With a sluggish economy, I have met with an increasing number of small business owners who are considering personal bankruptcy to deal with credit card debt and personal loans, but who want to keep their business assets and credits separate. Is this possible.
First, it does make a difference whether the small business is incorporated. If your small business is a proprietorship (i.e. “Tom Smith d/b/a Tom’s Lawncare”) then there is no way to separate personal assets and debts from business assets and debts. In this situation, all debts are “personal” because the proprietorship does not have a separate identity from the individual. All debts would have to be listed – for bankruptcy purposes in this situation, there is no difference between your personal credit card debt that arises from gasoline and grocery purchases and a credit card that you use for business purchases.
Assets of the proprietorship would be considered personal assets – assets that do not fit within the Georgia exemption statute would be at risk.
In a Chapter 7, if you have non-exempt assets you would have to surrender those assets to the trustee or offer to buy the “estate’s interest” from the trustee (usually at a discount from fair market value).
Note that any receivables of the business or any other property with potential resale value (i.e. customer lists, pending contracts) could be claimed as estate assets.
In rare instances a Chapter 7 trustee could object to your small business bankruptcy using an “income suppression” argument. This argument asserts that you should not be eligible for bankruptcy relief because you have intentionally suppressed your income by leaving a highly paid job or intentionally refused to maximize income opportunities.
If you are incorporated, the shares of your business are assets and you may very well be asked to justify a de minimus (i.e. $500) valuation that you put on those shares. I see this issue frequently when clients own service businesses. For example, I recently represented a client in an incorporated service business that had about $75,000 worth of equipment, but also had around $80,000 of credit card debt, $2,000 of tax debt and was behind on rent and facing a possible eviction. What is the value of the shares in this case? Is it $75,000 under the theory that the equipment was not subject to any lien and could be liquidated? Is it zero under the theory that the business (and my client as personal guarantor) could be liable for a fraudulent transfer if it liquidated the equipment when the business was insolvent? Or is the value somewhere in between zero and $75,000 using a compromise argument?
The income suppression argument described above also applies when the individual debtor’s business is incorporated. I have seen trustees take the position that a debtor with a certain level of education and training should make a reasonable effort to monitize that education rather than chase an entrepreneurial dream at the expense of creditors.
In the case of an incorporated business where the debtor has partners, the Chapter 7 trustee may become a replacement partner by virtue of his trustee powers and thereafter force a liquidation or a buyout.
I usually advise my clients who own small business clients that there is a possibility that the trustee may demand that the business close its doors and that they may have to find a new line of work. This possibility is less likely if the business is a service business that does not involve hard assets or inventory, and more likely if there are business assets with value or receivables.
Needless to say there are a myriad of potential issues for small business owners who are thinking about filing a personal bankruptcy. As always, you will benefit greatly by seeking counsel before your situation becomes critical.