Two Days at the Bankruptcy Institute

Just spent all day today and all day yesterday at the Minnesota Continuing Legal Education’s Bankruptcy Institute. For me the best part was this afternoon, a presentation about the preparation and amendment of Chapter 13 plans.

It was also just good to reconnect with some of my fellow bankruptcy lawyers. Things are getting really complicated out there. Some of the judges and trustees were expressing frustration with a number of younger and inexperienced recent law school graduates who have not been acclimated to the level of professionalism that’s required. Apparently there is some concern that clients are being abandoned by their lawyers.

To try to combat this the judges of the district are about to order a new procedure – from my point of view just another form that must be completed before filing. This one is going to be a long list of duties and responsibilities – one list for the lawyer and the other for the client. It’s going to be food for conversation to say the least.

I’ll have more to say about the new form once I have actually started working with it.

More later.

Fall Colors on the Road to St. Cloud

I had a hearing (meeting of creditors) in St. Cloud this past Thursday. I go there fairly regularly, because that’s where the initial bankruptcy hearings are for residents of Wright County – and quite a few of my clients are from Wright County. I’m really not that far from the Wright County border. Particularly since the most recent straightening of Highway 12, getting here from places like Delano, Montrose and Waverly isn’t that hard.

That hearing was fairly early in the morning, and I got to look at the fall colors along I-94 in the early morning sun. I think the low angle of the sun in back of me as I headed northwest contributed to the drama. If those colors weren’t at their peak, it had to be about as close as I’ll ever see. Every time I came around a curve to a fresh view of reds and oranges, I was thankful that I had an excuse to be making that drive.

The hearings in St. Cloud are at the Red Cross Building on St. Germain St. It does not at all look like a court house. In fact I would say it’s a strange place to be having hearings like that. I had my camera in the car and I was thinking of taking some pictures of the place for my web site. By the time I was done with the hearing, however, I had forgotten about taking pictures. I was concentrating on the case to the point that I didn’t remember anything about the picture idea until I was half way back.

The drive southeast from St. Cloud allows one to contemplate the railroad which runs parallel to the freeway. Burlington Northern Santa Fe I think. Until a few years ago there were the remnants of some sort of railroad-related telephone or telegraph lines along that railroad. Every now and then as one drove along an old pole could be seen in the trees or bushes along the railroad with a few wires draped over it and hanging to the ground. Those seem to have all been removed now, because I don’t see them anymore. One time I spent a few minutes on Google trying to see if anyone had posted anything about the history of those old poles and wires, but I found nothing.

As a kid I remember that all railroads had lots of telegraph or telephone wires running alongside. It was explained to me, I no longer remember by who, that those were private railroad communication lines so they could keep track of where the trains were and keep them from running into each other. Obviously they’ve found a better way to communicate and don’t need the wires anymore. I’m curious about it, but I can’t seem to find a write up on this topic anywhere. If anybody knows of a good place to look for such info, please let me know.

Well, that was a good ramble. More later.

Real Clients and Fake Clients, Real Friends and Fake Friends

Earlier this week I was meeting with a client who was in the process of hiring me to represent her in the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. As we were both signing the retainer agreement, I explained as I usually do at that point that now I was her lawyer. This means she has my permission to use my name if she needs to in the event that creditors manage to reach her by telephone.

These days most of my clients are pretty good at avoiding the calls from creditors by just watching their caller ID. It’s not unusual to be receiving between twenty to fifty calls a day from bill collectors by the time someone finally decides to come see me. I’ve carried on before about how people tend to wait too long and most should have come in sooner. Some of the creditor calls are hard to avoid, however, because they are tricky and disguise their caller ID. One who called me recently had a caller ID that said “Swiss Miss.”

So I tell my clients when they hire me that when one of those creditors gets though on the phone for whatever reason, my advice is to say something like this: “I’ve hired a lawyer to represent me in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He’s instructed me to not speak with you, to not say anything, except that his name is David Kelly and his number is 952-544-6356. If you have questions you should call him. Goodbye.”

Once they hear this and confirm that it’s true – by calling me – many of the creditors will stop calling. As far as I know there is no legal requirement that they do so until we actually file the case, but as a practical matter they know that they might as well focus their energy elsewhere.

