Bankruptcy is relatively straightforward—you file financial forms, and, if you're qualified and complete all requirements, you receive an order wiping out dischargeable debt. Judges aren't needed in the process unless a significant issue arises. Instead, the U.S. Trustee's office oversees bankruptcy filings and manages the bankruptcy trustees assigned to administer the routine aspects of each case.
In this article, you'll learn about the duties of the bankruptcy trustee and when the U.S. Trustee might take a more active role in your matter.
Many people don't realize that the responsibility of monitoring bankruptcy cases falls to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ is tasked with ensuring that debtors follow the bankruptcy laws and that cases of fraud and other crimes are appropriately handled. (28 U.S.C. § 586 and 11 U.S.C. § 101, et seq.)
The DOJ fulfills its oversight duties through the U.S. Trustee Program. There are 21 U.S. Trustee offices across the country, and one of the offices is assigned to your local bankruptcy court.
Each office manages the bankruptcy trustees that are appointed to administer bankruptcy cases (more below). Most filers will interact exclusively with the assigned bankruptcy trustee throughout the entire bankruptcy process.
In addition to managing the bankruptcy trustees, the U.S. Trustee broadly monitors all cases for irregularities. For instance, the U.S. Trustee will step into a case if any of these situations arise:
If the U.S. Trustee decides to take an active part in your case, you can oppose whatever action the U.S. Trustee proposes. The issue will go before the bankruptcy court, and a judge will decide the outcome.
The bankruptcy filing system is set up to flag issues that deserve further evaluation. If something about your case makes it an outlier—say you claim higher than average expenses on Schedule J: Your Expenses—your paperwork will be inspected more closely and possibly audited. The purpose of the audit is to verify the information provided in the bankruptcy paperwork.
All filings are subject to random audits, as well. The number of cases audited randomly varies depending on available resources. For instance, when bankruptcy filings skyrocketed after the Great Recession, audits were put on hold altogether.
Debtors selected for auditing receive notification by mail. The notice will give the filer time to provide documentation in support of the identified issue.
Whereas the U.S. Trustee's office has broad-sweeping duties, the bankruptcy trustee is tasked with accomplishing the everyday work needed to push your petition through the process. In both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases, it's the bankruptcy trustee's job to:
Trustees have chapter-specific duties, as well. You can expect a Chapter 7 trustee to sell property that you can't protect with a bankruptcy exemption and distribute the proceeds to creditors. A Chapter 13 trustee will review your proposed repayment plan, and if it's confirmed (approved) by the court, collect your monthly repayment plan payments and send the funds to creditors.
You'll find out who your bankruptcy trustee will be a few days after you file your bankruptcy papers. Look for a notice from the court. It will give you the trustee's name, business address, and business phone number. The bankruptcy trustee might be a local bankruptcy attorney or a nonlawyer who is knowledgeable about Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy and the local rules and procedures of your court.
To learn more about the role of the trustee under the different bankruptcy chapters, see What Does the Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Trustee Do? and What Does the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee Do? You'll find more information in The New Bankruptcy: Will It Work for You?, by Attorney Cara O'Neill (Nolo).