California Bankruptcy Exemptions

You'll protect property in a California bankruptcy using the California bankruptcy exemption laws.

Bankruptcy promises a fresh start—and it works. You'll straighten out your finances and keep the things you need to work and live. But "exemption laws" protect essential property only, not unnecessary luxury goods. To prevent a costly property loss, you'll want to learn about:

  • choosing between California's two exemption systems
  • what will happen to property you can't protect with an exemption, and
  • whether you've lived in California long enough to use California's bankruptcy exemptions.

The information below will help. If you'd like to check for other common issues in your bankruptcy case, try using the ten-question bankruptcy quiz—it will flag areas you'll want to look into further. Or, if you'd like an exemption overview, read Bankruptcy Exemptions – What Can I Keep When I File for Bankruptcy?

Filing for Bankruptcy in California

Bankruptcy is a federal process, so it works the same way in every state. However, you'll use California state law to protect your property. Although most states don't allow filers to choose bankruptcy exemptions, California filers are fortunate because the state offers two choices—you'll find both below. You'll want to review each list carefully and compare it to the property you own because you can't use exemptions from both lists. You can also use the federal nonbankruptcy exemptions along with the state sets.

Choosing an Exemption List in a California Bankruptcy

To help you make an informed choice, we've charted both California exemption sets and explain essential differences. You'll also find links that will take you to the California statutes and a list of the federal nonbankruptcy exemptions available to you.

Our Exemption Analysis. California's 703 exemptions work best for people who don't own a home or have little to no home equity. Not only can most people protect all household basics, but this exemption set provides a generous wildcard exemption you can use to protect anything of your choosing, including luxury items not usually covered in bankruptcy. For instance, if you own an expensive car outright, have banked a nest egg, or have a valuable collection but don't own much else, you'll likely lean toward the 703 exemptions.

By contrast, California's 704 exemptions work well to protect a significant amount of home equity, all household basics, personal injury actions, and equipment needed in a family business. In exchange, filers can't keep luxury items like a boat, RV, or fancy car. But the jewelry, heirlooms, and art exemption is very generous. (Analysis is for illustration purposes only and won't apply in all cases.)

California 703 Bankruptcy Exemptions

Amounts adjust on April 1, 2022. Spouses cannot double exemptions.

California 704 Bankruptcy Exemptions

Amounts adjust periodically. Spouses cannot double exemptions unless noted.

Homestead Exemption

  • $29,275 for real or personal property used as a residence
  • can be used for a burial plot

CCP § 703.140(b)(1)

  • $600,000 for real or personal property filer occupies
  • can apply to a mobile home, boat, stock cooperative, community apartment, planned development, or condominium

CCP § 704.730

Motor Vehicle Exemption

  • $5,850

CCP § 703.140(b)(2)

  • $3,325

CCP § 704.010

Tools of the Trade Exemption

  • $8,725

CCP § 703.140(b)(6)

  • $8,725
  • additional $8,725 for spouse in the same business
  • $4,850 of the exemption amount can be applied to a commercial vehicle ($9,700 for a married couple)

CCP § 704.060

Wildcard Exemption

  • $1,550, and
  • any unused homestead exemption amount ($30,825 available if homestead exemption isn't used)

CCP § 703.140(b)(5)

  • none

Personal Property Exemptions

  • $725 per item for clothing, household goods, appliances, furnishings, animals, books, musical instruments, and crops
  • $1,750 in jewelry
  • health aids
  • wrongful death recovery needed for support
  • $29,275 personal injury recovery
  • Alimony and child support needed for support

CCP §§ 703.140(b)(3),(4),(9) - (11)

  • food, clothing, appliances, and furnishings
  • $3,500 in building materials to repair or improve home
  • $8,725 in jewelry, heirlooms, and art
  • health aids
  • $1,826 in a bank account (spouses can double)
  • all Social Security payments if not commingled with other funds; otherwise, $3,500 ($5,250 joint payees)
  • all other public benefit payments if not commingled with other funds; otherwise, $1,750 ($2,600 joint payees)
  • personal injury and wrongful death causes of action
  • personal injury and wrongful death recoveries needed for support
  • burial plot
  • 75% of wages paid within 30 days before bankruptcy filing
  • $1750 inmate trust account
  • public employee vacation credits
  • FEMA benefits

CCP §§ 704.020 - 704.050; 704.070; 704.080; 704.090; 704.113; 704.140; 704.150; 704.200; 704.230

Retirement Account Exemptions

  • individual retirement account
  • pension, profit-sharing, stock bonus, or another ERISA-qualified plan
  • traditional, SIMPLE, or Roth IRA
  • more protections in "Federal Nonbankruptcy Exemptions" below

Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 600.6023(1)(j),(k); 11 U.S.C. § 522

  • private retirement benefits, including IRAs and Keoghs
  • public retirement benefits
  • more protections in "Federal Nonbankruptcy Exemptions" below

CCP §§ 704.010; 704.115

Public Benefit Exemptions

  • unemployment compensation, Social Security, Veterans' benefits, and public assistance
  • crime victims' reparation benefits

CCP §§ 703.140(b)(10),(11)

  • public assistance
  • student financial aid
  • relocation benefits
  • unemployment benefits
  • union labor dispute benefits
  • workers' compensation