When I went over this with the client who I referred to above, she made a remark to the effect that she wasn’t necessarily very happy about being able to say I was her lawyer. She wished she had not needed to hire me. I replied that, if this was any comfort, there seemed to be quite a few people out there who were happy to claim I was their lawyer even though they had never met me.

Yes that’s right, I have real clients like the woman who just hired me, and I also have fake clients. Besides the calls from creditors to confirm that I’ve been hired by my real clients, I am also receiving calls from creditors who have been given my name by people I have never heard of. There tend to be about two calls a week like that. I guess they must think I’m good if they want to take my name in vain like that.

So I said to my new client that I had real clients and fake clients, and at least she was a real client. To that she replied, “well I have real friends and fake friends.”

I thought my new client’s remark was quite profound. At least it seemed profound to me. I asked her permission to quote her here, anonymously of course.

Guess that Facebook Page is shaping up.

There’s a lull in my phone calls and appointments today – day after Labor Day. Something to do with the first day of school I would guess. As usual my schedule is very busy starting tomorrow and going about two weeks out, but not today.

So I was able to spend part of the morning working on a “Welcome” tab for my facebook page. There’s a free utility for that, which Kim Komando recently recommended. I trust her recommendations, and this one was as described. It consists of a template, actually a choice of templates, where one can fill in graphics and text with a link to one’s web site. I’m pretty satisfied with mine, which you can find by clicking on this bit of text.

I guess I’m a bit shy when it comes to facebook. To me the whole concept is hard to wrap my brain around. That probably has something to do with my core belief about computers, which is that they are nothing but glorified typewriters. It’s not right for a typewriter to do what facebook does.

What to Bring to a Bankruptcy Hearing

At the outset let me say that this post is about the practices that I encounter here in Minnesota, mostly for cases right here in the Twin Cities. If you are from somewhere else, please consult an attorney in your own jurisdiction. Even though bankruptcy is based on federal law and should be about the same everywhere in the country, there are in fact tremendous variations from one locale to another.

Usually the only hearing there is in a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a little proceeding they call the “Meeting of Creditors.” Sometimes it’s also called the “341” or “341 Meeting,” after the section of the bankruptcy code that sets up the hearing process. In this post when I say “hearing,” I mean this meeting of creditors.

This week I have had a hearing nearly every day, except for Friday when I had two. It is usually simple and short, possibly just five minutes, if the lawyer and the clients are properly prepared. But there’s nothing that can delay it worse or mess it up more than not coming to the hearing with all the required documents.

For most of these the required doucments fall into four categories, sometimes five. Here they are:

1. Driver’s license or goverment photo ID for each debtor.

2. Social security card. It’s surprising how many people can’t find this or have lost it a long time ago. If you absolutely can’t find your card, there are some substitutes that are acceptable. In general you can use anything that you have that has your social security number on it, AS LONG AS IT WAS CREATED BY A THIRD PARTY.

So a pay stub would work, since that is created by your employer. So would a W-2. Trouble is that most pay stubs don’t have the social security number on them anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find a document that has it. Health insurance cards used to have them, but now most don’t. In this day of identity theft, the items that have a social security number on them are disappearing. About the only thing that I can use reliably is a W-2 or 1099. I usully can’t use a tax return, because that’s considered a self generated document – it’s not from a third party.

3. Most recent paystub from employment for each debtor. That is the pay stub that is most recent as of the date of the hearing, not the most recent stub from before the date of filing. The handout from the court which I have posted on my site says to bring “evidence of current income,” but I’ve never seen a trustee ask for anything other than a pay stub. I’ve never seen a person who gets a pension or unemployment be asked to produce evidence of that at the hearing. My experience also is that self-employed people don’t have to produce anything in this category – not at the hearing at least.

4. Bank statements for all open accounts which show what the balance was on the day the case was filed. If the account is open, you have to produce a statement for it. However, unlike the pay stub, this is not necessarily the most recent statement as of the date of the hearing. Usually the statement that comes in the mail at the beginning of the month following the filing of the case will do the trick. You have to be sure, however, that the date of filing is covered in the period included in the statement. In cases where my clients are unable to get a statment that came in the mail, I tell them to go on line or actually go to the bank and get a statement that includes about two weeks before the date of filing and two weeks after that date. Some of the trustees like to snoop through these statements, and I’m concerned that they would be disappointed if we just came in with one page that gave the balance on date of filing.

