During my first meeting with a new potential client, it’s not unusual for that person’s cell phone to be ringing repeatedly. Usually it’s call after call from bill collectors or collection agencies. Once we get a bankruptcy case filed, most such calls will slow down and then finally stop within a few days. This is because of what is technically called the “automatic stay” – a court order issued as soon as a bankruptcy case is filed which tells all the creditors to leave the debtor alone and to stop all collection efforts. I tell my clients to let me know if a creditor doesn’t seem to have gotten the word about the bankruptcy. It might be that there’s a creditor that wasn’t listed and that needs to be added to the creditor list.
Lately, however, I’ve been hearing from my clients about harassment which they are receiving from sources other than bill collectors. For one thing, there are disreputable credit counseling services which are sending out advertising disguised to look like letters from a bill collector. A client faxed me one not long ago, and it had me fooled. It certainly looked like something from a creditor to me. In fact it looked like a notice that the creditor had scheduled an arbitration hearing. I thought it needed immediate attention, so I called the number on the “Debt Mediation Notice.” I told them about the bankruptcy and asked them which creditor they represented. To my surprise they told me that they were a debt settlement service and they didn’t represent anybody. They weren’t trying to collect a debt. They wanted to help my client settle his debts, which obviously was not possible since a bankruptcy had already been filed.
So now when you go in debt apparently one can expect to be harassed not only by creditors, but by businesses that market their services to those who are in financial distress. I find such marketing to be a despicable practice, particularly when it is misleading. Since I saw that “Debt Mediation Notice,” I have been wondering how such organizations would get information on who is in financial trouble. I believe that this afternoon I may have received some insight on that.
I have just received two emails from an outfit that is offering to send out junk mail on my behalf which would be addressed to “homeowners in your area that are 60 or 90 days late on their mortgage payment and/or with late credit card debt balances of $20,000 or more.” They don’t say where they are getting the mailing list for that, but my best guess would be that there must be a credit reporting agency which is selling that information. If that’s legal, somebody ought to pass a law making it illegal.
Filing a bankruptcy only stops the stuff coming in from creditors and bill collectors. Other materials intended for the financially distressed are not affected. Another thing that’s not affected is junk mail from agencies that do the post-bankruptcy-filing counseling. Before filing a case I usually have my client signed up for the required counseling program, but this doesn’t stop aggressive and misleading mail advertising those counseling agencies. Some of the materials contain statements to the effect that the bankruptcy will be dismissed if the counseling is not completed. There may be some truth in that, but the counseling doesn’t have to be done with the outfits that are mailing out that sort of thing. I’ve had some clients get pretty upset upon receiving some of these materials, particularly elderly clients who aren’t used to how misleading some things can be.
So I have deleted those emails which offered to do a mass mailing for me to people who are in financial trouble. I would suggest that if you receive anything like that from one of my fellow lawyers, definitely don’t call that person. Run the other way.
I’ve been concerned all week over what to expect with the anticipated federal government shut down. The bankruptcy court is federal, so this shut down could affect me and my clients in a very direct way.
I went on line and tried to research it a bit around noon today. I found announcements that the Nevada bankruptcy courts were going to stay open, along with a statement from one of the bankruptcy judges in another state – Colorado if I recall correctly – stating that they would not be closing. In an interview a lawyer from New York said that they were going to try to keep essential services concerning life and property going, and the bankruptcy court would be in that category.
Then a few minutes ago the Minnesota bankruptcy court sent out the following email:
“In the event that a lapse in appropriations – sometimes referred to as a “government shutdown” – occurs on April 9, 2011, the United States Bankruptcy Court, District of Minnesota will remain open for business as usual, and hearings, trials and 341 meetings will be held without interruption. Applications, hearings and other matters may be scheduled with the Court as usual. Public access to the Court, in person and through the Court’s electronic filing system, CM/ECF, will not be affected.
If a lapse in appropriations continues after April 22, 2011, the Court will continue to conduct hearings and trial. As to continuation of services in the Clerk’s office, notice will be posted on the Court’s website at www.mnb.uscourts.gov.”
At least now I can tell my clients who are scheduled for hearing next week that we are still on and nothing has changed. I’m still a bit anxious about a few cases I was planning on filing toward the end of the month, however, for obvious reasons.
I always keep an eye on the traffic to my web site. As the holidays approached last month, I could see that the traffic was dropping off significantly. On the Monday after Christmas, however, there was a sharp spike upward. Traffic stayed high all that week and then jumped even higher following the New Years weekend. The Tuesday after New Years Day was the highest traffic day I have had for months.
