The Chapter 7 Trustee, the Bankruptcy Estate, and Claims
The Case Trustee
When a chapter 7 petition is filed, the U.S. trustee (or the bankruptcy court in Alabama and North Carolina) appoints an impartial case trustee to administer the case and liquidate the debtor's nonexempt assets. If all the debtor's assets are exempt or subject to valid liens, the trustee will normally file a "no asset" report with the court, and there will be no distribution to unsecured creditors. Most chapter 7 cases involving individual debtors are no asset cases.
Filing of Claims
If the case appears to be an "asset" case at the outset, unsecured creditors must file their claims with the court within 90 days after the first date set for the meeting of creditors. A governmental unit, however, has 180 days from the date the case is filed to file a claim. In the typical no asset chapter 7 case, there is no need for creditors to file proofs of claim because there will be no distribution. If the trustee later recovers assets for distribution to unsecured creditors, the Bankruptcy Court will provide notice to creditors and will allow additional time to file proofs of claim. Although a secured creditor does not need to file a proof of claim in a chapter 7 case to preserve its security interest or lien, there may be other reasons to file a claim.
The Bankruptcy Estate
Commencement of a bankruptcy case creates an "estate." The estate technically becomes the temporary legal owner of all the debtor's property. It consists of all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case, including property owned or held by another person if the debtor has an interest in the property. Generally speaking, the debtor's creditors are paid from nonexempt property of the estate.
The Case Trustee's Role
The primary role of a chapter 7 trustee in an asset case is to liquidate the debtor's nonexempt assets in a manner that maximizes the return to the debtor's unsecured creditors. The trustee accomplishes this by selling the debtor's property if it is free and clear of liens (as long as the property is not exempt) or if it is worth more than any security interest or lien attached to the property and any exemption that the debtor holds in the property. The trustee may also attempt to recover money or property under the trustee's "avoiding powers." The trustee's avoiding powers include the power to: set aside preferential transfers made to creditors within 90 days before the petition; undo security interests and other prepetition transfers of property that were not properly perfected under nonbankruptcy law at the time of the petition; and pursue nonbankruptcy claims such as fraudulent conveyance and bulk transfer remedies available under state law. In addition, if the debtor is a business, the bankruptcy court may authorize the trustee to operate the business for a limited period of time, if such operation will benefit creditors and enhance the liquidation of the estate.
Distribution of Estate Property
The Bankruptcy Code governs the distribution of the property of the estate. Under the Code, there are six classes of claims; and each class must be paid in full before the next lower class is paid anything. The debtor is only paid if all other classes of claims have been paid in full. Accordingly, the debtor is not particularly interested in the trustee's disposition of the estate assets, except with respect to the payment of those debts which for some reason are not dischargeable in the bankruptcy case. The individual debtor's primary concerns in a chapter 7 case are to retain exempt property and to receive a discharge that covers as many debts as possible.