The Role of the Bankruptcy Trustee in Chapter 7

Here's what the bankruptcy trustee will do in your Chapter 7 case.

When a debtor files a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the court appoints a bankruptcy trustee to oversee and administer the case. The Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee has many responsibilities that come with this appointment, including ensuring that your paperwork is accurate and selling property that you’re not entitled to keep for the benefit of your creditors.

Understanding the Trustee’s Role

The trustee receives a small fee for examining your paperwork, and a percentage of any assets sold. This payment structure gives the trustee incentive to carefully scrutinize the debtor’s property, including any property sold or transferred before the bankruptcy filing. Although the trustee must be fair to the debtor, their interests aren’t always aligned. Therefore, how much the trustee will be willing to help you—such as by answering your questions—will depend on the individual trustee.

Here are the primary duties of the bankruptcy trustee in Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Reviewing the Bankruptcy Petition

Filing for bankruptcy involves completing a petition and other types of bankruptcy paperwork. In these documents, you’ll disclose personal and financial information about your debts, property, income, and the state of your financial affairs. Also, you’ll likely have to send the bankruptcy trustee things that will substantiate the information you provide in your paperwork, such as paystubs, tax returns, and information about your assets.

It is the trustee’s job to review your bankruptcy petition and verify the information and calculations using your financial documents and other independent sources. For example, if you state that you make $3,000 a month in your bankruptcy papers, the trustee will compare that against your paystubs to make sure the figure is accurate.

Examining the Debtor

Approximately a month after you file your case, you must attend the 341 meeting of creditors in front of the bankruptcy trustee. Although your creditors ask you questions during the hearing, unless they feel that you are hiding assets, creditors rarely attend these hearings. The bankruptcy trustee’s job is to conduct the hearing and ask you questions about the information contained in your bankruptcy documents while you are under oath.

Selling Assets

The Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee is also responsible for selling property that the debtor cannot protect, and distributing the funds to creditors. Here’s how it works.

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you can keep, or “exempt,” a certain amount of your property, such as household furnishings, clothing, and a qualifying retirement account. The particular assets that you can protect will depend on your state’s exemption statutes.

  • When you have nonexempt property. Any nonexempt property—property you own that’s above and beyond the amount allowed by your state—will be sold by the trustee to pay your creditors. It’s important to determine what will happen to your property before you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. You don’t have an automatic right to dismiss your case, and many judges will not allow you to do so just because you didn’t realize the trustee would sell your property. (Find out more in Bankruptcy Exemptions by State.)
  • When you don’t have nonexempt property. If there aren’t any nonexempt assets, the trustee will prepare a report stating your case is a “no asset” case and that there won’t be any distributions to creditors.

Sometimes the debtor and trustee disagree about the exemption status of a particular asset. In such cases, the bankruptcy judge will make the final determination.

Also, if you have property that you need to turn over, you—or your attorney, if you’re represented—will make arrangements with the trustee to do so.

Avoiding Certain Transfers or Security Interests

The bankruptcy trustee also has certain powers to avoid any preferential transfers or improperly executed security interests. If you transferred property to someone else or paid back certain creditors you prefer over others (such as family members) before filing bankruptcy, the trustee may be able to avoid (undo) these and get the money or property back to distribute it among all your creditors.

Similarly, if a creditor (such as a car company) did not properly create a lien or security interest on your property, the trustee can avoid that as well and sell the property free and clear of the lien. This situation is unusual and most likely to happen when a friend or family member is the creditor and fails to prepare the loan documents properly or fails to record the lien.

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