5. Additional information if the trustee requests it. The above four items or categories of items are all that’s required for more than 90% of the cases I handle. However, every now and then there will be a case where the trustee sends us a letter asking for more information. This could be almost anything, but the rule I follow is that if the trustee wants it, I tell my clients that we better provide it. Often these letters ask that the material be emailed to the trustee several days before the hearing.

Minnesota Bankruptcy filings Highest in a Decade?

So says today’s Pioneer Press. The headline is “State bankruptcy levels highest in decade.” I found this interesting to say the least, and just spent a bit of time looking at statistics for Minnesota bankruptcy filings on the American Bankruptcy Institute site. I thought I would check it out, because I always thought we had never gotten back to the levels we were at in October of 2005 just before the new law went into effect.

Turns out I was right, or at least I think I was. The Pioneer Press article is apparently comparing the first five months of the year this year with the first five months of every year going back ten years. If you do that, yes this is the highest year ever. However, if you compare the first quarter of this year with the last quarter of 2005, the last quarter of 2005 was significantly higher. I don’t think we have ever really surpassed that big rush we had in late 2005.

I have to admit though, it has been really busy around here. I did just file five cases in the last five days of June. Maybe that’s not a lot for some lawyers, but it’s a lot for me.

Going to Jail for Being in Debt

Everyone I have spoken with all this week has brought up the front page story in last Sunday’s Star Tribune about going to jail for debt. I’m glad that the newspaper is making people aware that this can happen. What you need to know about it, however, is that the procedure is rare and easy to avoid.

In Minnesota nobody is sent to jail for not paying a debt. You can wind up in jail, however, for not obeying a court order. A person who ignores a court order can be found in contempt of court, and the most common penalty for that is a little time – often just a few hours – behind bars. The kind of court order that’s usually involved is one that requires the debtor to respond to a request for information about his or her assets.

When you get sued for a debt in Minnesota, typically a judgment is entered. A judgment is a fancy piece of paper that says you owe the money. After getting a judgment, a creditor has a right to inquire into what assets the debtor has out of which the debt can be paid. Usually this inquiry takes place in the form of written questions or a demand for documents. Typically the debtor will ignore this – for one thing you probably need a lawyer to even figure out what it is. So when there’s no response, the creditor will bring a motion requiring a response. The creditor has a right to a response, so the judge will always order the debtor to respond.

Then the creditor serves the debtor with the court order. By now the debtor has received a large number of legal documents, and this one tends to look the same and just as incomprehensible as the others. The order should be served in person, and a good process server will make a point of showing the debtor that there is a judge’s signature on the document. Of course, a lot of the process servers aren’t so good.

When the debtor ignores the court order, the creditor is in a position to make a motion that the debtor be found in contempt. Another order is served, this one requiring the debtor to show up for the contempt motion hearing. If the debtor fails to show up for that, an arrest order can be issued.

Usually the judge will just have you held for a few hours. Sometimes in an extreme case that can become a few days, perhaps even a few weeks. One way to get a person in such circumstances released is to file a bankruptcy. The automatic stay from the bankruptcy court is usually all it takes to invalidate the legal process that is holding the person in jail. If one brings the receipt for the bankruptcy court filing fee to the judge who has ordered a person to jail, most judges will immediately order that the person be released. Since child support and spousal maintenance are not discharged in bankruptcy, I’m not sure this would work if the contempt of court involved nonpayment of child support or maintenance.

All week I have been trying to reassure people that it’s actually pretty difficult to have this happen and not see it coming in advance, so that we have plenty of time to get their bankruptcy filed before it would ever become a real danger. One moral of the story is that one should never let legal documents pile up without at least consulting somebody about what they mean.

Busy with Bankruptcies

Well, it seems that nearly all I am doing these days is bankruptcy. At least as a practical matter. I have decided that for now it would be best for me to not accept any more probate cases or DWI cases. At least that’s how I feel about it today.

There’s only so much that one guy can do. It’s time for me to start concentrating on one thing, especially since there’s so much of it.

So I thought it was time to change the URL of my blog. It was “mn-bankruptcy-dwi-probate.blogspot.com.” I think at this time it’s best for me to drop the “dwi-probate” part. A while back I was surfing here at blog spot and saw a utility to migrate a blog to a new URL.

It might take me a while, but now that I have this new blog set up at this location; my intent is to migrate my whole old blog to here – if I can figure out how to do it.

So come back later and see how I’m coming.