What the Bankruptcy Trustee Will Not Tell You

November 18, 2014

While the bankruptcy process expects a debtor to “spill the beans” about his finances, there is no reciprocal obligation to help a debtor reorganize before, during or after bankruptcy. The bankruptcy trustee is ethically (and legally) forbidden from giving legal advice to a debtor. The trustee effectively acts as an advocate on behalf of creditors during bankruptcy. Let’s look at what the bankruptcy trustee cannot or will not divulge to a debtor:

The debtor can keep assets that are of no value to the bankruptcy estate. The Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee is charged with finding assets that can be taken and sold to pay creditors. However, certain assets have little or no practical value (called de minimis, Latin for “very little value”). For example, a prized Beanie Baby collection that is worth $500 on eBay is of no interest to the trustee. Even if a buyer was ready and able to pay $500 for the collection, the trustee must make an accounting, open a bankruptcy estate, collect assets, send notices, and finally distribute money to creditors. The trustee expects to be compensated for his time, but with only $500 available, there is a good chance that the trustee will consider working at far below his hourly rate not worth the effort.

Legal advice. While the trustee is (usually) a licensed and experienced bankruptcy attorney (or CPA), the trustee is prohibited from giving the debtor legal advice. That is the case even if the debtor is acting pro se and has made a very serious and obvious mistake, and even if the debtor has hired a putz of an attorney who is inexperienced or incompetent.

The trustee’s office is understaffed and overworked. Whether it is the Chapter 13 standing trustee’s office or a Chapter 7 interim trustee, there is more work than hours in the day. Many bankruptcy errors, lies, and omissions are ignored for the sake of expediency. To illustrate, pretend that the debtor’s mother has loaned the debtor $300. The debtor received a tax refund of $300, paid her back, and then immediately filed bankruptcy. This repaid debt is a fraudulent transfer to an insider creditor. The trustee can avoid the transfer and demand the money from the debtor or his mother, but is that likely? Probably not. The costs involved for the trustee are too great and the benefit to creditors is too small. Suppose the debtor failed to account for this transfer in the Statement of Financial Affairs? Will the trustee seek to deny a bankruptcy discharge because of this perjury? Again, probably not. Now consider how the response might change if the amount at issue was $3,000? Or $30,000? Or $300,000?

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