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Bankruptcy laws help people who can no longer pay their creditors get a fresh start – by liquidating assets to pay their debts or by creating a repayment plan. Bankruptcy laws also protect troubled businesses and provide for orderly distributions to business creditors through reorganization or liquidation.
Most cases are filed under the three main chapters of the Bankruptcy Code – Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and Chapter 13. Federal courts have elusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases. This means that a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in a state court.
A bankruptcy case normally begins by the debtor filing a petition with the bankruptcy court. A petition may be filed by an individual, by a husband and wife together, or by a corporation or other entity. The debtor is also required to file statements listing assets, income, liabilities, and the names and addresses of all creditors and how much they are owed. The filing of the petition automatically prevents, or "stays," debt collection actions against the debtor and the debtor's property. As long as the stay remains in effect, creditors cannot bring or continue lawsuits, make wage garnishments, or even make telephone calls demanding payment. Creditors receive notice from the clerk of court that the debtor has filed a bankruptcy petition. Some bankruptcy cases are filed to allow a debtor to reorganize and establish a plan to repay creditors, while other cases involve liquidation of the debtor's property. In many bankruptcy cases involving liquidation of the property of individual consumers, there is little or no money available from the debtor's estate to pay creditors. As a result, in these cases there are few issues or disputes, and the debtor is normally granted a "discharge" of most debts without objection. This means that the debtor will no longer be personally liable for repaying the debts.
In other cases, however, disputes may give rise to litigation in a bankruptcy case over such matters as who owns certain property, how it should be used, what the property is worth, how much is owed on a debt, whether the debtor should be discharged from certain debts, or how much money should be paid to lawyers, accountants, auctioneers, or other professionals. Litigation in the bankruptcy court is conducted in much the same way that civil cases are handled in the district court. There may be discovery, pretrial proceedings, settlement efforts, and a trial.
Some bankruptcy cases are filed to allow a debtor to reorganize and establish a plan to repay creditors, while other cases involve liquidation of the debtor's property.
Article I, Section 8, of the United States Constitution authorizes Congress to enact "uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies." Under this grant of authority, Congress enacted the "Bankruptcy Code" in 1978. The Bankruptcy Code, which is codified as title 11 of the United States Code, has been amended several times since its enactment. It is the uniform federal law that governs all bankruptcy cases.
The procedural aspects of the bankruptcy process are governed by the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure (often called the "Bankruptcy Rules") and local rules of each bankruptcy court. The Bankruptcy Rules contain a set of official forms for use in bankruptcy cases. The Bankruptcy Code and Bankruptcy Rules (and local rules) set forth the formal legal procedures for dealing with the debt problems of individuals and businesses.
There is a bankruptcy court for each judicial district in the country. Each state has one or more districts. There are 90 bankruptcy districts across the country. The bankruptcy courts generally have their own clerk's offices.
The court official with decision-making power over federal bankruptcy cases is the United States bankruptcy judge, a judicial officer of the United States district court. The bankruptcy judge may decide any matter connected with a bankruptcy case, such as eligibility to file or whether a debtor should receive a discharge of debts. Much of the bankruptcy process is administrative, however, and is conducted away from the courthouse. In cases under chapters 7, 12, or 13, and sometimes in chapter 11 cases, this administrative process is carried out by a trustee who is appointed to oversee the case.
A debtor's involvement with the bankruptcy judge is usually very limited. A typical chapter 7 debtor will not appear in court and will not see the bankruptcy judge unless an objection is raised in the case. A chapter 13 debtor may only have to appear before the bankruptcy judge at a plan confirmation hearing. Usually, the only formal proceeding at which a debtor must appear is the meeting of creditors, which is usually held at the offices of the U.S. trustee. This meeting is informally called a "341 meeting" because section 341 of the Bankruptcy Code requires that the debtor attend this meeting so that creditors can question the debtor about debts and property.
A fundamental goal of the federal bankruptcy laws enacted by Congress is to give debtors a financial "fresh start" from burdensome debts. The Supreme Court made this point about the purpose of the bankruptcy law in a 1934 decision:
Local Loan Co. v. Hunt, 292 U.S. 234, 244 (1934). This goal is accomplished through the bankruptcy discharge, which releases debtors from personal liability from specific debts and prohibits creditors from ever taking any action against the debtor to collect those debts. This publication describes the bankruptcy discharge in a question and answer format, discussing the timing of the discharge, the scope of the discharge (what debts are discharged and what debts are not discharged), objections to discharge, and revocation of the discharge. It also describes what a debtor can do if a creditor attempts to collect a discharged debt after the bankruptcy case is concluded.
Access to Bankruptcy and Other Court Case Files, ca. 1940 - 1998
For information on accessing bankruptcy and other court case files, ca. 1940 - 1998, select the state or territory in which the case was filed.
The National Archives at Riverside
The National Archives at Denver
The National Archives at Atlanta
The National Archives at Chicago
Washington National Records Center
The National Archives at Boston
The National Archives at Philadelphia
The National Archives at Seattle