Are Bankruptcy Records Public Information in Pennsylvania?
Yes, bankruptcy records are public information. Per The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, 65 Pa. C.S. §§ 701-716, any member of the public can access another person's bankruptcy records unless the court has sealed the case. There are three basic methods to access bankruptcy records in Pennsylvania: PACER, McVCIS, or in-person with the court clerk. PACER provides electronic records and paper records and charges a fee per document. McVCIS is entirely free, but there are no documents provided to view the information is spoken. To obtain certified physical copies of bankruptcy records, parties should visit the court clerk and submit a request.
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 Pennsylvania
Bankruptcy is a legal process used by individuals and corporate entities in Pennsylvania to reduce or totally eliminate some or all incurred debt. An entity that declares bankruptcy turns over its assets to U.S. Bankruptcy Courts for liquidation or to determine an acceptable method of repaying debts to creditors. Bankruptcy Courts are federal courts with subject-matter jurisdiction over all related cases as states have no jurisdiction over bankruptcy. When a debtor files for bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, the case is handled in one of Pennsylvania’s three bankruptcy courts, including the Bankruptcy Court for the:
Entities filing for bankruptcy must submit varying documents, depending on the type of bankruptcy filed. General examples include but are not restricted to:
- Government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license or proof of social security)
- Recent bank account statements
- Recent retirement account statements
- Vehicle documents, including registration papers, insurance documents, and proof of value. Where there is an active car loan, a recent loan statement is also required
- Proof of real estate fair market value
- Mortgage statements where applicable
- Recent income documentation such as pay stubs for the six months before the filing
- Recent wage and tax statements (Form W-2)
What are Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Records?
Bankruptcy records are the official government documentation of bankruptcy filings. In Pennsylvania, all documents organized in a bankruptcy case are available for viewing by members of the public. Bankruptcy records typically comprise the initial bankruptcy claim, dates of each action, details regarding creditors, and the amount of debt owed. If a party is in debt and cannot pay creditors, they may submit a bankruptcy claim to the federal bankruptcy court. Depending on the type of bankruptcy a party claims, bankruptcy can involve payment plans, asset liquidation, and foreclosure. The federal courts that handle bankruptcy cases in Pennsylvania are:
- United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
- United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania
- United States Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
The Case Management/Electronic Case Filing System (NextGen CM/ECF) and the court clerk in the bankruptcy court that heard the case are responsible for managing bankruptcy records. Parties can obtain bankruptcy records from the court clerk or the federal public records system, PACER. Third-party websites may also aid parties in accessing bankruptcy records.
What Do Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Records Contain?
When an individual accesses bankruptcy records successfully, the records will contain all relevant items regarding the case. The information found in a bankruptcy record can include:
- The debtor's original filing
- Date of filing
- Involuntary or voluntary petitions
- Bankruptcy chapter claimed
- Case number
- Name of all debtors and parties involved
- The debtor's attorney information
- Trustee information
- The case Judge's name
- Discharge dates
- Assets, if any:
- Status and outcome of the case
How to Get Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Records
Obtaining Pennsylvania bankruptcy records is possible online, by phone, or in person. Parties can access electronic bankruptcy records on the federal PACER system online by creating an account. There is a per-page fee for each document. PACER is available 24 hours a day and does not have closures for holidays and weekends. There is also the option of sending a PACER request by mail and receiving photocopies of the requested case documents.
By phone, individuals can use Pennsylvania's Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (McVCIS). Individuals can access this tool by calling (866) 222-8029, and it is entirely free, as the information held in the record is spoken using a computer-generated voice.
Neither PACER nor McVCIS provides certified copies of bankruptcy records. However, the court clerk in the district where the case was filed can give physical and certified court records and documents to requestors. Parties can visit the bankruptcy court in the district where the court heard the case, submit a request, and pay the required fee. Requests for certified copies of bankruptcy records must include the following information:
- Bankruptcy case number
- Name of all debtors
- The docket number of requested documents
- Personal telephone number
Once this information is provided, parties should mail the request in a stamped and self-addressed envelope with all applicable fees. Certification costs $11.00, and the search fee is $32.00. For each photocopied page, the court charges individuals $0.50.
If parties cannot locate the records at the court location, they can visit the National Archives and Record Administrator’s (NARA) website. Parties can order entire case files or just specific pieces of it, such as court dockets. The labor fee for gathering records is $22.00 per 15 minutes, and the fee for giving the records is $90.00. Certification incurs a $15.00 fee.
