In both types of consumer bankruptcy cases - Chapter 7 or
Chapter 13 - you will be required to appear at your "first meeting" or "first meeting of the creditors" or "341 hearing" (341 being the section of the Bankruptcy Code that sets out the details of this hearing). This is your initial Court date. In
Chapter 7 cases, it should be your only Court date.
Many of my clients are nervous about the prospect of having to appear in Federal Bankruptcy Court. It sounds a little imposing. However, keep in mind that it is an informal hearing. It does not take place in a Courtroom - it takes place in a conference room in the building that houses the Bankruptcy Courts (or in Flint cases, the building across the street from the building that houses the Bankruptcy Court). There is no Judge present at the first meeting either - the hearing is presided over by a Bankruptcy Trustee (an attorney who is assigned by the Court to administer the case).
Chapter 13 first meetings may be presided over by another staff person from the Trustee's office – typically a staff attorney or a case manager/case analyst.
You do not need to address the Trustee as "your honor" as you may be tempted to do - they're not Judges. However, I do recommend that you be respectful and address the Trustee or their staff as either "sir" or "ma'am".
There is no particular dress code for your first meeting. The only possible exception that comes to mind is that if you wear a hat - you'll be asked to remove it when your case is called. I tell my clients to use their best Judgment as far as what to wear.
You'll need to make sure that you are on time for your first meeting. There will be plenty of other cases on the docket - if you're late you run the risk of having to make another trip to Bankruptcy Court. I advise my clients to show up at least 15 minutes early. This is because some Trustees will have a short questionnaire that they want you to complete before your hearing is held.
You'll also need to make sure you have proper identification. The Trustee will expect you to have a driver’s license (or other picture ID) and your social security card. If you don’t have both, your hearing may be adjourned – this means you’ll be making another trip to Court.
Your bankruptcy attorney will advise you if there are any other documents you will need to bring to your first meeting. Generally, your attorney knows ahead of time what the Trustee is looking for and will have forwarded these documents to them a week in advance.
Who can you expect to show up at your first meeting? If you owe money to a local credit union – you can expect they’ll have an attorney there to ask some questions. If you have a vehicle financed or leased through Ford Motor Credit – you can expect they’ll have an attorney there to find out what you want to do with that vehicle. If you have an ex-spouse that you owe money to – there’s a good chance they’ll be there. Aside from that, creditors generally don’t appear at a first meeting in the average consumer bankruptcy case. An experienced bankruptcy attorney ought to be able to give you a heads up on who else you could expect to appear when your case is being put together.
In Chapter 7 cases you can expect your first meeting to last 5-10 minutes. In
Chapter 13 cases you can expect your first meeting to last 10-15 minutes. If it’s a complicated case it could take a bit longer – if it’s a simple case it should take even less.
Hopefully after reading this you'll have a better idea of what to expect and you'll feel a little more at ease about appearing at your first meeting.