The Center For Debt Management
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Summary of the United States Bankruptcy Code

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United States Trustee

The United States Attorney General appoints a separate United States Trustee for each of twenty-one geographical regions for a five year term. Each Trustee is removable from office by and works under the general supervision of the Attorney General. The U.S. Trustees maintain regional offices that correspond with federal judicial districts and are administratively overseen by the Executive Office for United States Trustees in Washington, D.C. Each United States Trustee, an officer of the U.S. Department of Justice, is responsible for maintaining and supervising a panel of private trustees for chapter 7 bankruptcy cases. The Trustee has other duties including the administration of most bankruptcy cases and trustees. Under section 307 of title 11, a U.S. Trustee "may raise and may appear and be heard on any issue in any case or proceeding" in bankruptcy except for filing a plan of reorganization in a chapter 11 case.

The Automatic Stay

Bankruptcy Code § 362 imposes the automatic stay at the moment a bankruptcy petition is filed. The automatic stay generally prohibits the commencement or enforcement of actions, judicial or administrative, against a debtor for the collection of a claim that arose prior to the commencement of the case. The stay also prohibits collection actions aimed at property of the estate itself.

In some courts violations of the stay are treated as void ab initio as a matter of law, although the court may annul the stay to give effect to otherwise void acts. Other courts treat violations as voidable (not necessarily void ab initio). Any violation of the stay may give rise to damages being assessed against the violating party. Non-willful violations of the stay are often excused without penalty, but willful violators are liable for punitive damages and may also be found to be in contempt of court.

A secured creditor may be allowed to take the applicable collateral if the creditor first obtains permission from the court. Permission is requested by a creditor by filing a motion for relief from the automatic stay. The court must either grant the stay or provide adequate protection to the secured creditor that the value of their collateral will not decrease during the stay.

Without the bankruptcy protection of the automatic stay creditors might race to the courthouse to improve their positions against a debtor. If the debtor's business were facing a temporary crunch, but were nevertheless viable in the long term, it might not survive a "run" by creditors. A run could also result in waste and unfairness among similarly situated creditors.

The creditors

Secured creditors whose security interests survive the commencement of the case may look to the property that is the subject of their security interests, after obtaining permission from the court (in the form of relief from the automatic stay). Security interests, created by what are called secured transactions, are liens on the property of a debtor.

Unsecured creditors are generally divided into two classes: unsecured priority creditors and general unsecured creditors. Unsecured priority creditors are further subdivided into classes as described in the law. In some cases the assets of the estate are insufficient to pay all priority unsecured creditors in full; in such cases the general unsecured creditors receive nothing.

Because of the priority and rank ordering feature of bankruptcy law, debtors sometimes improperly collude with others (who may be related to the debtor) to prefer them, by for example granting them a security interest in otherwised unpledged assets. For this reason, the bankruptcy trustee is permitted to reverse certain transactions of the debtor within period of time prior to the date of bankruptcy filing. The time period varies depending on the relationship of the parties to the debtor and the nature of the transaction.

Also, the Bankruptcy Trustee may reject certain executory contracts and unexpired leases. For bankruptcy purposes, a contract is generally considered "executory" where both parties to the contract have not yet fully performed a material obligation.

If the Trustee (or debtor in possession, in many chapter 11 cases) rejects a contract, the debtor's bankruptcy estate is subject for ordinary contract law damages; but the damage obligation is generally treated as an unsecured claim.

Exempt Property

Although in theory all property of the debtor that is not excluded from the estate under the Bankruptcy Code becomes property of the estate (i.e., is automatically transferred from the debtor to the estate) at the time of commencement of a case, an individual debtor (not a partnership, corporation, etc.) may claim certain items of property as "exempt" and thereby keep those items (subject, however, to any valid liens or other encumbrances). An individual debtor may choose between a "federal" list of exemptions and the list of exemptions provided by the law of the state in which the debtor files the bankruptcy case unless the state in which the debtor files the bankruptcy case has enacted legislation prohibiting the debtor from choosing the exemptions on the federal list. Almost 40 states have done so. In states where the debtor is allowed to choose between the federal and state exemptions, the debtor has the opportunity to choose the exemptions that most fully benefit him or her and, in many cases, may convert at least some of his or her property from non-exempt form (e.g. cash) to exempt form (e.g. increased equity in a home created by using the cash to pay down a mortgage) prior to filing the bankruptcy case.

The exemption laws vary greatly from state to state. In some states, exempt property includes equity in a home or car, tools of the trade, and some amount of personal effects. In other states an asset class such as tools of trade will not be exempt by virtue of its class except to the extent it is claimed under a more general exemption for personal property.

One major purpose of bankruptcy is to ensure orderly and reasonable management of debt. Thus, exemptions for personal effects are thought to prevent punitive seizures of items of little or no economic value (personal effects, personal care items, ordinary clothing), since this does not promote any desirable economic result. Similarly, tools of the trade may, depending on the available exemptions, be a permitted exemption as their continued possession allows the insolvent debtor to move forward into productive work as soon as possible.

The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 placed pension plans not subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), like 457 and 403(b) plans in the same status as ERISA qualified plans with respect to having exemption status akin to spendthrift trusts. SEP-IRAs and SIMPLEs still are outside federal protection and must rely on state law.

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