Part of understanding bankruptcy is knowing who the professionals are that you will meet and deal with along the way. From your attorney to even your creditors, it helps provide a solid foundation of comfort to actually understand the role of those who are playing a role in your financial future.
One of those individuals is the case Trustee, the most prominent member of the bankruptcy process. And, the involvement you have with the case trustee depends on which chapter of bankruptcy you are filing.
As you may know, the 2 main "chapters" are 7 and 13. Well over 95% of all bankruptcy cases filed are filed under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.
Let's start by talking about the Chapter 7 trustee.
In every district in the country, there are 1 or more attorneys who have been appointed to act as a Chapter 7 Trustee. These Trustees are also sometimes called panel Trustees. When you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, one of these panel Trustees is assigned to your case.
The best way to think of this person is as an intermediary between you and the Court, an attorney whose job it is to make sure you have told the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth, to make sure that you have disclosed everything you are legally obligated to disclose, and to find and sell any 'assets above exemptions'.
Fortunately, in our experience, in about 98% of Chapter 7 cases filed, there are no 'assets above exemptions' to sell. What does this mean for you? Just that if you file Chapter 7, there is very little chance you will lose any property you don't want to lose.
As long as you have told the truth, disclosed everything, cooperate, and have no assets that cannot be protected by available 'exemptions', your contact with the Trustee should be a positive one.
However, the best approach is to assume that the Trustee assigned to your case is not your friend, so that you stay cautious and alert.
In most cases, you are first introduced to the trustee at your 341 meeting, also known as the "Meeting of Creditors". Technically speaking, this meeting is held to provide your creditor an opportunity (in most cases, one last opportunity) to ask you questions. However, most of the time, none of the creditors show up, and then, it's just you, your attorney and the Trustee. At this meeting the Trustee will ask you questions necessary to get to know you and your case better and necessary for the Trustee to carry out his or her duties. (There a number of posts here on the blog about this meeting. Take a look.)
Let's say you are unlucky enough that your case falls in the approximately 2% of cases with more assets than can be protected. In this case, it is important that you understand that it is the Trustee's duty to sell or dispose of those assets 'above exemptions', and to then distribute the proceeds to your creditors. Basically, anything not considered exempt property must be seized and sold by the trustee.
The type and amount of exemptions are, for the most part, set by the law of the State where you live. There are exceptions. Being set by State law, exemptions vary greatly. However, since in 98% of bankruptcy cases filed, there are no assets not covered by available exemptions, the exemptions statutes are, for the most part, fairly generous. However, make no assumptions in this regard. Always, always seek the help of an experienced, full time bankruptcy attorney. Such an attorney will be an expert in what exemptions are available in your State and how best to apply them. Such an attorney will also be able to tell you what is not protected.
The Chapter 7 Trustee is also responsible for tracking down any gifts you made just before filing, whether or not they were made in an attempt to hide assets or not. For example, if your nephew got a few thousand from you for his birthday the week before you filed bankruptcy, rest assured that your Trustee will be looking to get this money back. And, it's not even safe to pay back relatives or friends prior to filing. These people are generally considered "insiders", and, subject to certain exceptions, paying back insiders during the 12 months before filing bankruptcy is a "no no", which will result in your Trustee being forced to try to get the money back.
Chapter 7 trustees are paid by a commission based on the amount of money they recover, so it stands to reason they'll work hard to find and sell what property they can.
Now, let's talk about Chapter 13.
The Chapter 13 Trustee, aka the Standing Trustee, is also first introduced to you at the 341 meeting. However, their role is more about ensuring your income is sufficient to pay your monthly Chapter 13 plan payment and that your proposed Chapter 13 plan is properly calculated. Assuming all goes well, it is then this Trustee's job to collect from you your plan payment and to distribute it to your creditors.
Like the Panel Trustee, the Standing Trustee is paid a commission. However, unlike a Chapter 7 Trustee, the Chapter 13 Trustee gets his commission not from what he takes and sells, but rather out of the money you send in each month. Chapter 13 Trustees do not sell things. That's just not his job.
The best way to think of your Chapter 13 Trustee is as the Chief Financial Officer in charge of your Chapter 13 plan. He runs the business of your Chapter 13 case. He figures out what is needed, and then accounts for and distributes the money you send in each month.
Your relationship with your Chapter 13 Trustee will be vastly different than the one you would have with a Chapter 7 Trustee. Chapter 7 Trustees live, for lack of a better way of saying it, for what they can "kill and eat". Chapter 13 Trustee do not. Chapter 13 Trustees live off a percentage of what you send in each month. The Chapter 13 Trustee only succeeds in getting paid, if you succeed in making your payments. Therefore, as a general rule, Chapter 13 Trustees, at least those who recognize, so to speak, which "side their bread is buttered", will go everything in their power to help you make a go of it in Chapter 13.
In most cases, as long as you make your required Chapter 13 plan payment, you can think of the Chapter 13 Trustee as more of a friend than adversary. He or she still has to do the job, but doing the job includes doing the best that can be done to make sure you do yours and that you get the full benefit of bankruptcy, all the way to the desired "discharge".
If all of this is confusing and scary, we understand. Bankruptcy law is complicated and complex, to say the least. Need an expert? In North Carolina, there are many, good, experienced bankruptcy attorneys.
One is the Law Offices of John T. Orcutt, serving 30 counties in middle and eastern North Carolina. John Orcutt offers a Free initial consultation at 4 different locations: Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville and Wilson. Call toll free to 1-888-234-4181 or visit his website for tons of info on bankruptcy: www.billsbillsb.com .