Filing bankruptcy? Your bank may freeze your checking account!

Most people filing a bankruptcy have money in one or more bank accounts. Under certain circumstances, and for one bank in particular, a bankruptcy filing could cause the accounts to be frozen by the bank, at least temporarily, despite the protections of the “automatic stay” the prevent creditors for taking control of a debtor’s property after a bankruptcy is filed.

Money in the bank is an asset of a bankruptcy estate which comes under the control of the trustee. But debtors are entitled to exempt a certain dollar amount of that money and keep it. Technically, the exemptions do not receive final approval until at least 30 days after the First Meeting of Creditors is closed, which will not happen for at least 60 days after the bankruptcy is filed.

Most bank loan agreements have provisions allowing the bank to “setoff” a debt in default against money the bank holds. (ie take the money to pay or pay down the debt that is owed). One would think that a bankruptcy filing would make this illegal, but years ago the US Supreme Court said that it was ok for a bank to “administratively freeze” a debtor’s checking or bank account for a short while, as long as the bank acted promptly to get bankruptcy court approval by a motion to lift the automatic stay. Thus, we tell our clients who happen to owe Bank A money to move their money out of that bank before filing bankruptcy.

A few years back, Wells Fargo Bank as a nationwide policy has started a program to check the accounts of any customer who files bankruptcy. If the total amounts on deposit exceeds a certain amount (I am told it is between $3500 and $5000), they immediately freeze the account and notify the trustee. I am told this started because a trustee successfully sued Wells Fargo for letting a debtor empty a bank account after a bankruptcy filing, taking money that was not the debtor’s to keep.

Most, but not all, courts have so far backed Wells Fargo up on this, but the practice is troubling. Supposedly, there is no harm because the trustee will promptly check out the account and authorize a release of the funds if they are properly exempt. Many trustees applaud the practice, citing cases where hidden bank accounts or under-reported account balances were revealed.

For the hapless but honest debtor, the practice can be traumatic. Suddenly, they have no money. Checks may start bouncing (and of course there are the resulting bank fees!). The trustee may be away or slow to react. Or unwilling to release the funds for one reason or another. Meanwhile, many people have automatic payroll deposits into their account. If the account is frozen this money becomes unavailable. Since earnings from personal services post-petition are not estate property, at least in Chapter 7, this means that the bank freeze has unlawfully seized money that the debtor is unquestionably entitled to. What about joint accounts or convenience accounts? In New Jersey, the money in a joint account generally belongs to the account holder that put it there. So does that mean that the non-debtor spouse has his money frozen too? A convenience account is an account where the debtor is the named account holder for someone else, typically an elderly or infirm relative. Same problem.

One bankruptcy court in New York has ruled that the Wells Fargo freeze violates the automatic stay. I am told this is on appeal.

Until the courts can get this right, people filing bankruptcy need to be aware, fully informed and prepared to avoid these problems.

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