Videoconferencing Etiquette for a Bankruptcy Trustee Hearing (The 341 Meeting of Creditors)

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed (hopefully temporarily) many things we once considered normal here at Luh & Associates. However, we remain committed to providing the most cost effective bankruptcy experience. While we loved having our clients come in to our office and get to know us, it is best for all parties to abide by social distancing practices for the time being. While this may mean doing interviews via videoconferencing and sending documents through fax and email, it doesn’t mean your bankruptcy has to slow down.

To this effect, bankruptcy trustees across the country are working to implement secure videoconferencing systems so that anyone filing for bankruptcy can have their case administered in a quick and efficient manner. As they’ve been working with these systems, many trustees have found minor issues that have delayed their progress in running these hearings. In order to smooth out the process, here are a few tips for our clients to know before their own Trustee Hearing. Please take a moment and review them so that your hearing can go as smoothly as possible.

Make sure your attorney has all the requested documents – The trustee often asks for tax returns, bank statements, paystubs, and other materials be delivered to their office over two weeks before the hearing date. The sooner your attorney has these documents, the sooner they can be delivered to the trustee’s office and prepared for your hearing.

If an interpreter might be needed, make sure the attorney knows this in advance – Attorneys will need to alert the trustee to have an interpreter available in the videoconference.

Review your list of trustee questions – Your attorney will have a list of common questions that a trustee will ask during the hearing. Reviewing and answering these questions can help calm the nervousness many people feel before meeting the bankruptcy trustee, whether that meeting is in person or over a videoconference.

Do a test run the night before (if not sooner) – Download the requested application (not all bankruptcy trustees use Zoom) and double-check your audio and video settings. If possible, set up a videoconference with your attorney prior to the hearing to check for any problems. The sooner your attorney knows of any issues, the better they’ll be able to fix or find a workaround so you can have a smooth hearing with the trustee.

Dress as if you were going to court – While a suit or dress is not necessary, it is important to attire yourself in a presentable manner for the trustee. A button-down or collared shirt or blouse will serve well for the occasion. One should also wear a good pair of pants, like slacks or dress pants. A professional skirt or dress is also an option. Clothes should be clean, without holes, and tactful for the hearing.

Arrive at the videoconference fifteen minutes early – Sometimes technology works against us and it takes a little longer than usual to log in to a video conference. Arriving early means those problems are taken care of and no one risks missing their trustee hearing. If everyone is early, the trustee can organize their virtual rooms and start their sessions promptly, rather than waiting to clear up technical issues.

Make sure your name on the videoconference matches the name on your petition – While names like Superman and Wonder Woman are fun to use in family and friend settings, they aren’t helpful for the trustee when they need to bring you in to your 341 hearing. Nicknames can have this same problem, especially if it’s not a common nickname for the name on the petition. Take a moment to double-check that your name is accurate so the trustee knows you’re present for the hearing and doesn’t skip over you.

Be patient – A trustee will hold several hearings at your designated time. It may take a while, but they will get to your case. Be ready to go when they call for you.

Have your Driver’s License and Social Security card ready to present to the Trustee – A bankruptcy trustee often conducts multiple hearings a day, and will have you and your attorney in a virtual waiting room before you enter. When it’s your turn, the trustee will pull you into the virtual hearing room first and, off the record, verify your identity. If you have your Driver’s License and your Social Security card ready, this step only needs to take a few seconds. The trustee can then bring in your attorney and any creditors that show up and the hearing can proceed.

Have a copy of your petition on hand – Having this beside you at your videoconference, as well as any other materials the attorney suggests, will help you and the trustee stay on the same page as questions are asked.

Choose a good room for holding your videoconference – A good environment will keep the focus on you during your hearing, and not on your surroundings. Make sure your room isn’t prone to echoing, has good internet reception (or that your device is plugged in via ethernet), has good lighting aimed towards your face so the trustee can see you and your identifying cards, and is overall quiet and clean. Avoid overly intrusive locations like a bedroom or a bathroom. If your location does not have a decent internet connection, let your attorney know beforehand so that they can arrange a new location for you.

