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.

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.

Trouble over what to bring to the bankruptcy hearing.

I call it a “hearing.” The official name for the event which takes place about a month after filing a bankruptcy is “First Meeting of Creditors.” Since creditors hardly ever come, I have always thought this was a misleading name. It usually takes place at a federal courthouse in a room which looks very much like a courtroom. My clients are sworn in and questioned. If that isn’t a “hearing,” I don’t know what is.

There are certain things that a debtor is required to bring to this event. They include a picture ID, social security card, most recent pay check and bank statements covering the date the case was filed. It any of these items is missing, there is a big problem. Until the items are produced and given to the bankruptcy trustee, the whole process is held up.

Although I explain this as clearly as I can, both in direct conversation and in email, I seem to be having an increase in the percentage of clients who show up at the hearing without everything they need. One common problem is that my clients will assume that if a bank account has a negative balance, a low balance, or no activity for a long time, the trustee won’t want a statement for that account. I have recently started adding to what I used to tell my clients a whole extra spiel about these bank statements.

The trustee doesn’t care if the account has been there five years with only five dollars in it and no deposits or withdrawals. The trustee doesn’t care if the bank has quit sending statements and cut off on line access – which they sometimes do after a bankruptcy is filed when it’s a case where that bank is one of the creditors. If it’s any kind of bank account at all, and it was open on the day the case was filed, you have to have a statement for that account at the hearing, and that statement has to include the date of filing.

I am starting to tell my clients that if there is no other way to get a statement, please actually go to the bank in question and have them print you one. Even the banks that won’t send a statement, and who have cut off on line access, will still give you a statement if you go to the bank in person.

So that’s my rant for today.

Businesses and Personal Bankruptcy

I keep saying bankruptcy is like pregnancy. You can’t be a little bankrupt. When you file a bankruptcy, you are in it 100%. It is all-encompassing.

I just got off the phone – again – from a conversation with someone who wants to do a personal bankruptcy but who is the owner or part owner of a small business. Over and over again I hear from people who seem to think that because their bankruptcy is personal, it will have absolutely nothing to do with their business. They want their business to stay in a separate compartment and be unaffected and untouched.

First thing I usually mention is that the business is an asset and has to be listed along with all the other assets that the debtor has. A value has to be placed on the business, and then we have to figure out if it can be claimed as exempt. If it can’t be claimed as exempt, and if we are talking a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, then the business will become property of the bankruptcy trustee – or it will have to be bought back from the trustee if the debtor wants to keep it. As a practical matter, most of the small businesses I hear about are virtually worthless, so that claiming them as exempt is not much of a problem – but it is a question that has to be dealt with.

Second thing I bring up is that we will probably be required to list the business name among the names used by the debtor; and once that is done, it is very likely that the bankruptcy filing will be picked up by the Star Tribune and published in their Monday business section. Typical question at this point: “What if I just transfer the business to my boyfriend?” My answer is that then we would have to disclose the transfer, which could possibly be reversed as fraudulent; and the “doing business as” would be changed to “formerly doing business as” and it still gets published in the Star Tribune.

And if you have a business partner, the “doing business as” business name can get listed in the Star Tribune even though your partner is not filing any bankruptcy. Partners in that position tend to be irate to say the least.

This is not the only circumstance, but one of many, where the bankruptcy process does involve a some pain. Those considering bankruptcy should not expect that there will be absolutely no inconvenience.

Recession Sing Along

While you are waiting to come down with the swine flu, you might want to have a good laugh. The funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time is a recession sing along at the Newsday web site. Click the following for a direct link to the animated video.

Maybe you have to be old enough to remember the West Side Story movie from the 1960s to fully appreciate this thing. I don’t see how the mortgage broker singing “I Feel Greedy” could quite have the full intended impact unless the viewer is familiar with the original “I Feel Pretty” from the movie.

A sales tax for filing bankruptcy? Some change!

It seems that the leadership of our Minnesota state legislature is considering slapping a sales tax on legal services. If they have to do that, I would suggest that there be an exception for legal services connected with bankruptcy filings. I just sent the following email to Minnesota State Representatives Kelliher, Sertich, Lenczewski and Benson; and to State Senator Bonoff:

I am a lawyer who does bankruptcy work. Many people who contact me cannot afford to file a bankruptcy the way it is. Adding a sales tax to my fee would make that much worse.
A sales tax for filing a bankruptcy. Some change that would be.

