Tag Archives: creditors

Safer in Bankruptcy – Part 1

One of the things I am working on this weekend is a demand letter to the attorney for a local credit union.  You see, someone at the credit union seems to have thought that taking advantage of an elderly man with early stage dementia was a profitable idea.  I will concede that under ordinary circumstances what they did might qualify as greedy and morally questionable; it should, however, be legal.

Not so fast.

In this case the elderly customer just happened to be in an active Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, and the Credit Union knew this.  They got checks from the Chapter 13 Trustee on this man’s loan accounts up until the events I am upset about happened.

It would be inappropriate and unnecessary to go into what actually happened or why I think it happened.  What is relevant is that when someone is in an active bankruptcy, they are under the protection of the Bankruptcy Court.  That means that there are orders in place that are designed to protect them from their creditors.  The credit union in the case I am currently working on appears to have violated several of those.

Over the next few days I am going to talk about what those orders are and how they can be used to keep you safer inside a bankruptcy than outside — particularly in uncertain times.

Elaine

Bankruptcy Attorneys Fees – What is it that I am Paying For?

So, when a bankruptcy attorney quotes you a fee, what is it, exactly, that you are paying for? What is included, what is not included, at some point will you have to come up with more money or be left abandoned in the midst of a Federal Court proceeding that strikes even a lot of lawyers as confusing and arcane?

The answer to that question is (drum roll, please) – that depends.

I know, and lawyers wonder why it is that people seem to think you can’t get a straight answer out of us. Sigh.

Here is the interpretation. When you hire a Bankruptcy lawyer (or anyone else for that matter) you do need to find out what it is that you are hiring him to do for you. Your attorney should give you some kind of agreement, that might be a letter, that outlines what he will do for you, what he won’t do for you and what he reserves the right to charge extra for.

Here are some things that go into a basic, consumer chapter 7 Bankruptcy:

  • Interview;
  • Explanation of Bankruptcy, the terminology, the players, what it will do for you, what it won’t do for you, assets, expenses, Means Test qualifications, explanation of different chapters;
  • Research into your facts and circumstances;
  • Advising you of any potential problems in your case and options for dealing with them;
  • Preparation of Petition, Schedules and Means test;
  • Filing the case;
  • Providing documents to the Trustee;
  • Attendance at First Meeting of Creditors;
  • Dealing with secured creditors as specified in the Statement of Intention;
  • Dealing with other creditors;
  • Responding to any requests for information from the U.S. Trustee or the Panel Trustee
  • Filing the post petition debtor education certificate.

Please, understand, that list is not intended to be all-inclusive.  That would take far too much time to put together for a blog post.  It is intended to be illustrative of the kinds of things that go into a Bankruptcy case.

Now, here are some things that aren’t included in that list, because they happen, but they don’t necessarily happen in most basic, consumer cases:

  • Pre-Bankruptcy exemption planning, i.e., converting a non-exempt asset (i.e., an asset you would lose when you file) into an exempt asset (an asset you get to keep even though you file for bankruptcy);
  • Dealing with creditors before the case is filed;
  • Adding creditors or correcting addresses after the case is filed;
  • Disclosing additional assets after the case is filed;
  • Defending a motion to dismiss or convert based on the Means Test figures;
  • Defending a Motion to dismiss for bad faith;
  • Appearing at a 2004 examination (basically, a deposition);
  • Defending other motions brought by creditors, most commonly a motion for relief from stay brought by a secured creditor who would rather have the collateral than the payments you may or may not be making timely;
  • Defending an adversary proceeding, which is basically a separate lawsuit filed within the scope of the bankruptcy;
  • Filing an adversary proceeding got for any reason including to determine if a certain debt, like some taxes, is dischargeable;
  • Determining value of assets if scheduled value challenged.

There will be considerable variance between what different attorneys do and don’t include in a flat fee, and there will be wide variance if you compare attorneys from different parts of the Country.

I don’t know anyone who includes an Adversary Proceeding in a flat fee. However, the nature of Adversary Proceedings is such that your Attorney should at least suspect one might be filed before the Bankruptcy is filed – unless there is something really important he doesn’t know about. So, that should be discussed specifically at the time the attorney quotes a fee.

I generally quote a fee that I expect will be sufficient to cover the things that I expect to come up in the case. What my fee specifically does not include, other than Adversary Proceedings, is anything that the client got wrong or should have told me about and didn’t.

The easy part of that is fixing addresses and listing additional creditors. I give my clients multiple opportunities to get their list of creditors complete, and I tell them to include all addresses that might be current or correct. So, if someone is left off and needs to be added; well, I will charge extra for that.