Keep the camera or device stationary – A moving background can, at best, be a distraction to your trustee hearing. Other times, a moving background can disorient viewers and make them feel nauseous during the proceedings. If needed, prop your camera or device on top of a table, a counter, or a bookshelf instead of holding it in your hand.

Eliminate possible distractions – Sometimes, distractions happen. The bankruptcy trustees know that everyday life often interrupts at the worst possible time. While it’s not possible to remove every possible distraction, a few easy steps can help your hearing run smoothly. Let your family know what day you’re meeting with the bankruptcy trustee and take care of meals and activities beforehand. Close the door to the room you’re using for a meeting space and place a sign outside. If possible, keep pets in a separate room. Turning off your notifications and closing out of other apps will also help keep you focused and engaged.

Mute your microphone – Microphones are more sensitive to background noise than most people realize. Fans, air conditioners, outside traffic, and even static can contribute to a deluge of background sounds, which can amplify and drown out what you or the trustee have to say. This problem increases when there are multiple active microphones at your hearing. If possible, mute your microphone while you are not speaking so your background noise doesn’t contribute. When it’s your turn to speak, remember to turn your microphone back on. If you are at an audio-only conference, learn how to mute the microphone when calling on your smartphone or other device.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – Sometimes the internet skips while the trustee is talking. Sometimes the trustee will say a phrase or ask a question that may not make sense. Sometimes, there will be a noise outside that distracts you from the hearing. Don’t be afraid to say, “Please repeat the question” or to ask for clarity if you don’t understand something. If needed, your attorney is also there to assist you through the hearing.

Try not to interrupt or talk over anyone – Multiple people talking at once is a common problem in videoconferences. A trustee can only actively hear one party at a time. Don’t worry if you wish to explain something before a creditor or the trustee finishes. The trustee will give you your chance to speak. If you fear you’ll forget to say something, write it down and address that issue when it’s your turn.

Try to look at the camera more often than at your own image – Everyone feels that urge to use their phone or tablet as a mirror when they’re in a video chat of any kind. People sit straighter, fix their hair, and tug their clothes until the image is near perfect. This isn’t a bad thing, but people can feel disconnected if a speaker continues to watch themselves while they talk. Good eye contact, while not required in a videoconference, is helpful for appearing focused and attentive when answering the trustee’s questions. If it helps, place a little removable sticker beside your camera as a reminder and situate your device so it rests at eye level.

Eat before or after the videoconference, not during – Chewing sounds on a microphone are not ideal for a trustee hearing or any videoconferencing setting. Eating on camera is also a distraction. Avoid eating during your hearing. If necessary, have an easy-to-sip cup nearby for water.

Remember that you are on live video and stay focused – We’ve all heard horror stories of someone using the bathroom or picking their nose while in a videoconference. I’ve been in a videoconference where someone, thinking they were muted, started playing their guitar over a presentation. It can be easy to lose focus, especially if you have a long delay in the virtual waiting room. Try to keep your attention on the hearing by keeping your distractions, like a phone or a computer, in another room. Avoid running other programs in the background. If necessary, write yourself a note to keep your attention from drifting away and forgetting you’re still on camera. If something embarrassing does happen, apologize quickly and move on.

While this may seem like an extensive list, trustees are finding success with videoconference hearings. They understand that taking a day to go to court, find parking, and wait in a large room for a hearing was not ideal even before our current pandemic. Videoconferences have increased creditor participation, taking away the need to have hearings rescheduled and discharges delayed. This new method for Trustee hearings may become a fixture for our future, and the need for videoconferencing skills is likely here to stay.

For additional information on determining whether you qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, please contact the bankruptcy attorneys at Luh & Associates. We look forward to answering your questions!