Figuring out the correct federal courthouse in which to file your bankruptcy paperwork is not always self-evident. Where you have to file your bankruptcy petition and schedules might depend on where you live, where your principal place of business is located, or where your assets are found. Read on to learn in which federal bankruptcy court you should file your case and how to find the address of that court.
You must file your bankruptcy petition and schedules in a federal bankruptcy court. Bankruptcy courts are part of the federal court system, which is divided into 94 judicial districts throughout the country. You can find the location of all of the bankruptcy courts by using the U.S. Court’s Federal Court Locator (go to www.uscourts.gov/court_locator.aspx) or by using Pacer (go to http://www.pacer.gov/psco/cgi-bin/district.pl). Once you figure out which district you must file in (discussed below), check that bankruptcy court’s website for further information on where to file your bankruptcy paperwork. (Learn more about the basics of filing for bankruptcy.)
You may file your bankruptcy papers in the court that is located where, for the majority of the 180 days before filing (that would be 90 or more days), you:
If there is no single district that works for any of the above choices (for example, you don’t own a business and you didn’t have a domicile, residence, or assets in any one place for more than 90 days) then you can file in the district where you were domiciled, resided, had a business, or kept your assets for more days than any other district during that 180-day period.
Your domicile is where you make your permanent home and intend to stay indefinitely. So, if you are going to school in Boston or are taking care of sick family in Georgia, but Seminole County, Florida is your real, permanent home, then your domicile is in Seminole County.
The difference between residence and domicile is subtle. Residence is where you reside, literally. So in the example above, if you lived more than 90 days out of the last 180 in Boston, then as an alternative to filing in the court that services Seminole County, you could instead file in Boston. This would mean you wouldn’t have to travel back to Florida in order to take care of your bankruptcy.
If you are operating a business you could select the district where your principal place of business is located. That means where the business has its headquarters and center of operations, not necessarily where it has the most customers or earns the most money. Courts call this the "nerve center" test.
Principal assets are the greatest total value of things that you own. Your principal assets might be in a district you have never been to or have permanently moved away from. Most people who own a single piece of real estate will find that to be their principal asset, and will be able to file in the district where the property is located.
If you have a reasonable basis for filing in a district other than one that meets the above rules, you can do so as long as no one objects. If, however, the bankruptcy trustee files an objection, the court may transfer or dismiss your case. A trustee is more likely to object if you file in a district with no particular connection to you and the trustee suspects that you are "venue-shopping," that is, looking for a court that is generous to bankruptcy filers. But if the venue you picked is a matter of common sense and convenience for you and your creditors, the trustee and court are less likely to object. Whether a court or trustee actively discourages or tolerates out-of-area filers will depend on local policy.
In most situations, the most convenient court will fit within the rules outlined above. But sometimes another venue might work better for you. Most cases of out-of-area filers occur along state borders, because the states are carved up into large federal districts and the court across state lines may be an hour or more closer to you than the one in your district. Because this issue arises frequently, courts located near district borders will have already decided how to handle out-of-area filers.
When deciding where to file your case, keep in mind that your filing location has nothing to do with the bankruptcy exemptions that apply to your case. Just because you can file your case in a given state does not mean you automatically qualify for those state’s exemptions. To learn which exemptions are available to you, see Which State Bankruptcy Exemption System Can I Use?