If your business needs bankruptcy relief, you have to start with basic questions about how your business was set up and its debt amount.
The Sole Proprietorship Business
The most straightforward business bankruptcies tend to be those in which the business is a sole proprietorship. Your business is operated through you, not through a separate formal business entity. In other words, you and the business are legally a single entity because you have NOT set up that business as a separate legal entity–a corporation or limited liability company (LLC), or a partnership. You operate it under your own name, or through an assumed business name but not a corporation, LLC, or partnership.
Other Forms of Business
But what if your business is not a simple sole proprietorship, but instead is in one of these separate legal entities, and you are contemplating bankruptcy relief (for either the business, you personally, or both)?
If so, if you have not already done so, you should quickly find and sit down with a competent business bankruptcy attorney. There are advantages and disadvantages to every form of doing business. But one practical disadvantage of running your business as a corporation/LLC/partnership is that this can make things more complicated in the bankruptcy world. This CAN give you more flexibility—you can file a bankruptcy for yourself without directly filing for the business, and the other way around. But with more flexibility and more options come more complications.
The General Guidance
Beyond these initial points, here are some basic rules for background purposes. They will help you be a bit more prepared when you come to meet with me or another attorney.
1. A corporation, or LLC, or partnership cannot file a Chapter 13 “adjustment of debts.”
Only an “individual” can. This means that you and your sole proprietorship can together file a Chapter 13 case. And if your business is a corporation, LLC, or partnership, you (and your spouse) can file a personal Chapter 13 case to deal with your own liabilities, but that will almost never be adequate for dealing with the business’ own liabilities if you are trying to keep operating that business.
2. Chapter 13s are sometimes mislabeled “wage-earner plans,” but any source of “regular income” is allowed.” The requirement is simply “income sufficiently stable and regular to… make payments under a plan under Chapter 13.” So if your business income—combined with any other income—is even somewhat stable, you would likely qualify under this “regular income” requirement.
3. But you and your sole proprietorship CAN’T file a Chapter 13 case if your total unsecured debt is $383,175 or more, or if your total secured debt is $1, 149,525 or more. (Note: these were adjusted for inflation as of April 1, 2013 and are valid for the following 3 years.) While these may seem like relatively high maximums, be aware that they include BOTH personal and business debts (since you are personally liable for all the debts of a sole proprietorship). Also the unsecured debt amounts can include less obvious ones such as the portions of your mortgages and other secured debts in excess of the value of the collateral. So a $750,000 debt secured by real estate now worth $550,000 adds $200,000 to the unsecured debt total. Also some debts—especially business ones—can be much higher than you’d expected, such as damages from the terminated lease of business premises, or resulting from business litigation. This can also be pertinent if your business is not a sole proprietorship, because you are likely personally liable for most or all of your corporation’s or LLC’s debts through personal guarantees and otherwise. Either way, add up your potential debts carefully before assuming that you can file a Chapter 13 case.
4. If your debt totals are above one of the above debt limits, you can still file a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy” case, but that is very seldom an effective way to keep a business operating. Chapter 7 tends to be a better option for cleaning up after a closed business, whatever its legal form.
5. If your debt totals are above one of the Chapter 13 debt limits and you are trying to save the business, one option is a Chapter 11 “business reorganization.” Also, a business corporation, LLC, or partnership can file a Chapter 11 case to keep the business afloat. The disadvantage of Chapter 11 is that it is a hugely more complicated repayment procedure than Chapter 13, and therefore many times more expensive. This, and the many times higher filing fee, plus significant ongoing court and U.S. Trustee fees, unfortunately makes Chapter 11 a practical solution in only limited small business situations. Bankruptcy courts have tried to address this shortcoming with streamlined “fast-track” Chapter 11s, but they are still often prohibitively expensive.
6. If you do end up filing a personal Chapter 7 case when owing substantial business debt, you may have the advantage of being exempt from qualifying under the “means test” (a test based on your income and allowed expenses) if your business debts are more than half of your total debts.
To repeat, if you are trying to save your financially struggling business, it is crucial to get competent business bankruptcy advice, and to do so just as soon as possible. You have no doubt been working extremely hard trying to keep your business alive. You very likely now need a solid game plan for using the bankruptcy and other laws to your advantage.