Defined: The Bankruptcy “Trustee” and the “United States Trustee”

The terms “trustee” and “United States Trustee” sound similar and often encompass similar objectives, however the role of the trustee in bankruptcy proceeding is distinctly different than that of the United States Trustee.

The “United States Trustee” (also called the U.S. Trustee or “UST”) is essentially a federal office within the U.S. Department of Justice that oversees the administration of all bankruptcy cases in a certain district. Here in the district of Minnesota as in other districts, the office of the U.S. Trustee employs a group of staff attorneys, financial analysts and other professionals all charged with the responsibility to promote the efficiency and protect the integrity of the federal bankruptcy system. The Office of the US Trustee does not always directly engage in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, however does monitor each case to determine whether legal action needs to be taken in order to enforce the requirements of the Bankruptcy Code and to prevent fraud or abuse. The UST often reviews petition and schedules filed with the Court to determine whether fraud exists or if an audit must be conducted to uncover more information. However in the majority of consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases, the individual debtors will never hear from the United States Trustee or be subject to its action. In Chapter 11 cases, the Office of the US Trustee becomes a principal player in monitoring the business reorganization proceeding.

In contrast, the “trustee” (also called a “panel trustee” or a “standing trustee” in Chapter 13 cases) is often a private attorney charged with the responsibility to administer a bankruptcy, hold the meeting of creditors, and distribute any non-exempt assets to creditors. A bankruptcy trustee is appointed to every individual’s Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 consumer bankruptcy case. In the District of Minnesota, there are approximately 25 such attorneys that serve as Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 trustees. Unlike the US Trustee whose main objective is to ensure the integrity of the bankruptcy process, the role of the Chapter 7 trustee is to collect any non-exempt assets of the debtor, liquidates those assets, and then distribute the proceeds to creditors. In Chapter 13, the trustee additionally evaluates the debtor’s financial affairs, makes recommendations to the Court with regard to the Chapter 13 plan and ultimately administers a the Chapter 13 plan by collecting payments from the debtor and disbursing the funds to creditors. In Chapter 11, no trustee is initially appointed and the debtor effectively operates as its own trustee, i.e., the “debtor in possession”.

Lynn Wartchow is the founding attorney of Wartchow Law Office located in Edina, Minnesota and representing consumer and business clients in Chapter 7, Chapter 13 and Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings throughout the Minneapolis and St. Paul and surrounding areas.

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