One of the primary purposes of bankruptcy is to discharge certain debts to give an honest individual debtor a "fresh start." The debtor has no liability for discharged debts. In a chapter 7 case, however, a discharge is only available to individual debtors, not to partnerships or corporations.  Although an individual chapter 7 case usually results in a discharge of debts, the right to a discharge is not absolute, and some types of debts are not discharged. Moreover, a bankruptcy discharge does not extinguish a lien on property.

When a person officially files Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they typically receive the protection of the automatic stay, which is a court order that prohibits further collection efforts from creditors.

Individuals who reside, have a place of business, or own property in the United States may file for bankruptcy in a federal court under Chapter 7 ("straight bankruptcy", or liquidation) Chapter 7, as with other bankruptcy chapters, is not available to individuals who have had bankruptcy cases dismissed within the prior 180 days under specified circumstances.

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the individual is allowed to keep certain exempt property. Most liens, however (such as real estate mortgages and security interests for car loans), survive. The value of property that can be claimed as exempt varies from state to state. Other assets, if any, are sold (liquidated) by the interim trustee to repay creditors. Many types of unsecured debt are legally discharged by the bankruptcy proceeding, but there are various types of debt that are not discharged in a Chapter 7. Common exceptions to discharge include child support, income taxes less than 3 years old and property taxes, student loans (unless the debtor prevails in a difficult-to-win adversary proceeding brought to determine the dischargeability of the student loan), and fines and restitution imposed by a court for any crimes committed by the debtor. Spousal support is likewise not covered by a bankruptcy filing nor are property settlements through divorce. Despite their potential non-dischargeability, all debts must be listed on bankruptcy schedules.

The bankruptcy "means test" determines whether your income is low enough for you to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy. It's a formula designed to keep filers with higher incomes from filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. High income filers who fail the means test may use Chapter 13 bankruptcy to repay a portion of their debts, but may not use Chapter 7 bankruptcy to wipe out their debts altogether.

However, having to take the Chapter 7 means test doesn't mean that you must be penniless in order to use Chapter 7 bankruptcy. You can earn significant monthly income and still qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy if you have a lot of expenses, such as a high mortgage payment.