Warning about Debt Management Scams

I’m looking this morning at the March 15th tip of the day from Kim Komando. It’s a rather long article entitled Beware of debt management offers. She describes three different types of programs which one will find when running a Google search: 1) Debt negotiation, 2) debt consolidation, and 3) debt elimination. Personally I would like to add one more type: 4)debt management.

The third one – debt elimination – is always a scam. These are people who are trying to sell information that they claim is secret that you can use to make your debt just go away entirely. If anybody tells you they have that sort of a program, which sometimes is in the form of a magic form you can fill out and then send to the creditors, run away as fast as you can. There is no such program.

Debt negotiation or debt consolidation programs may or may not be legitimate. The Komando article suggests that you should make sure that any agency you use is licensed by your state and also accredited by one of two organizations, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. I would also suggest that you make sure they are on the approved Department of Justice list for counseling programs acceptable for the pre-filing and post-filing credit counseling required by the bankruptcy statute. You can find a link to the Department of Justice list of approved bankruptcy counseling agencies on my web page at http://www.mn-bankruptcy.com/chapter7.html. At that page click on “Credit Counseling Requirement.”

My two favorite local places to go for real counseling are Lutheran Social Services and Family Means. Both have offices fairly close to my office. Both are non-profit. Both do debt management, my Item 4 on the above list. Debt management might involve negotiation, but not necessarily. They are not trying to make money out of your desperate situation. They are tying to figure out how to get you on a payment plan that will actually work. And if that is a hopeless idea for you, they will tell you and suggest that you talk to someone like me.

Credit Card Industry Profits Increased

I find myself looking at a 32 page report, complete with colorful graphs and charts, written by a gentleman by the name of Michael Simkovic. Mr. Simkovic was a fellow in law and economics at Harvard Law School between 2006 and 2007. He published this report last July. His subject is the effect of the 2005 “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act.” Many of us call that BAPCPA (pronounced “bapceepa“).

The report begins by reminding us that supporters had claimed that ultimately this law would benefit consumers, because it would lower the cost of credit card debt. The data shows, however, that while credit card company losses decreased, and the card companies had record profits, costs to consumers actually increased. “In other words,” says Mr. Simkovic, “the 2005 bankruptcy reform profited credit card companies at consumers’ expense.”

No big surprise there. But thanks to Mr. Simkovic for laying out the details and proving it beyond a reasonable doubt. This seems to be very consistent with a series of articles published in the Star Tribune last October which stated, among other things, that BAPCPA has been one of the contributors to our current economic meltdown.

"Enhanced"

The electronic sign over I-394 just a half mile here from my office says “Enhanced DWI Enforcement Thru Jan 1.” I don’t think they’re kidding.

“Enhanced” according to the old hard-bound dictionary on my desk means “to make greater” or to raise, intensify or heighten. It seems to be a term that is used a lot in connection with DWI. For example, if you have a second offense within ten years, that second offense is “enhanced” because of the first. Please remember that taxi cabs are really cheap compared to the cost of being arrested.

As I think I have mentioned earlier, I am noticing that the fact that one is considering or working on filing a bankruptcy seems to enhance to possibility of either being arrested for DWI or being injured in a serious accident. If you should happen to have bankruptcy on your mind, please keep a proper perspective. Focus on what you are doing, when you are doing it. It’s only money. You have more reason now than ever to properly care for yourself – including making sure that whatever you consume is in moderation.

National Guard and Reservist Debt Relief Act

One of the things Congress did before going home was pass the “National Guard and Reservists Debt Relief Act.” I haven’t heard if the President has signed it, but it seems to me he must. This law would exempt certain members of the armed forces from the means test if a bankruptcy petition is filed within 540 days after they complete active duty. I would hope that the same rule would apply WHILE they are on active duty.

I’m glad to see this law being passed. However, I doubt it has much real effect because almost all of these folks would qualify for bankruptcy anyway.