A Big Benefit to Owing Lots of Business Debt: Skip the “Means Test” and Qualify for Chapter 7

If you owe more business debt than consumer debt, then you avoid not only the “means test” but also some other roadblocks to a successful post-business Chapter 7 bankruptcy case.

What’s the “Means Test” and Why it Matters?

Bankruptcy law says that if your income is more than a certain amount, you have to pass a “means test” to be able to go through a Chapter 7 case successfully. One way to avoid this “means test” is by having less income than the permitted “median family income.” But the “median family income” amounts are relatively low. If your income is at all above the applicable median amount, you have to go through the “means test,” with a significant risk of being forced into a 3-to-5-year Chapter 13 payment plan instead of three-month Chapter 7 “liquidation.”

Debtors with More Non-Consumer Debts than Consumer Debts

You can skip the “means test” altogether if your debts are NOT “primarily consumer debts.” This way you could be eligible for a Chapter 7 case even if your income is above the median level. Indeed, you avoid other kinds of “presumptions of abuse” as well, not just the formulaic “means test,” but also the broader “totality of circumstances” challenges. Congress has seemingly decided that if your debts are mostly from a failed business venture, you should be permitted an immediate Chapter 7 “fresh start,” regardless of your current income and expenses.

What is a “Consumer Debt”?

The Bankruptcy Code defines a “consumer debt” as one “incurred by an individual primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose.”

The focus is on the purpose for which you incurred the debt in the first place. If you made a credit purchase or took out the loan exclusively, or even mostly, for your business, then it may well not a “consumer debt.” That is a factual question that must be decided separately for each one of your debts.

“Primarily Consumer Debts”?

The Bankruptcy Code does not make this crystal clear, but generally if the total amount of consumer debt is less than the total amount of non-consumer debts, your debts are not “primarily consumer debts.” And then you do not have to mess with the “means test.”

Seemingly Consumer Debts May Not Be

Small business owner often financed the start-up and ongoing operation of their businesses with what would otherwise appear to be consumer credit—credit cards, home equity lines of credit and such. Given their purpose, these may qualify as non-consumer debts in calculating whether you have “primarily consumer debts.” This is definitely something to discuss with your attorney to consider how the local judges are interpreting this issue.

Unexpectedly High Business Debts Can Help

Sometimes business owners have business debts larger than they thought they had, which could push their non-consumer debt higher than their consumer debt. For example, if you had to break a commercial lease when you closed your business, the unpaid lease payments projected out over the intended term of the broken lease could be huge. Or your business closure may have left you with other hidden debts, such as obligations to business partners or unresolved litigation, with tremendous damages owed. The silver lining to these larger-than-expected business debts is that they may allow you to skip the “means test” and other grounds for dismissal or conversion to Chapter 13, allowing you to discharge all your debts through a Chapter 7 case when you could not have otherwise.