Where to Conduct a Free Bankruptcy Case Search in Pennsylvania
The three bankruptcy courts in Pennsylvania (the United States bankruptcy courts in the eastern, western, and middle districts) maintain bankruptcy records and provide access to bankruptcy case searches in the state. Individuals can use public kiosks at a bankruptcy court clerk's office to inspect case records for free.
Alternatively, inquirers can dial the United States' Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (or VCIS), an automated telephone line, at (866) 222-8029 to obtain case information (e.g., the case number, filing date, and status) for free.
Then again, interested persons can access electronic case records with PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). PACER costs $0.10 per page to access. However, requesters are only charged once they access more than $30 worth of bankruptcy case records in a quarter. Users who cannot afford PACER fees may also apply for a fee exemption. If the court grants the request, they can access PACER for free.
How Do I Find Out if My Bankruptcy Case is Closed in Pennsylvania?
In Pennsylvania, the closing of a bankruptcy case means that the debtor has completed all actions, paid back all debts, and the court decides to close the case. Individuals who wish to inquire about their bankruptcy filing status can do so using any of the methods mentioned above, including PACER, McVCIS, or in-person with the clerk of court. If attorneys are involved in the case, the debtor can request this information from them.
Can a Bankruptcy Be Expunged in Pennsylvania?
Expunging bankruptcy records results in the erasure of bankruptcy records. It is possible to file a motion to erase a Pennsylvania bankruptcy case, but it is uncommon that the federal court judge will accept the action. According to federal bankruptcy laws, there are no specific forms relevant to expunging bankruptcy cases, but judges have the authority to expunge cases as they see fit. Judges often choose to expunge entire records or information that can be considered defamatory, libelous, or dangerous.
Court judges can also redact certain pieces of information from a party's bankruptcy record if expungement is not an option. Removing a debtor's name is one way to make a bankruptcy record more difficult to find. Judges also have the authority to assign a case as fraudulent or "null and void" without expunging it. This way, the issue remains in the court's records, but a note states that searching parties should disregard the case.
Can a Bankruptcy Filing Be Dismissed in Pennsylvania?
Interested persons should note that while filing for bankruptcy is an available option in related cases, not all petitions are granted. Common reasons for dismissals include the following:
- Filing an incomplete list of creditors
- Missing social security number (Official Form 121)
- Failure to pay filing fees
- Failure to attend Meeting of Creditors
- Failure to obtain credit counseling within 180 before the bankruptcy filing. This is only applicable to individual consumer debtors
- Failure to include all applicable documents with the petition
- Failure to create a regular payment plan. This applies to Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings.
Creditors may also counter bankruptcy filings. Since all debtors must submit a list of creditors along with the petition, a creditor may initiate an adversary proceeding upon receiving notification of the filing. Although related to the initial filing, the complaint asks the court to rule on an issue, sometimes challenging the initial petitioner’s claim. Adversary proceedings may request to:
- Contend discharge ability of a debt
- Revoke or object to a debtor’s discharge
- Revoke confirmation of a plan
Bankruptcy trustees may also initiate adversary proceedings. However, this option is not exclusive to trustees or creditors. In some cases, the party filing for bankruptcy may also bring an adversary proceeding to seek a particular type of relief. For instance, a petitioner may initiate an adversary proceeding to dismiss junior liens on real estate.
Are Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Records Public?
Except for confidential details such as a social security number, Pennsylvania bankruptcy records are public records. According to 11 U.S.C. § 107, all court dockets and papers filed under a bankruptcy case are considered public. The law states that interested persons may examine records at reasonable times without charge.
However, a party of interest in a Pennsylvania bankruptcy case may file a request to make some information exempt from public disclosure. This information may include:
- Trade secrets
- Commercial information
- Confidential research or development
- Details of persons related to defamatory or scandalous matters
A Pennsylvania bankruptcy court may also protect information that could cause undue risk of identity theft or other injury to a person or property. However, all parties should note that the police and other regulatory domestic governmental units may access protected information upon filing an ex parte application that demonstrates cause. In addition, §107(3) states that a bankruptcy administrator, auditor, trustee, or United States trustee may gain full access to bankruptcy records.
How to Find Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Records?
Members of the public may obtain Pennsylvania bankruptcy records using the following methods:
- Online access via the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) platform
- Phone access using the Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (McVCIS)
- In-person access at the Clerk’s Office
- Mail requests sent to the Clerk’s Office
The federal judiciary of the United States provides the PACER system for public online access to federal court records. To find Pennsylvania bankruptcy records on PACER, interested persons must complete a registration form on the website. Depending on available information, requestors may search a specific federal court or search a nationwide index of federal court cases.
