Living BK -- a look at life after bankruptcy 6

#6 The Machinations of the Bankruptcy Process

There are two hurdles in the path to the confirmation of a bankruptcy plan in California -- the initial trustee meeting followed by the confirmation hearing with the bankruptcy judge. Not too much time passes between these events. My interval was about 4 weeks.

The Trustee Meeting

Here’s what I imagined the trustee meeting to be like: At the assigned time, I would go into the trustee’s private office. I would sit, she’d offer me a coffee or water, we would chat, she would review the information, ask a few questions then that would be that. Smiles. Handshake. A few kind words of encouragement and comfort. Done. I thought it would be a formal, yet friendly exchange concerning a necessary service.

Here’s what actually happened….

I walked through the glass doors of a prestigious LA office tower into a cavernous, three story lobby that looked like a display room for highly polished red granite. At the far right end of the lobby was a whited-out wall of glass with two doors in the middle. A photo-copied sign was taped to the right door.

“Office of the Bankruptcy Trustee.”

Behind the doors was a suite of offices that was anything but prestigious. Government drab is probably the best descriptor. Dingy gray carpet. Scuffed walls painted Navajo White…about 10 years earlier. The doors opened into a waiting area with twenty chairs. A photo copied sign taped to the wall declared: “Attorney/Client discussion area.”

Two hallways flowed from this waiting/conversation area. The one to the left had a taped sign: Chapter 7. The one on the right: Chapter 13. I turned right.

The short hallway led directly to a machine that was labeled with a laminated sign, “Electronic Check-In.” The sign instructed me to enter my case ID number. That’s one thing about any bankruptcy meeting/event – you’ve got to have the paperwork with you. You will need it. There is information in there that helps you get through the process. Don’t rely on notes. Don’t rely on memory. Bring the originals – all of them.

After checking in, I took a few steps and entered a large, two story room filled with 8 rows of 12 chairs, all facing two windowed offices at the front of the room. To the right were temporary partitions creating a third office. To the left were two metal office desks, butted up next to each other. Two women sat behind them, stacks of papers and trays on each desk. Four chairs were positioned in front.

There were only maybe 10 empty chairs in the room. And where there was little conversation happening in the Attorney/Client conversation area, this room was a cacophony of conversation. Everyone, clients, lawyers, was holding folders of papers. No one was smiling. There was no laughter.

I took a seat next to a young woman who looked to be in her early thirties. Too young to be here. My appointment was at 11:00. It was 10:55 when I took my seat. I asked when her appointment was. “9:30,” she replied. My stomach jumped.

With in 5 minutes, my name was called. It was the hearing lawyer assigned by my lawyer to appear with me. We discussed my case – in the conversation area. The privacy was appreciated.

He was accompanying several filers that day. My case was considered routine, though there was a note that the bank holding my business line of credit loan might show up to raise an objection. He told me not to worry. That was routine, as well.

My name was called again by the “desk twins.” They asked me for my plan payment check and my driver’s license. My interaction with them lasted all of 60 seconds.

And then I waited for my appointment with the trustee. 60 minutes.

My lawyer-for-the-day and I trundled to the office. We were followed by a slight woman dressed all in black. “The bank’s lawyer,” he whispered to me, gesturing behind me. Very appropriate attire.

The meeting wasn’t with the trustee, but with a trustee representative. She offered us seats in front of her desk. No smile. No greeting. The lawyer took the one to my left. I was told to sit in the one to the far right. Apparently this was an assigned seating situation. The bank’s lawyer was offered the seat next to mine, to my left. She strongly refused, choosing instead to sit in a chair directly at my back.

Appropriate, again.

I quickly turned to see if she were wielding any sharp objects that might suddenly make their presence known between my shoulder blades….

This meeting turned into a serious situation very quickly. I was informed the whole thing was about to be recorded and then I was sworn in. She proceeded to review my documents and ask some questions. I deferred to my legal representative. She asked the bank’s lawyer what she had to say about the proceeding. My counsel gave me a look that said, “Just sit tight and don’t react.”

The bank’s lawyer proceeded to express the bank’s position which made my skin crawl as the knife sunk in.

But I sat silent and let her speak.

The trustee asked several other questions which I, again, let the lawyer answer. Frankly, I wasn’t about to make a misstep here by misspeaking.

This was not a trip to the principal’s office. This was a visit to the slaughter house of my financial freedom. I didn’t know the rules of the game. All I knew was one slip of the tongue and everything I had worked for in my life up to that point could be taken away – at the wave of this woman’s hand.

This meeting was serious business with serious consequences.

It ended within 10 minutes – that seemed like 60.

The lawyer told me the trustee would review the file, then contact me by mail with her recommendation.

The process of this trustee meeting struck me as harsh. In retrospect, I understand why. This is serious business and the events involved with it need to be serious. It is theater. It is intended to communicate an important point. Going through bankruptcy means you’re getting a new lease on life and that life is one that is lived outside the established credit-driven system. Passing through the gates of bankruptcy means you’re passing into an alternative way of living.

The seriousness of the process is like a hazing. It is the rite of passage to the new experience of Living BK.

The Confirmation Hearing

There was plenty of time to think about the confirmation hearing, since I was told of it’s date during the Trustee Meeting. It was to be 6 weeks away…plenty of time for me to draw on my recollection of every courtroom TV show or movie I had ever seen. I thought about what I would like to say about this situation. I spent more than a few moments thinking about the scene – the Judge sitting at that raised, panel thingy they always sit behind. Me sitting in the gallery, awaiting my name to be called. My speech was all planned. My retort to the bank that was hassling me would have had the bailiffs reaching for a hanky. This was going to be my time to be heard. This was going to be my time stand up for everyone like me. This was going to be my moment to shine. This was going to no happen. What I thought, what I dreamed, what I hoped for? Not reality.

Fact is, it wasn’t something for me to attend. My case was all written up and an associate lawyer presented it to the judge. There is no review at that time. There is no discussion. There is no “moment.” There is a transfer of documents.

The Judge then takes the file and reviews it.

An official looking envelop from the bankruptcy court showed up in my mail box three weeks later. Inside was an official-looking document with boxes on the upper two-thirds of the page and text below. In a box on the right side was a stamping that read: Order Confirming Chapter 13 Plan”.

And that was it.

I was officially bankrupt.

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