement.

First, the easy way. Check whether you're exempt. If you are, you can skip the means test altogether. Filers who have more business debt than personal debt are exempt. So are certain military members and veterans.

Next, the reasonably straightforward method. You'll compare your gross household income to your state's median income for a family of the same size. Add the gross income earned by you and your family members over the last six months and multiply by two. Then compare it to the figures posted on the U.S. Trustee website (select "Means Testing Information"). If your income is less than or the same as the state's median income for your family size, you'll pass.

Finally, the complicated approach. If your gross income is too high, you can take the second portion of the means test. You'll use the means test forms to deduct allowed expense (beware—this sounds easier than it is). You'll be eligible for Chapter 7 if you don't have enough income to pay into a Chapter 13 plan.

Qualifying for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Far fewer people file for Chapter 13 than Chapter 7 primarily because the benefits offered by Chapter 13 come at a hefty price—and many can't afford it. The first set of requirements are relatively easy to meet:

  • Chapter 13 is available to individuals and sole proprietors only—businesses can't file.
  • If you exceed the Chapter 13 debt limits, you'll have to file an individual Chapter 11 case.

The tricky part is the required payment. While it's possible to “pay pennies on the dollar,” for most, Chapter 13 gets expensive fast because, in addition to your monthly living expenses, you must make enough to cover the larger of the following over five years:

  • all of the debts you're required to pay in full, such as current tax debt, support arrearages, and house or car payment arrearages
  • the value of any nonexempt property, or
  • your disposable income—the amount left over after subtracting allowed expenses.

People who qualify for Chapter 7 but elect to file for Chapter 13 don't need to follow these rules. They pay according to their budget over three years—but they can extend the period to five years if it's more manageable. Find out more about calculating a Chapter 13 bankruptcy payment.

Qualifying for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Much like Chapter 13, filers must propose an acceptable plan. But the process is significantly different and even more complicated. Find out more about individual and business Chapter 11 bankruptcies.


Hiring a Bankruptcy Lawyer

Retaining a professional to help you with your case is well worth the cost. Not only will you have peace of mind that you've filed a correctly prepared case, but you'll also receive guidance throughout the entire process. Most importantly, a bankruptcy lawyer will ensure that you don't lose important property unexpectedly and that you don't find yourself facing bankruptcy fraud charges.

Attorneys' fees for a Chapter 7 case can range anywhere from $1,000 for a simple matter to $3,500 or more for a more complicated case depending on where you live. Most filers can expect to pay somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000. Keep in mind that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy lawyer will require you to pay the fees in full before filing your matter. Why? Because the bankruptcy case would wipe out any unpaid amount.

By contrast, Chapter 13 lawyers fees will be significantly more, but unlike Chapter 7, many will accept a downpayment as low as $100. You'll likely be able to pay the remainder through the repayment plan. Learn about your options if you can't afford a bankruptcy lawyer.


The Bankruptcy Process

While most people hire a bankruptcy lawyer to prepare their bankruptcy paperwork and guide them through the process, it's possible to do your bankruptcy yourself if it's simple enough. You can get a feel for your case's complexity using our bankruptcy quiz—we'll alert you to issues you might want to run by a bankruptcy lawyer.

Starting Your Bankruptcy Case

Your bankruptcy case will begin when you file the bankruptcy paperwork with the bankruptcy court. Go to your state's bankruptcy article for specifics on where and how to file.

The court will issue an automatic stay that will prevent most of your creditors from continuing to collect from you. Even court cases and trials related to debt collection will have to stop. Keep in mind that bankruptcy won't stop all lawsuits—for instance, you'll still have to make support payments, and criminal actions can go forward, too.

The Bankruptcy Trustee

Don't assume that what you say in your paperwork will be accepted at face value. The court will assign a professional called the bankruptcy trustee to check out your filing thoroughly.

When reviewing your paperwork, the trustee will compare the figures in the petition and schedules to your tax returns, bank statements, paycheck stubs, profit and loss statements, and the other financial documents you'll be required to provide. The trustee will also look for signs of bankruptcy fraud.

If the trustee spots an issue, the trustee might do any number of things. For instance, it isn't unusual for a trustee to ask for additional documents or photos or inspect an item of property, storage space, or real estate. A trustee will usually attempt to work out a problem informally before or at the 341 meeting of creditors. If you can't resolve it, the trustee will file a motion or adversary proceeding (although these actions are relatively unusual).

The Creditors' Meeting

Every filer must attend at least one bankruptcy hearing—the 341 meeting of creditors. It isn't a court appearance, but you'll still need to take it seriously. The trustee—not the judge—holds the meeting in a conference room at the courthouse or elsewhere, and about ten filers are assigned to appear during the same hour.

When it starts, the trustee will take attendance and provide initial instructions. Here's what you'll do next:

  • Provide identification proving you're the debtor—usually a driver's license and Social Security card.
  • Take an oath affirming that you'll answer the trustee's questions truthfully.
  • Answer standard questions the trustee must ask all debtors and any particular questions the trustee might have about your case.
  • Answer questions from any creditors present (although they rarely show up).

A trustee who is satisfied with your responses will conclude the meeting. Otherwise, the trustee will continue the case until another day—something that often happens when one of the following applies:

  • you forgot your identification
  • the trustee needs additional documents from you, or
  • a creditor needs more time for questioning.

In most cases, the debtor's appearance at the creditors' meeting takes less than ten minutes.

Final Steps to Discharge

At this point, Chapter 7 filers will be in the final stretch with one more responsibility to complete—filing a financial management course certificate. By contrast, Chapter 13 filers will just be getting started. They'll need to do:

  • ask the judge to confirm (approve) the proposed repayment plan at a confirmation hearing
  • complete the repayment plan, and
  • file a financial management course certificate and other documents with the court.

After completing each step, the debtor will receive a debt discharge wiping out qualifying debt.


Life After Bankruptcy: A New Beginning

To make the most of your discharge and ensure sure life after bankruptcy goes smoothly, you'll want to do a bit of planning.

Temporary Problems With Housing, Financing, and Banking

Some areas of your life will be more challenging to negotiate for a year or two after filing for bankruptcy, specifically, renting or leasing housing, financing a car, and establishing a bank account. So it's essential to have these things in place before filing. And don't plan on making changes soon.

Tip. If you'll be letting go of a house and you're worried about moving your children's schools, rent something in the area, if possible—before filing, of course.

Rebuilding credit

You can start rebuilding credit soon after completing a bankruptcy. Most filers are surprised by how quickly they receive credit offers. But it makes sense. Creditors know you won't be able to file again for quite a few years, so if you're employed, you'll be a reasonable credit risk. Take the opportunity to find out about credit-building strategies.

Buying a house

Many filers are relieved to learn that they don't need to push aside a dream of buying a home. You could be eligible as soon as two to four years after your bankruptcy case. Find out more about post-bankruptcy homebuying requirements so you can plan accordingly.

Planning for the Future

After filing for bankruptcy, it's common to want to secure your future. The first step is following a sound financial plan, of course. But you'll also want to safeguard yourself against unexpected financial hardships. Putting money aside in a savings account is always a good idea. But you might want to contribute to a 401k plan or another ERISA-qualified retirement account. Not only would it be exempt if you needed to file for bankruptcy again (it happens), but you could draw on it in an emergency. Obtaining life insurance and making a will are other ways to provide for your family, too.

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