Information obtainable on PACER costs 10 cents per page. For instance, searching a debtor’s name with three result pages costs 30 cents. A single document costs $3 with access to 30 pages. This access provides requestors with information such as a docket report, claims register, and a creditor listing. All persons should note that users are still charged the per-page fee if the inputted information yields no results. The PACER fee schedule also describes charges for audio files and other service center fees. Charges are waived for account holders whose search activity costs a maximum of $30 in a quarter.
Accessing records via PACER may be free for some, including persons who have received a fee exemption. Pro bono attorneys, non-profit organizations, academic researchers, or indigents who apply to the court may receive fee waivers.
The Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (McVCIS) allows interested persons to access desired court records via phone. The available information is current as it relays details from each court’s live database. The McVCIS is a 24-hour service that provides limited access to case details over the phone from a computer-generated voice. The service is a toll-free system accessible by calling (866) 222-8029. Public details accessible through McVCIS include:
- Case number
- Case filing date
- Case chapter
- Case status
- Names of debtors and applicable principal adversaries
- Name and phone number of the debtor’s attorney
- Judge’s name
- Trustee’s name
- Discharged and closed dates
- Applicable assets related to the case
- First Meeting of Creditors date
- Deadlines for proof of claim filings
Mail and In-Person Requests
Interested requestors can obtain copies of Pennsylvania bankruptcy records from the Court Clerks in each court. Some courts, such as the Pittsburgh and Erie locations of the Pennsylvania Western District Bankruptcy Courts, provide public computers for interested persons to find records free of charge. Where this is unavailable, parties may have to obtain physical copies. Members of the public should note that copy or request fees may apply, and would vary depending on factors such as the age and volume of the record. Requestors may directly contact the Clerk’s Offices at the following locations:
United States Bankruptcy Court - Eastern District of Pennsylvania
900 Market Street
Suite 400 Philadelphia, PA 19107
Phone: (215) 408-2800
Hours: 8:30 am to 5:00 pm
201 Penn Street
Reading, PA 19601
Phone: (610) 208-5040
Hours: 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
United States Bankruptcy Court - Middle District of Pennsylvania
Max Rosenn U.S. Courthouse
197 South Main Street
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701
Phone: (570) 831-2500
Phone: (877) 298-2053 (Toll-Free)
Ronald Reagan Federal Building
228 Walnut Street
Harrisburg, PA 17101
Phone: (717) 901-2800
Phone: (888) 531-9485 (Toll-Free)
Williamsport Office (Court Hearing Location Only)
U.S. Courthouse & Federal Building
240 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
United States Bankruptcy Court - Western District of Pennsylvania
5414 U.S. Steel Tower
600 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Phone: (412) 644-2700
Hours: 9:30 am to 4:30 pm
17 South Park Row
Erie, PA 16501
Phone: (814) 464-9740
Hours: 9:30 am to 4:30 pm
Penn Traffic Building
Johnstown, PA 15901
Phone: (814) 533-4246
What is the Downside of Filing for Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?
While it gives petitioners the opportunity for a fresh financial start, bankruptcy filings may also be detrimental to their financial future. The following are some disadvantages to filing for bankruptcy:
Damaged Credit Score
A bankruptcy filing substantially damages the petitioner’s credit score. This damage is also not short-lived and may remain for years.
High Interest Rates
As a direct consequence of a low credit score, interest rates skyrocket. Most types of debt, including personal loans and credit card allowances, become more difficult to pay back as interest rates rise above average.
Difficulty Obtaining Financial Aid
A low credit score makes it tedious to borrow money. Lenders are usually reluctant to offer credit facilities to persons who have previously filed for bankruptcy.
Employers sometimes run credit checks on potential employees before presenting the qualified persons with job offers. In some specific cases, applicants that have filed for bankruptcy cannot receive certain licenses. Depending on the job, they may also be denied security clearances.
Debts May Linger
A bankruptcy filing does not immediately solve all financial problems. Unfortunately, filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to liquidate assets may have little to no effect on some non-dischargeable debts, including the following:
- Alimony payments
- Some tax debt
- Child support payments
- Fines and penalties from criminal matters
- Reaffirmed secured debt
However, there are some advantages enjoyable to persons who file for bankruptcy. Upsides to bankruptcy petitions include:
- Some eligible persons may have most of their debts cleared. This means that unsecured debt such as credit card debt, certain taxes, personal loans, and medical debt may disappear.