CCP §§ 704.105; 704.120; 704.160 - 704.190

Insurance Benefit Exemptions

  • unmatured life insurance policy
  • $15,650 interest and dividends in an unmatured life insurance contract
  • disability benefits
  • life insurance payments needed for support

CCP §§ 703.140(b)(7),(8),(10),(11)

  • matured life insurance benefits needed for support of unlimited value
  • $13,975 in an unmatured life insurance policy
  • fraternal unemployment benefits
  • disability or health benefits
  • fraternal benefit society benefits

CCP §§ 704.010 - 704.130; 704.170

Available Federal Exemptions

Federal Nonbankruptcy Exemptions

Federal Bankruptcy Exemptions


California Code

California Code

This list is not exhaustive—more California exemptions exist. As with all exemptions, be sure to check for current amounts and qualification requirements. Keep reading to learn what will happen to property you can't protect with an exemption.

What Happens to Property You Can't Exempt in a California Bankruptcy?

It will depend on the chapter you file. In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you lose property not covered by an exemption. The bankruptcy trustee responsible for managing your case will sell the property for the benefit of your creditors. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you can keep all of your property; however, that luxury comes at a price—literally. You'll pay your creditors the value of any property not covered by an exemption in your Chapter 13 repayment plan.

For example, say you own a car outright worth $3,000, and your state has a vehicle exemption of up to $5,000. Here's what would happen in each chapter.

  • Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. If you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you will get to keep your car because the exemption would protect the equity fully. In the same example, if your vehicle were worth $15,000, the bankruptcy trustee would sell your vehicle, pay you $5,000 for the exemption, and distribute the rest to your unsecured creditors.
  • Chapter 13 Bankruptcy. In Chapter 13, you wouldn't need to pay extra to your creditors through your repayment plan. However, if the car were worth $15,000, you'd need to pay your creditors at least $10,000 (minus sales costs) through your plan.

Keep in mind that these examples don't take into account a vehicle loan. You'll find more information below.

Protecting a Financed Home or Car in a California Bankruptcy

Many people wonder if they can wipe out a home mortgage or car loan and keep the property without paying anything more. The simple answer is "No." Protecting the equity with an exemption will keep the Chapter 7 trustee from selling it, and you won't have to pay extra to keep it in Chapter 13, but there are more steps to take.

First, in a Chapter 7 case, the mortgage or car payment will need to be current. Second, you'll need to be able to continue to make the payment. Why? Because when you purchased it, you gave the lender a property "lien." The lien created a secured debt that allows the lender to take back the property if you don't pay as agreed—even in bankruptcy. So if you're behind on the payment and file for Chapter 7, you'll lose the property. Instead, consider catching up on arrearages in Chapter 13.

For more information, read about how mortgages work in bankruptcy and how to file for bankruptcy without losing a car.

California Bankruptcy Exemption Timing Rules

It's tempting to move to a state with significantly more generous bankruptcy exemptions when filing for bankruptcy. But it likely won't do much good. To prevent people from abusing the system, filers must live in the state for at least two years—otherwise, they must use the previous state's exemptions. Here's how it works.

  • If you've made your permanent home (your "domicile") in your current state for at least two years, you can use the state's exemptions (or the federal exemptions if allowed).
  • If your domicile hasn't been in the same state for two years, the rules get more complicated, so prepare yourself. In fact, it sounds so strange we'll explain it in three different ways so you know you didn't read it wrong. Here goes: You'll choose the state that you lived in the longest during the 180 days immediately before the two years before filing.

Did you get that? If not, here's a way to figure it out. Count back two-and-a-half years. Then ask yourself where you lived the longest during the first six months of that two-and-a-half-year period.

Still confused? Let's try an example. Suppose you planned to file on January 1, 2022. Your two-and-a-half-year period would start July 1, 2019, and you'd qualify to use the exemptions of whichever state you resided in the most during the July 1, 2019, through December 31, 2019 period. You wouldn't have to file your case there, but you'd use that state's exemptions. Hopefully, that helps!

Find out more in Chapter 7 Homestead Exemption in Bankruptcy.

Navigating Your California Bankruptcy Case

Bankruptcy is an unusual area because it's essentially a qualification process. The laws provide instructions for completing a 50- to 60-page bankruptcy petition, and because all rules apply in every case, you can't skip a step.

One way to keep track of your research is to use the bankruptcy forms as an outline. You'll find links to the exemption-related bankruptcy forms and other exemption resources in the chart below. You can also look at the list of Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy forms to see where this topic fits in the bankruptcy scheme. And this handy bankruptcy document checklist will help you gather the things you'll need to complete the petition.

Bankruptcy Exemption Information

Bankruptcy Forms

Schedule A/B: Property

Schedule C: The Property You Claim as Exempt

Statement of Intention for Individuals

Related Information

What Happens to Your Property in Bankruptcy?

The Motor Vehicle Exemption

The Wildcard Exemption

Chapter 7 Homestead Exemption

Exemptions in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Need More Info?

We want to help you find the answers you need. Go to TheBankruptcySite for more easy-to-understand bankruptcy articles, or consider buying a self-help book like The New Bankruptcy by Attorney Cara O'Neill.

We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all bankruptcy issues or the facts of your case. The best way to protect your assets in bankruptcy is by consulting with a local bankruptcy lawyer.

Updated October 8, 2021

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