Official figures indicate that more than one million consumers declared personal bankruptcy between January 2020 and the end of 2021 in the U.S. Additionally, almost 39,000 bankruptcies were filed by businesses during this same period . Choosing to move forward with bankruptcy is certainly not an easy decision, and most filers find themselves struggling with financial woes before resolving to proceed with this option.
The main objective of all bankruptcies, and the very reason why bankruptcy laws were established in the first place, is to get a fresh start and help debtors attain a more financially stable position. Some feel, quite erroneously, that bankruptcy is an embarrassing issue and one they’d rather not have people find out about. This adds to the many questions and concerns people have regarding bankruptcy.
So, is bankruptcy a matter of public record? Can anyone find out about it?
The short, unequivocal answer to the above is, quite simply, yes: a bankruptcy filing is a court proceeding and, as such, it is public record in your home state—as are court documents in general. The main reason behind this is that transparency and due process constitute fundamental and primary objectives of a functioning legal system. Consequently, granting the public access to court records plays a significant role in safeguarding the integrity, quality, and respect in our judicial system.
In practice, this means that your bankruptcy petition, including most of the information contained in your bankruptcy forms, as well as any bankruptcy discharge, may be accessed by any member of the public. Having said that, and even though the prospect of friends and acquaintances finding out about your financial situation may be awkward, it is frankly unlikely that anyone not directly affected by your bankruptcy would embark on a mission to dig out information about it .
A Matter of Public Record
Courts and other public entities, such as government agencies, routinely collect information that becomes a public record. Bankruptcy cases go through the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which forms part of the federal court system. As is generally the case, court proceedings are matters of public record unless a judge orders the records to be sealed, which is something quite rare when it comes to bankruptcy cases. If there is a request to this effect, which essentially impedes upon the principles of transparency and due process, the debtor must show that the release of the information would be damaging and not conducive to the interests of justice. Indeed, according to established case law, sealing court records is not something that should be done casually: judges ruling on sealing requests must carefully and skeptically review them to ensure that there really is an extraordinary circumstance or compelling need for doing so.
Therefore, like other court documents, your bankruptcy petition and the ensuing bankruptcy discharge will be accessible to the public, although—of course—one would need to be willing to make the effort (and assume the possible expense) of searching for it.
Finding out about your Bankruptcy Case
Since your bankruptcy is a matter of public record, any member of the public can access it either through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)  or by going to the courthouse, without needing any other formal authorization to this effect.
The PACER service provides electronic public access to federal court records. Court documents are uploaded and stored in the PACER system, which can then be accessed by the public. In order to access the system, however, you would first need to create an account and a password, which will then allow you to search and access documents for a small fee per page. In practice, even though anyone can theoretically register online and search the Pacer Case Locator, it is almost exclusively bankruptcy attorneys and their employees that make the effort to create an account on the system, learn about its search features, and look up case particulars.
Although the information on your bankruptcy may be publicly available, in our experience it is very unlikely that someone would come across your individual case by chance. One would need to be particularly determined to create an account, find out how to use the system, and specifically look you up—and of course, if they end up doing this, they will already be aware that you filed for bankruptcy.
Given that bankruptcy is a federal law matter and bankruptcy cases are filed in federal bankruptcy courts, there is no reason why your bankruptcy case should appear in your local county courthouse records. For someone to gain access to your bankruptcy case through the court system, they would need to find out to which bankruptcy court your case was filed, contact the clerk of that court, and make a relevant inquiry after providing relevant information that would allow them to search for your case. In addition to this, it must be borne in mind that clerks of courts also charge fees for searches and copies of bankruptcy documents. This process requires quite some dedication and does not come for free.
In certain cases, it may also be possible for someone to access basic case information (i.e., filing date, chapter of filing, the status of a case, and so on) through the Voice Case Information System (VCIS), which is available 24 hours a day, and free to use .
Potential filers are sometimes worried that their bankruptcy case may be reported in a newspaper or posted online. Even though in some smaller jurisdictions bankruptcy filing notices might get published online or in the local newspaper under the “Court News” or recent court cases section, this is hardly ever the case when it comes to Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 personal bankruptcies. Therefore, unless you are a very well-known figure and your case is somehow deemed to be of special interest to the public and/or affecting public life, it is highly unlikely that you will find your bankruptcy published in the papers—especially in the state of New York.
