Tutorial: Bankruptcy Court Records
When people or companies file for bankruptcy, they do so in a federal bankruptcy court.
Bankruptcies are governed by federal law. There are no state bankruptcy courts.
There usually are a number of federal bankruptcy courts in larger states, each responsible for a particular geographic area.
For a list of bankruptcy courts by state, check the FindLaw site.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, there is the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California, which has branch courts in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Rosa.
People and companies usually file for bankruptcy in the bankruptcy court that covers the area where they reside or are headquartered.
Each federal bankruptcy court has an alphabetical index on a computer terminal that lists the names of people and businesses that have filed for bankruptcy, the dates of the filings and the case numbers.
To look at the bankruptcy court file, copy down the case number in the index and present it to a clerk, who usually will ask you to fill out an order form.
Very few bankruptcy courts provide indexes to their cases or any of their court filings online.
Instead the federal courts use a proprietary electronic filing system called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) for court cases, including bankruptcy. You have to set up an account and pay fees to access documents via PACER.
For information on PACER, go to the PACER Service Center website.
Bankruptcy Court Records
Bankruptcy court files contain detailed financial and other information on people and companies filing the bankruptcy actions. They include:
- their gross income and the sources of that income
- their assets, including bank accounts, stock, real property and businesses they own or in which they have invested
- a list of creditors, their addresses and the amount owed to each creditor. This will include a list of employees who are owed money, such as a final paycheck.
Creditors also will be divided into two groups – secured and unsecured. The secured creditors are first in line to get repaid. They usually include tax agencies like the IRS or companies that received official pledges of security, such as a bank that received a deed of trust for property that secured a mortgage loan.
A trustee is often appointed by the bankruptcy judge to oversee the person’s or company’s assets until the case is settled.
There are several different types of bankruptcies that people or companies can file, depending on whether they want to just reorganize their finances or want to liquidate their businesses or assets.
Types of Bankruptcies
The two most common forms of bankruptcy are called Chapter 7 and Chapter 11.
In a Chapter 11 filing, a person or company gets to temporarily suspend or reduce payments to creditors, while the person/company reorganizes their finances and comes up with a plan to repay the debts owed.
In a Chapter 7 filing, a person or company is stating they can’t pay off their existing debts and therefore must liquidate their assets.
In a Chapter 7 case, creditors usually only recover a percentage of what they are owed by the bankrupt person or company.
About this Tutorial
This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.
This content may not be republished in print or digital form without express written permission from Berkeley Advanced Media Institute. Please see our Content Redistribution Policy at multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/content_redistribution/.
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