Thursday, December 1, 2011

Winding Down a Business in Massachusetts

There are many reasons why you might want to close a business. It may just be the time in your life to move on. However, if there's no way to sell your business and there's not enough money to pay the debts off, what do you do? This "insolvency" can create challenges in winding down a business in a way that allows you to move on.

Here are a few key questions to consider:

1. Have you personally guaranteed business debts?
This is a key consideration. Any debts you, your spouse, or partners guaranteed will have to paid by the guarantor(s) should the business close without satisfying these debts. Business credit cards are typically personally guaranteed by the owners. The same with most bank debt. Trade credit (vendor debt) usually is not personally guaranteed, but sometimes it is. Personal guarantees are common and can end in the bankruptcies of individual business owners if these debts cannot be paid. I call these business-personal bankruptcies and have written a bit more about them here.

2. If there are no personal guarantees or the personally guaranteed debts have or will be paid, does the business have valuable assets?
Some examples of assets include inventories, equipment, cash, and accounts receivable. If the business has assets, it can't just close its doors and leave debts unpaid. Where would the assets go? The business owner can't just keep them. In theory at least, these assets must be distributed equitably to creditors before the business owner can just take a dividend. So, if the business is operating in the red and there is not enough money to pay all the debts, who should get what? Lien holders should receive their collateral or its value. Taxes and employees should be paid in full. (It is important not to leave employee wages unpaid in Massachusetts). But after the secured and priority creditors receive their share, who should be paid what if there is money or assets left over? The answer to this depends on the goals of the business owner and the extent of the assets, but it may at this point make sense to file bankruptcy for the business so that the assets can be distributed fairly to creditors by a trustee. Whether to do this or not depends on a few factors, like the exposure of the business owners to suit by the trustee (like if they have unpaid debts to the business), but it sometimes is the best way to clear the assets in a transparent fashion so that creditors get their satisfaction and stop pursuing the business and its owners for the unpaid debts. Once this bankruptcy process is finished, the business can be formally dissolved with the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the matter can be put to bed. The cost of bankruptcy usually comes from the business assets.

3. What if there are no business assets?

If the business has not assets, you still need to make sure you deal with personally-guaranteed debt and any priority debts, like taxes and wages. Once you do this, an old legal maxim comes into play: you can't get blood from a stone. Creditors will try, however, and many an asset-less business winds up in bankruptcy just to satisfy the creditors that there are indeed no assets to be found. However, this is not always necessary. Blood can truly not come from stones and so, although annoying and time-consuming, dunning efforts by angry business creditors will come to naught if the business has nothing. In this case, letting the business die a natural death (non-payment of debts and administrative dissolution by the Secretary of the Commonwealth) should be considered.

It's probably obvious, but it makes a lot of sense to retain an attorney to guide you through the process of winding down a business in Massachusetts. There are several strategic options to consider that will affect the speed of the process and the overall cost to the business owners.

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