- Bankruptcy proceedings may take less than six months, allowing a clean slate in a short time
- Depending on the type of bankruptcy filed, debtors may keep all earnings after the bankruptcy process is over
- Debtors may be able to rebuild their credit scores quickly
What is Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?
Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows businesses to restructure or reorganize their debts while remaining active during the process. Businesses may choose to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy where their debts are either too complex or too heavy for protection under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. While this type of filing is commonly used by corporate bodies and large partnerships, individuals who do not fall within the limitations of Chapter 13 may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Basically, these entities can better manage their debts while repositioning their operations towards financial stability. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is sometimes called rehabilitation or reorganization bankruptcy.
Upon filing, creditors are not allowed to take any action to recover debts owed. The person or business must create a reorganization plan agreeable to the creditors. Petitioners should note that creditors are also allowed to propose their own reorganization plans.
Under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, petitioners may:
- Reorganize or restructure all unsecured debt
- Renegotiate or end all detrimental leases or contracts
- Reduce secured debt payments such as real estate or vehicles
- Tax debt reorganization
There is no specified time limit to resolving Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While some cases are completed within six months, others may require up to two years. The length of time generally varies depending on case specifics, such as the nature of the debt, creditor’s acceptance of debt structure reorganization, number of creditors, etc.
What is Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy essentially asks the court to discharge debts by liquidating all assets. Also called liquidation or straight bankruptcy, this process requires a federal court trustee to handle the sale of all non-exempt assets. Proceeds from the sale go directly to paying off all creditors.
Like Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this type cannot get petitioners out of all debts. Expenses such as taxes, student loans, personal injury debts, child support, and alimony, may be unavoidable. There is also no payment plan available under Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Filing will cause the petitioner’s credit score to plunge and will remain on a credit report for ten years from the filing date. After a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, the debtor cannot access this option for eight years. The following are dischargeable debts in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding:
- Personal loans
- Credit card debt
- Income tax debt
- Student loans if undue hardship is provable
- Mortgage loans
- Automobile loans
- Medical bills
- Other unsecured debt
Eligibility for Chapter 7 bankruptcy is decided by a means test. The test assesses the petitioner’s financial records, including expenses, income, and debt (secured and unsecured), to figure out if the filer’s disposable income is below Pennsylvania’s median income. As of 2019, Pennsylvania’s median household income was $63,463, with at least 40% of the state’s population earning under $50,000. Persons with high disposable income are less likely to qualify.
Debtors who obtained a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy discharge are also unable to file a new petition within 180 days of the previous filing if one of the following applies:
- A court order violation
- A finding that the filing was either fraudulent or an abuse of the bankruptcy system
- The petitioner requested a dismissal after the creditor applied for a suspension of the automatic stay
What is Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?
A Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing allows the repayment of some debt so that others become discharged. Under this type of bankruptcy, eligible persons may create a repayment plan spanning three to five years to resolve all debt. This plan works by channeling disposable income towards debt reduction. Persons who have problems meeting creditors’ demands may file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy if the difficulty does not stem from a lack of income.
Eligibility for Chapter 13 depends on the amount of debt owed. As of 2021, the Chapter 13 bankruptcy debt limit was increased to $419,275 for unsecured debts and $1,257,850 for secured debts. The petitioner must submit a reorganization plan, similar to Chapter 11, which protects against foreclosure or repossession. In addition to this, the debtor must have a stable income that supports the repayment plan.
What is the Difference Between a Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?
Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings differ in terms of procedure, eligibility, and timeframe. Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidates the debtor’s assets and property, using the gains from this liquidation to pay off creditors. On the other hand, Chapter 13 bankruptcy does not liquidate assets. Instead, it allows the debtor and creditor to create a viable repayment plan to discharge all debts.
Another difference between both types of filing is eligibility. Chapter 7 involves a mean test taken by the debtor to evaluate financial records and determine the debtor’s income in relation to Pennsylvania's median income. If the means test determines that a debtor is eligible, the amount of debt may be inconsequential. Unlike Chapter 7, Chapter 13 debtors must not have more than $419,275 of unsecured debt and $1,257,850 of secured debt.
Finally, most eligible Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases are resolved within three to six months. For Chapter 13 bankruptcy, cases are only resolved after repayment of all debt, which may take between three and five years.