These traffic statistics plus the incoming phone calls and emails confirm that a lot of people are considering using the bankruptcy process to make a new start for the new year. That’s exactly what the bankruptcy laws were originally designed to do. Instead of putting you in debtor prison or turning you into a completely homeless person, you get to clear the slate of the old debts and start fresh – if you qualify.
The original version of the United States Constitution, the one they read this week on the floor of the House of Representatives, included the power to create a nationwide bankruptcy system. This is not a new idea. The founding fathers recognized bankruptcy as a thing of value, and wanted it to uniform for the whole country instead of being different in each state. When I was first out of law school back in the 1970s the process was extremely simple. A bankruptcy petition was less than 15 pages of material. There were few restrictions on who could file. The primary concern was whether there would be a lot of assets that could not be claimed as exempt. Since then every few years additional red tape and limitations have been added. Finally in 2005 there was a massive rewrite of the law which was so severe that we were wondering if the whole process may finally have been killed.
Well, if the intent was to completely remove bankruptcy as an option, it didn’t work. The American Bankruptcy Institute reports that bankruptcy filings jumped by 9% in 2010. Last week the Wall Street Journal carried a detailed article about the increase in filings. The article includes a graph showing bankruptcy filings between 2000 and 2010. On the graph one can see the spike in 2005 right before the effective date of the 2005 law, followed by a dramatic drop in filings, followed by a steady increase. When I saw news releases last summer stating that the first half of 2010 had broken some sort of a record for bankruptcy fillings, I commented that I didn’t think it could possibly have exceeded 2005. This graph shows I was right. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that filings are back up to pre-2005 levels.
So if you are considering such a fresh start, you certainly are not alone. I’d sure be glad to talk it over with you. I can do a screening over the phone which you give you a pretty good idea of what you qualify for. I don’t charge for those phone calls. If you just can’t seem to get ahead, you might want to look into it.
While checking how my website was being ranked on Google, I noticed an ad for an outfit that said it would prepare and file your bankruptcy for $187. Well, that would be a heck of a deal. It certainly piqued my curiosity.
So I went and took a look at their site. For one thing, I was wondering who the lawyer was who was doing this. I quickly found that the site provides no way of figuring out who is running the company or whether there is a lawyer involved at all. There is no address and no phone number provided. No names of any real person.
So I tired a Google search. I typed in who is and the name of the web site at Google. The first item on the list was the web site itself. The second item listed was a page at ripoffreport.com about these guys.
You can see for yourself what they have to say. You do yourself a disservice if you use price as your only criteria.
A lot of people have had their bank accounts garnished this week. My phone has been buzzing about it. I think the law firm of Messerli and Kramer must have been cleaning up their garnishment backlog over this past weekend or something.
So now I am having to explain that I can’t just create a bankruptcy filing to stop the garnishment inside of a few hours or even a few days. To be sure I am getting it right, I need somewhere around six weeks, maybe more, to put one of these bankruptcy cases together. A bankruptcy petition is a document that usually exceeds 50 pages. There are hundreds and hundreds of questions to be answered. The penalty for not answering correctly can include criminal felony charges. It just is not the sort of thing that should be slapped together in a rush.
There is a procedure for an emergency filing. It involves filing part of the bankruptcy petition, and then being allowed 14 days to get the rest done. I have done this in the past prior to the passage of the 2005 “reform” legislation, but since then I have been of the opinion that it’s too hazardous. It’s best to let them garnish away and get the bankruptcy done properly.
The filing of a bankruptcy does stop garnishment – immediately upon the filing of the case. It’s really nice that way. But if you may be vulnerable to a garnishment, don’t let it go. Get to a competent bankruptcy lawyer and get started now.
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.
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.
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.
People are literally lining up to see me. In 2008 anybody could get in to see me within a week, but now it’s about twice that long.
This is, however, the second morning in a row where I have had a no-show appointment. I noticed not long ago that the Veteran’s Administration – when notifying someone of an appointment at one of their medical facilities – includes a few words about how they would appreciate it if those unable to show up would call in and either cancel or reschedule. They make a point that those who don’t call to cancel or reschedule are denying a fellow veteran of the opportunity to use that time for their appointment. The saying goes something like this: Help your fellow veteran – cancel or reschedule if you can’t get here.
I doubt that the person who failed to show up this morning has thought this through. He is not only messing up my schedule, but also denying an opportunity to the person I could have scheduled in this time slot. I have people begging to get in to see me. If I knew that the person scheduled for this morning wasn’t coming, I’d be meeting with someone else right now. At least two callers yesterday wanted to meet with me this morning. Best I could do was set up appointments for week after next.