The Chapter 13 Trustee — A Trustee of Many Hats

Your Chapter 13 trustee plays a huge role in the success or failure of your Chapter 13 case. Except he or she actually has at least a half-dozen different roles. Some of which are contradictory. Let me explain.

1) The trustee serves as the gatekeeper of your case, forcing us to play by the rules before allowing your Chapter 13 Plan to be approved by the bankruptcy judge.

2) As part of that role, the trustee’s job is to make you pay as much as possible to your creditors. Because each individual creditor often doesn’t have all that much to lose or gain compared to the cost of each of them hiring an attorney, the trustee is the creditors’ advocate in your case.

3) The trustee is your disbursal agent, taking in your money and paying it out exactly as your court-approved Plan specifies.

4) During the course of your case, the trustee is your Plan overseer, monitoring your Plan payments and your other obligations, and complaining to the court if you’re not in compliance.

5) The trustee is also your income monitor throughout the course of your case, mostly through annual tax returns that you must file on time and provide to his or her office, and sometimes through additional documentation. If your income rises significantly in a way not provided for in your Plan, the trustee can propose an “Amended Plan” to account for the increase.

6) Through all of this, believe it or not, the trustee is also legally required to be your helper through the Chapter 13 process. The Bankruptcy Code specifically says that the “trustee shall—advise, other than on legal matters, and assist the debtor under the plan.” Different trustees do this quite differently, taking on this helper role more or less seriously. At different points in your case, my staff and I may well suggest that you interact with the trustee’s office in certain specific ways. Always remember that they have a bunch of other roles besides helping you. But also note that on a personal level, the trustee genuinely wants you to have a successful Chapter 13 case, and can sometimes be a good resource to help get you there.

Here’s a good final word on this, from the website of one of the Chapter 13 trustees:

“The role of the chapter 13 trustee is unique. The trustee does not take into his or her possession or control property of the estate. The trustee does not operate the debtor’s business. Rather, the trustee receives payments from the debtor, and disburses those payments to the debtor’s creditors pursuant to the debtor’s plan. The chapter 13 trustee does, however, counsel with and advise the chapter 13 debtor on all matters relating to the plan other than legal matters. In short, the chapter 13 trustee is an amalgam of social worker and disbursing agent.”