What is Bankruptcy Protection in Pennsylvania?
In Pennsylvania, bankruptcy protection is a part of the bankruptcy process that requires all creditors to immediately suspend all efforts to retrieve all debts owed. The court enforces an automatic stay that stops the enforcement or appeal of related judgments and actions to collect debts. When a debtor files for bankruptcy, all related assets and properties are protected until the proceedings are over. An automatic stay protects the following:
- Disconnection of utilities
- Public benefits overpayment collection
- Wage garnishments
Debtors must note that in most cases, bankruptcy protection will not prevent the following:
- Some tax proceedings
- Criminal proceedings
- Child support payments
- Pension loan repayments
Petitioners should also note that a bankruptcy case filed within one year of the current filing terminates an automatic stay after 30 days. To prevent this, the debtor, trustee, creditor, or U.S. trustee must file for an extension. The person filing must prove that the current bankruptcy case was filed in good faith.
What are Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Exemptions?
Bankruptcy exemptions allow debtors to hold on to certain property required to maintain a basic standard of living. Federal and state exemptions differ but generally protect assets to a specified degree. This protection prevents a trustee from liquidating certain assets to pay creditors.
Pennsylvania allows debtors to choose between federal and state bankruptcy exemptions. Debtors cannot choose both. Pennsylvania also states that persons filing for Bankruptcy must have resided in the state for at least 730 days to use the state’s exemptions. State law provides for the following exemptions:
Wild Card Exemption
Debtors can use the state’s wildcard exemption to protect personal property or cash. However, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8123 states that this exemption covers property and cash worth a maximum of $300. In contrast, the federal wildcard exemption allows up to $1,325 of any property.
Exemption of Particular Property
Under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8124 some property may be exempt in Pennsylvania. The law exempts the following properties in their full value:
- Bibles and school books
- Sewing machines owned by a seamstress or owned and used by a private family. This exemption does not include sewing machines for hire or sale
- Work uniforms
All unpaid wages, commissions, or salaries are exempt under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8127
Pensions and Retirement Accounts
All public servants’ pensions are exempt from liquidation. This exemption covers workers at the state and city levels, including public school, state, county, city, and municipal employees, as well as police officers. Furthermore, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8124(b)(ix)(B) states that retirement or annuity fund contributions above $15,000 within a one-year period are exempt. However, this allowance may not include payments rolled over from other funds.
This includes veteran’s benefits, unemployment benefits, crime victims compensation, and workman’s compensation
Debtors may enjoy monthly exemptions of annuity payments or insurance, up to $100. In some cases, insurance policies specify that debtors cannot use payments to discharge debt. This specification may allow complete exemption of some life insurance policies.
Petitioners should note that Pennsylvania does not have a Homestead Exemption. Therefore, debtors looking to protect their homes may consider using the federal equivalent, which protects equity up to $25,150. However, married debtors may keep their property if both partners hold the property as a tenancy by the entirety. The equity held in this type of ownership cannot be discharged to pay one spouse’s debt.
Pennsylvania debtors may also lose ownership of their vehicles to a bankruptcy liquidation process as the state does not provide a Motor Vehicle Exemption. However, motor vehicle liquidation is not straightforward if there and any active liens on the vehicle.
What are the Other Types of Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania also allows Chapter 12 bankruptcy filings for fishers and family farmers. Chapter 12 bankruptcy is similar to Chapter 11 as it also enables applicable businesses to repay and restructure their debt while the entity remains afloat. Examples of businesses in this category are horse farms, greenhouses, logging and timber outfits, etc. The following are eligibility requirements for Chapter 12 bankruptcy:
- Total debts must not exceed $4,153,150 for farmers and $1,924,550 for fishing operations, as of 2020
- At least half of the business's annual income should be from fishing or farming
- For farmers, farming operations must account for 50% of debt while fishing operations should make up 80% of debt for fishers
How Much Does It Cost to File Bankruptcy in Pennsylvania?
Bankruptcy courts in Pennsylvania have a uniform fee schedule for filing different bankruptcy petitions. For instance, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy costs $338 (comprising a $245 filing fee + $78 administrative fee + $15 trustee surcharge), whereas a Chapter 13 bankruptcy costs $313 (a $235 filing fee + $78 administrative fee).
If petitioners cannot afford the filing fee, they may request to pay in installments or waive the payment (only available for Chapter 7 bankruptcy cases). For further information about fee waivers, interested persons can visit the United States Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania's website.