Are Bankruptcy Records Public Information in Massachusetts?
By Massachusetts state law, court proceedings are subject to public inspection. Therefore, bankruptcy records are public information because they are court proceedings. If an entity files a bankruptcy case, the associated records will be available at the bankruptcy court or through other authorized means to the case parties and other individuals who request bankruptcy information.
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
What are Massachusetts Bankruptcy Records?
When businesses and private individuals in Massachusetts accrue debts that they cannot afford to pay, they may file for bankruptcy. This legal proceeding provides debtors with a fresh financial start and an automatic stay that immediately stops the creditors from pursuing debt collection actions until the debts are sorted out according to the law.
Typically, legal claims are handled by the Massachusetts state courts. However, because federal law provides the right to file for bankruptcy, all bankruptcy cases are heard by the federal court: the Massachusetts Bankruptcy Court. During the resolution of bankruptcy cases, the bankruptcy court documents every file, docket information, order, judgment, motion, etc., to make up bankruptcy records. Federal laws mandate that bankruptcy court proceedings be public records and subject to public inspection.
Bankruptcy records typically contain detailed information about every entity in a case and details of the activities that ensued during the court proceeding. Because the courts typically generate these records, the bankruptcy courts are charged by law to maintain and grant public access to them on request. Likewise, credit reporting agencies in Massachusetts also maintain basic bankruptcy records.
What Do Massachusetts Bankruptcy Records Contain?
Due to the nature of information required to file and resolve a bankruptcy claim, Massachusetts bankruptcy records typically contain financial paperwork. This paperwork provides all entities in the case with detailed information on the debtor's assets, debts, income, and financial transactions, such as:
- The debtor's personal information: This includes the entity's full legal name, personal address, and the last four digits of the entity's Social Security Number. If applicable to the case, the record will contain child and spousal information, and an employer's name and address.
- The debtor's income: This will include documents such as payment advice or pay stubs, the debtor's most recent tax return, and all other information related to the entity's earnings for at least two years before the case was filed.
- Expenses: The records will also show the debtor's monthly expenses, including rent, mortgage, utility bills, insurance, repairs, maintenance expenses, groceries, and other household expenses. If applicable, it may also contain annual or bi-annual expenses such as taxes, insurance, and school-related costs.
- Assets: Typically, a bankruptcy petition will show every property that the debtor owns and how much they are worth. Related properties usually include expensive jewelry, antiques, bank accounts, 401ks, available cash, real property, furniture, art, books, etc.
- Debts: The record will show a complete list of the entity's debts and the creditors' names, addresses, account numbers, and complete contact information.
It is worthy to note that while a typical bankruptcy record may contain the above information, not all parts of the document may be open to public inspection, according to the federal FOIA laws. Usually, information that might subject any entity to harm or scrutiny may be withheld.
How to Get Massachusetts Bankruptcy Records
Copies of bankruptcy case documents, official documents, and claims registers are available to members of the public upon request. Interested persons can either access records through court-provided online databases or request physical copies from the courts.
Requesting Physical Copies
In Massachusetts, the bankruptcy court provides physical copies to requesters at 50 cents per page, payable at the time of pickup. If any entity requests physical copies but refuses to pick them up within three days, the request will be discarded. Therefore, all requesters should ensure that they pick up their requested copies when the court clerk informs them of their availability.
Individuals can also obtain certified copies of case documents if they are registered ECF Users. Registered users can obtain up to five (5) certified copies for a single case or proceeding by filing a request with the court and paying the required fees. The court will then process the request and mail the requested certified documents to the attorney or entity.
If the requester is a non-registered ECF user, the individual may mail a written request, along with a $30 search fee (per document) and printing and photocopying fees of $.10 and $.50 per page, respectively. The certification fee is $11 per document. In the written request, the interested party must provide a case name, case number, filing date, and the specific title of documents requested. The request must then be mailed along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) to the appropriate court where the claim was filed.
Certified and paper copies may also be obtained in person at the court. For in-person requests, no inspection fee is required. The individual is only required to pay the printing or photocopy fee and the $11 certification fee. The court will only accept payments with a bank cashier's check or money order made payable to "Clerk, United States Bankruptcy Court".
Requesting Electronic Records
With personal computers or electronic devices equipped with internet access, requesters may access electronic records through Public Access to Courtroom Electronic Records (PACER). However, note that using the service requires registration to access the system and a small fee to view or print records. Individuals who do not possess devices with internet access can visit the PACER terminals located at public counters in the courthouses. The terminals provide case and docket information for viewing and the option of printouts for 10 cents per page.