If a client is being sued locally odds are pretty good I will find out about it before the case is filed. If the client is being sued under a name he didn’t mention or in another jurisdiction, I might not find out about it – unless the client tells me – when I ask about other names, about lawsuits, about people who might think that the client owes them money – even if the client disagrees. If the client still doesn’t think to mention it and it becomes an issue in the Bankruptcy (and it almost certainly will), then, the client shouldn’t be surprised that I will expect additional compensation for dealing with it.

Sure, mistakes happen and omissions happen; and most of them are simple mistakes. If I make the mistake, I fix it. If the client makes the mistake, then I am going to expect the client to pay me to fix it. Sure, some mistakes and omissions can be expensive to fix (some can’t be fixed at all), but most of them can be fixed for a relatively small amount of money.

However, my fee is pretty all encompassing. Not everyone’s is, but it should be spelled out in the engagement agreement what will and won’t be covered. If it isn’t, ask. If it is, but you do’t understand it, then ask. It is your job to provide the lawyer with the information he needs. It is his job to make sure that you understand what is going on, and that includes the fee agreement.

Elaine

First Meetings of Creditors — the Questions

The First Meeting of Creditors, or 341 hearing, exists so that the Trustee assigned to administer the case  can make sure he understands the schedules, identify any non-exempt assets he needs to administer and ask the Debtor any questions he needs answered.  Also, any creditors who need to know something (like car lenders who want to know if the Debtor is going to keep a car and verify that it is insured) or someone who believes he has been defrauded and needs a chance to ask a few questions to decide whether or not to pursue an objection to discharge have the right to ask questions as well.  These are the people for whom this hearing exists, but for most clients, it is a non-event.

Once you have been sworn in, you will take a seat to the Trustee’s left, and your lawyer will stand opposite you behind a podium.  Your lawyer will then begin asking you incredibly difficult questions — like your Name.  (You might want to study.)  Your lawyer should go over with you exactly what he will ask before the hearing, but the questions don’t generally get much harder than that first one.

Then, the Trustee has the right to ask you questions if he wants to.   He may ask some basic questions to make sure that he understands everything.  Again, not really much harder than that, “Please state your full name for the record” bit; and your lawyer should give you a pretty good idea of what kinds of things about your case will catch the Trustee’s eye.

After that, any creditors present have the right to ask you questions and so does the U.S. Trustee’s office if they want to.  The U.S. Trustee’s office is generally interested in asking questions about the Means Test, any budget entries that look excessive or anything that might smell like fraud or abuse.

It is that whole idea that their creditors are going to ask them questions that I think really scares my clients.  Look at it this way.   No one is going to pay a representative to drive to the Courthouse and cool his heels through the first part of the docket without a good reason.   Car lenders may want to know if you are going to keep the car and if it is insured.  That makes sense.  They need to know that.

For most of my clients from the time their case is called by the Trustee until they are heading out the door is less than five minutes.

Now, there are exceptions.  Business cases or other cases with significant assets and large  dollar figures involved will take more time.  For one thing, they are more complicated and there is more to understand.  For another, the bigger the dollar figures and the more things going on the greater the opportunity to conceal funds or otherwise commit fraud.

Of course, people who kind of, sort of, forgot to tell their lawyers about the rent house they own in another County or oil and gas rights in Texas  are generally in for an unpleasant surprise.  People who filed Bankruptcy leaving a number of people feeling like they were defrauded or just a ticked off ex-spouse will frequently prefer a root canal without anesthesia.  Clients whose lawyers either didn’t do their jobs or didn’t know their jobs are generally not in for a brief or pleasant time.  Anyone who thought that not mentioning something to his lawyer was a good idea is in for an eduction.  These are generally people for whom the 341 is not pleasant.

That last paragraph was a little smug and isn’t completely true.  There can be plenty of good, honest people who are well represented whose 341’s aren’t fun.  Construction contractors who left a bunch of houses unfinished and bills unpaid will frequently find homeowners showing up to either lay the groundwork for an objection to discharge or just to regain a pound of flesh.  Ex-spouses can be unpleasant additions to a 341 room.

Ask your lawyer if anyone is likely to show up on your case.  Basically, non-institutional creditors (normal people instead of Capital One) are likely to show up just because they got something in the mail and don’t know that they don’t have to.

If your lawyer tells you that you have nothing to worry about, then take a book.  Otherwise, you will leave shaking your head over some poor sod who went before you and didn’t have a good day.  I will post a few of those stories another time.

Elaine