NEW YORK — The court-appointed trustee hunting down assets diverted by jailed fraudster Bernard Madoff has said that payments to victims could start in the "near future."

However, Irving Picard said in a conference call that legal challenges were holding up distribution of the bulk of the funds collected so far in a global search for Madoff's assets and fraudulent profits.

"While we hope to initiate distributions in the near future, it will take some time before we can distribute all the funds, as we work to recover stolen property and resolve legal challenges," Picard said.

Picard said some $2.6 billion in cash had been recovered. However, the rest of the approximately $10 billion located so far remains held up by lawsuits.

He is searching for a total of about $20 billion.

"Overall, we have developed and launched an aggressive, global recovery effort. It has already yielded great success, and we have laid comprehensive groundwork that I hope will lead to significant future recoveries," Picard said.

The bulk of the money so far recovered by Picard comes from Barbara Picower, widow of close Madoff associate Jeffry Picower.

Picower withdrew a massive $7.2 billion in proceeds from his account with Madoff, all of which has been surrendered to the trustee -- although it is now held up by legal action.

Madoff, 72, who touted himself as one of New York's most successful money managers, was arrested in late 2008 and sentenced in June 2009 to 150 years in prison in what was described as one of the biggest pyramid schemes ever.

His victims, including charities, major banks, Hollywood moguls and savvy financial players, handed him tens of billions of dollars over more than two decades.