Publicly Available information
As mentioned above, most of your bankruptcy particulars will become public records, seeing that almost all court proceedings are public records. Having said that, not all information pertaining to your case will be accessible by the public, as certain information is deemed confidential.
In general, your case information that will become a public record will include information like your case number, filing date, chapter number, and case status, as well as the date of your bankruptcy discharge. The name of the judge who was assigned your case, the name of your bankruptcy trustee, and your 341 meeting particulars will also be accessible.
In addition to the above, the publicly shared data may contain other debt, income, and asset information that you have entered in your bankruptcy forms, such as a list of your creditors and the corresponding debt amounts that you owe each of them. Furthermore, a list of your income and any assets you may own will be part of the public record, along with your contact information and that of your creditors and your bankruptcy lawyer, if you have appointed one.
Information that will be excluded from the public record includes your Social Security number, which you will have listed on Form B-21, your full financial account numbers (the last four digits will be redacted or blacked out), your precise birthday (apart from the year of your birth), and any minor children’s names, which will appear only as initials.
Those Who Will Have to Receive Related Information
Filing bankruptcy has some immediate consequences. The main one is that all those to whom you owe money, be it individuals or companies, including credit card companies, will have to be informed. What practically happens is that, when you file for bankruptcy, you need to compile a list of creditors. Once the filing process is completed, bankruptcy notices will be sent to your creditors, co-signers, and any other parties whose rights might be affected by your filing, such as your landlord, if they have become a creditor due to your falling behind on rental payments.
Furthermore, notifications will be sent to all listed creditors, including companies and individuals toward whom you have non-dischargeable debt(s), even though this type of debt will not be discharged through bankruptcy. So, for example, student loan companies will also be notified of your filing, even though student loans cannot be discharged via bankruptcy.
It is also useful to bear in mind that credit card companies often share information, hence if you have had a debt discharged with AMEX, VISA is also likely to find out. Likewise, certain services, such as ACCER and Banko, will notify creditors automatically when a consumer who owes them money files for bankruptcy.
In Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases, your employer will also be notified if your repayment plan involves wage withholding orders, i.e. if payments are to be deducted from your wages.
Lastly, assuming that an automatic stay is put in place shortly after your bankruptcy filing, your listed creditors will be notified accordingly and will need to stop all debt collecting activities until court proceedings are completed.
Your Credit Report
While your bankruptcy will become part of your credit report, your credit report itself is not part of your public record. It is entirely within your discretion to authorize the people and entities who will have access to it, such as a bank or a prospective landlord, for example, if you are applying for a credit card or are looking into renting a property after your bankruptcy .
The fact that you filed for bankruptcy, as well as the accounts discharged, will be included in your credit history. Those you authorize to view your credit report, however, will not have access to a copy of your bankruptcy petition as such. Related information that will appear in your credit report includes your debt accounts, creditor information, and payment history. Your bankruptcy will also remain there for a considerable amount of time, depending on the Chapter under which you filed. Generally speaking, it is expected that Chapter 7 bankruptcies will stay on your credit report for up to 10 years, whereas a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is likely to remain on your credit report for about 7 years.
It is important to remember that you do have some rights when it comes to your credit report, such as what may be added to it and who can see it. One of those rights that you may wish to consider is the possibility of adding an explanatory statement about one or more of your credit report entries. Such statements, which are often referred to as “consumer statements,” may be useful in terms of providing some context or background information on “negative entries,” such as those concerning late payments. You can request that they be added through each of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax), and they can be either in the form of pre-written options, or you can add them yourself by entering up to 100 words. Even though a consumer statement will not directly affect your credit score, it offers you the opportunity to add your side of the story when it comes to information listed in your credit report. That way, potential lenders who see your statement will have a better understanding of your particular circumstances, and it will then be up to them to decide whether to take your bankruptcy into account.
Exploring your options for managing economic arrears when facing considerable debt is always advisable, and best achieved by seeking guidance from a bankruptcy professional. Our experienced team at Roemerman Law is committed to offering bankruptcy-related advice discreetly and respectfully, so if you wish to discuss your case in confidence and address any concerns about the process and its anticipated effects, contact us to arrange a free consultation.
 See, for example, re Orion Pictures Corp., 21 F.3d 24, 27 (2d Cir. 1994), (https://casetext.com/case/in-re-orion-pictures-corp-4) and Legal Newsline v. Garlock Sealing Technologies LLC (https://casetext.com/case/newsline-v-garlock-sealing-techs-llc)