Basic bankruptcy information is also available electronically through the Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (McVCIS) and on credit reports. A bankruptcy filing will appear on the debtor's credit report for ten years after a Chapter 7 case and seven years after a Chapter 13 case. Inquirers interested in using the voice information system should simply dial (866) 222-8029 from a touchtone phone. The service is not restricted to work hours and is available at all times. It provides information such as:
- Debtor's name
- Filing date
- Chapter of bankruptcy filed
- Debtor's attorney
- Date and time of 341 Meeting
- Date of discharge,
- Closing date of a case
Where to Conduct a Free Bankruptcy Case Search in Massachusetts
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution establishes bankruptcy as a federal issue. Thus, persons interested in conducting bankruptcy case searches in Massachusetts must send a request to the relevant federal court (i.e., the federal bankruptcy court in Massachusetts).
Generally, obtaining physical copies of bankruptcy case records requires the payment of a copy or certification fee, depending on the searcher's request. However, if one must conduct a free bankruptcy case search in Massachusetts, these are some options to explore:
- Free Public Access to Electronic Records (PACER) Case Search: Via PACER, persons involved in a bankruptcy case or their legal representatives may search and receive one free copy of the electronic case records. Other interested persons may perform a bankruptcy case search for free via PACER using the courthouse's public access terminal to view the case information.
- The Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (McVCIS): Individuals may obtain basic bankruptcy case information by calling (866) 222-8029, a free, 24-hour phone line. Here, by providing a debtor's last name, the case number, or the debtor's Social Security or tax identification number, record seekers may find out the following information:
- If a party has filed for bankruptcy
- The debtor's name
- The filing date and chapter of bankruptcy filed
- The trustee (if any)
- The case status
- The date and time of the Sec. 341 meeting
- The case's closing date, etc.
- Third-Party Websites: Some third-party websites provide bankruptcy case records online for free. These websites allow users to perform free basic searches by inputting the relevant information (like a debtor's name) into the appropriate search boxes. They may also provide advanced searches to users at a fee.
How Do I Find Out if My Bankruptcy Case is Closed in Massachusetts?
Debtors in a bankruptcy case are entitled to direct mails from the bankruptcy court informing them of the court's decision on their case. In situations where the information is delayed, they can obtain information on the status of their bankruptcy cases by visiting the United States Bankruptcy Court, District of Massachusetts website, or by contacting the court at:
United States Bankruptcy Court
John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse
5 Post Office Square, Suite 1150
Boston, MA 02109-3945
Phone: (617) 565-8950
United States Bankruptcy Court
Harold Donohue Federal Courthouse
595 Main Street, Room 211
Worcester, MA 01608-2076
Phone: (508) 770-8900
United States Bankruptcy Court
United States Courthouse
300 State Street
Springfield, MA 01105
Phone: (413) 785-6900
Individuals can also get quick case information via the Multi-Court Voice Case Information System (MCVCIS) or by calling the court's case information operators at (617) 748-5300 during regular business hours.
Can a Bankruptcy Be Expunged in Massachusetts?
Unless the presiding judge in a Massachusetts bankruptcy case orders that a record is removed, deleted, or sealed from public view, the bankruptcy record remains open. The court judge will usually order this action if the court determines a fraudulent activity on the creditor's part. If this occurs, the plaintiff can request to have the associated bankruptcy record(s) expunged since the petition was filed due to fraudulent and insincere actions.
Also, the federal bankruptcy code mandates that personally identifiable information in a bankruptcy record be redacted before the record is made public. The law insists on the protection of entities in bankruptcy cases through the redaction of sensitive information. This information typically includes children's names, home addresses, contact information, birth dates, and social security numbers. Therefore, when a debtor files a claim, it is the entity's responsibility to redact, cover, or remove this information from the paperwork provided. It is not the court's responsibility to remove sensitive personal information from the debtor's document, especially tax-related paperwork.
Similarly, the court has no jurisdiction over credit reporting agencies that provide public information on bankruptcy cases. Therefore, removing a bankruptcy record from a debtor's credit report is no concern of the bankruptcy court. Any entity that intends to remove bankruptcy records from its credit report must contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for assistance and inquiries:
Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Response Center
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, North West
Washington, D.C. 20580
Phone: (877) 382-4357
How Much Does It Cost to File Bankruptcy in Massachusetts?
The cost to file bankruptcy in Massachusetts comprises bankruptcy filing expenses, attorney fees, and miscellaneous court fees.
The bankruptcy chapter determines the amount the petitioner will pay for filing. For instance, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing fee is $338, comprising a $245 filing fee, $78 administrative fee, and $15 trustee surcharge. Meanwhile, the Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing fee is $313, comprising a $235 filing fee and $78 administrative fee. Persons who cannot afford the filing fee may pay in installments, but the court may grant them a waiver if they are 150% below the poverty level.
Attorney costs vary depending on the case's complexity, the chapter of bankruptcy filed, the location, and the attorney's expertise. In Massachusetts, attorney's costs may range from around $1,150 to $2,500 (Chapter 7 bankruptcy) to $4,000 (Chapter 13 bankruptcy). However, one may request pro bono representation to reduce attorney expenses.