Adversary Proceedings in Bankruptcy: Preferential Transfers

If you paid money to a creditor before you filed bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee may be able to get this money back.

February 28, 2017

If you paid money to a creditor before you filed bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee (the official responsible for managing your case) might be able to get this money back for the bankruptcy estate.

The trustee is interested in recovering property for the bankruptcy estate because the trustee is charged with making sure your unsecured creditors get repaid as much as possible, whether you file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

What is a Preferential Transfer?

The trustee can recover funds you previously paid a creditor if it the payment is considered "preferential transfer." It will meet the definition if:

  • you pay more than $600 to one creditor (or $6,425 if most of your debts are business debts)
  • the payment is for a debt you already owed
  • the payment allowed the creditor to receive more than what it would have received in Chapter 7 (most creditors receive nothing)
  • you were insolvent when you made the payment (your debts exceeded your assets), and
  • you made the payment within 90 days before you filed bankruptcy (one year if you paid a family member)

Example 1. Tom owed $15,000 on a personal loan from his bank. In a final attempt to get ahead, he used a $5,000 tax refund to pay the bank for the loan. 40 days later, he filed Chapter 7. The trustee sued the bank to recover the $5,000, because Tom is presumed to have been insolvent; the payment was made within 90 days before he filed his bankruptcy; the payment was on a preexisting debt; the bank would have received less than $5,000 in a Chapter 7 case; and the payment was over $600.

Example 2. Jennifer's mother loaned her $10,000 in 2009. In 2011, Jennifer received a bonus at work and repaid her mother in full. Less than a year later, Jennifer lost her job and filed for Chapter 7. The trustee sued Jennifer's mother for the $10,000 payment and won after proving that Jennifer was insolvent at the time of the transfer and that Jennifer's mother would have received less than $10,000 in Jennifer's bankruptcy case if Jennifer had not made the payment.

Defenses to a Preference Lawsuit

If a bankruptcy trustee sues a creditor to recover a preferential transfer, the creditor may have a defense to the action. Common defenses include:

Contemporaneous Exchange for New Value

If you repay a creditor and the creditor in return grants you more credit or gives you something else of value, and that exchange was contemporaneous (within a short time period), the creditor may have a defense.

Example. Janet's credit card has a balance of $3,000. She pays off the debt. Two weeks later, she uses her credit card to get her daughter braces. The new charge is $3,500. This is a contemporaneous exchange for new value.

Payment Made in Ordinary Course of Business

If the debt was incurred and the payment made in the ordinary course of your business, the creditor may have a defense.

Example. Larry is a sole proprietor. Larry buys inventory from one of his vendors, X Corp. on a monthly basis. He pays his invoices every 45 days. He received inventory on May 1 with a bill for $50,000. He paid the invoice in full on June 16 and filed bankruptcy 60 days later. Because the $50,000 was incurred in the ordinary course of business between Larry and X Corp., X Corp. will likely have a defense against a preference action by Larry's trustee.

Security Interest

If you own a business and give a creditor a lien on your inventory or receivables instead of paying money (granting a lien is considered a transfer), the creditor might have a defense, depending on when you granted the lien, the amount of the debt and the value of the receivables.

Unavoidable Statutory Lien

If the creditor obtains a lien against your property because a law grants such a lien (again, granting a lien is considered a transfer), the creditor may have a defense depending on the circumstances of the lien.

Domestic Support Obligation

If the debt you repaid is for child support, spousal support or any other domestic support obligation, the trustee cannot avoid the transfer.

Example. Todd owes $10,000 in back child support to his ex-wife. He repays her $10,000 and files bankruptcy three days later. The trustee cannot avoid the transfer as long as Todd made the payment for purposes of catching up on his child support and not for purposes of hiding his money from the trustee.

Transfers Less Than $600 (or $6,425 If Most Debts Are Business Debts)

The trustee cannot sue for transfers that aggregate less than $600 (or $6,425 if more than 50% of your debts are business debts).

Example. Lisa owned a small business and personally guaranteed much of her small business loans. The business folded, and Lisa filed bankruptcy. Her own personal debt was limited to a credit card bill of $5,000 and her mortgage, which was $200,000. The business debt she personally guaranteed totaled $600,000. Before filing bankruptcy, in an attempt to catch up, she repaid one of her small business loans in four installments of $1,000 each. Because Lisa’s debts are primarily business debts and the transfers totaled $4,000 (less than $6,425), the bank has a defense to a preferential transfer lawsuit.

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