How Exemptions Work In California
Exemptions in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13
You can protect property covered by an exemption regardless of whether you file for Chapter 7 or 13. But each chapter treats nonexempt property—things not covered by an exemption—differently.
- In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee sells nonexempt property and distributes the proceeds to creditors.
- In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you keep everything you own. However your repayment plan must pay the value of the nonexempt property equity, or your disposable income, whichever is more.
The different approaches ensure that creditors receive the same amount regardless of the chapter filed.
Sources of Exemption Laws
Bankruptcy law is federal, but the laws regarding debts, collection, and property have traditionally resided in state law.
State Exemption Laws
Every state has its own set of exemptions laws.
These laws specify what kinds of property are "exempt from attachment" by a creditor in those states. These laws informally known as "exemption laws."
Sometimes they are collected under one section of a statute, but there are miscellaneous exemption provisions throughout the laws of California.
Federal "Non-Bankruptcy" Exemptions
In addition to your state exemptions, various kinds of federal benefits, retirement accounts and other things are exempt under federal law, separate and apart from the Federal Bankruptcy Code — Title 11 of the United States Code (11 U.S.C.).
In all but 19 states, you must use these laws to protect your property, like your car and your house.
Federal Bankruptcy Exemptions Under Section 522 —
an Alternative System Available in 19 States
In 19 states you have the option of using the Federal Bankruptcy Exemptions found in (11 U.S.C. Section 522(d)) Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin.
Which exemptions system you should choose may depend on the particular facts of your situation, where you live, and what kinds of property you own.
We have categorized state and federal exemptions by category
Real Estate: Homestead
Doubling Exemptions for Joint Filers?
When a married couple files for bankruptcy jointly, federal law and the laws of many states allow them each to claim the full amount of an exemption.
(11 U.S.C. § 522.) Because a couple gets to claim twice the amount available to those who file alone, this practice is informally known as “doubling.”
Not all states allow doubling, however. (California, for example, does not.) And some states allow married couples to double only certain exemptions (for example, they might be able to double personal property exemptions but not the homestead exemption). In the charts that follow, we indicate exemptions that cannot be doubled (and states that don’t allow doubling at all). Unless you see a note stating that you cannot double, assume that you can.
How Exemptions Work in California
California does NOT allow doubling
The California State Law exemptions may not be doubled by joint filers.
The ‘homeowner’ set of California exemptions — Section 704 offers a more generous homestead exemption up to $626,000, or less, depending on your county, but has no wild card exemption, and has a smaller exemption for motor vehicles but a larger exemption for jewelry.
The ’non-homeowner’ set of California exemptions — Section 703 set of exemptions, under California Code of Civil Procedure § 703, basically mirrors the federal exemption system under 11 USC section 522, offering a homestead exemption of $29,275, but that exemption can be used as a wildcard exemption for personal property if you don't use that amount to protect real estate.
Federal Bankruptcy Exemptions NOT Available
California does not allow use of the Federal Bankruptcy Exemptions.
Two Exemptions Systems Offered Under State Law
California has two systems of exemptions under its state law. You must choose one state system or the other.
And you may use the Federal Non-Bankruptcy exemptions listed below.
Other Listings of California Exemptions on the Web
Does California Adjust Exemptions for Inflation?
California updates its exemption amounts every three years. (§703.150) (The last revision was in 2022; the next will be April 1, 2025.) As a result, the amounts listed in this chart (from the 2019 revisions) may not match the amounts that appear in the cited statutes. The 2022 exemption amounts can be found on form EJ-156 the California Judicial Council Website.