When the sole proprietor of a just-closed business files a personal Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, the trustee may or may not have assets to liquidate and distribute to the creditors. If NOT, the case will more likely be finished faster. But if the trustee DOES collect some assets, the extra time may be worth it for the former business owner.
If you’ve closed down your business and as a result are now personally liable on large debts that you cannot pay, you may well be wondering whether bankruptcy is your best option. Assuming that you qualify for a Chapter 7 “straight bankruptcy,” one important issue to consider is whether your case would likely be an “asset” or “no asset” one. An “asset case” is one in which the Chapter 7 trustee collects assets from you to sell, and then distribute their proceeds to your creditors. A “no asset case” is one in which the trustee does not collect any assets from you because your assets are either protected by “exemptions” or are not worth the trustee’s efforts and expense to collect.
Generally a “no asset case” is simpler and quicker than an “asset case,” although not necessarily better. It’s simpler because it avoids the entire liquidation and distribution process. A simple “no asset case” can be completed about three months after it is filed (assuming other kinds of complication do not arise). In contrast, it takes at least a number of additional months for a trustee to take possession of an asset, sell it in a fair and open manner with notice to all interested parties, give creditors the opportunity to file claims on the sale proceeds, object to any inappropriate claims, and then distribute the funds to the creditors. Some assets—especially intangible ones such as a debtor’s disputed claims against a third party—can take several years for the trustee to negotiate and/or litigate in order to convert it into cash, with the bankruptcy case kept open throughout this time.
In spite of this seeming disadvantage, an “asset case” can be better for a former business owner in certain circumstances.
First, a business owner may decide to close down a business and file a bankruptcy quickly afterwards to hand over to the trustee the headaches of collecting and liquidating the remaining assets and paying the creditors in a fair and legally appropriate way. After fighting for a long time to try to save a business, the owner may well be emotionally spent and in no position to try to negotiate work-out terms with all the creditors. There is unlikely sufficient money available to pay an attorney to do this. And if there are relatively few assets compared to the amount of debts—the usual situation—it’s likely that after all that effort the former owner will still owe an impossible amount of debt.
And second, that former business owner may want his or her assets to go through the Chapter 7 liquidation process if the debts that the trustee will likely pay first are ones that the former business owner especially wants to be paid. The trustee pays creditors according to a legal list of priorities. Without going here into the details of that long priorities list, at the top of the list are child and spousal support arrearages. Also high on the list are certain employee wage, commission, and benefits claims, as well as certain tax claims. He or she may well feel a special responsibility to take care of the ex-spouse and children, former employees, and taxes. And the fact that he or she would likely continue being personally liable on these obligations after the bankruptcy is over undoubtedly adds some motivation.
A “no asset” personal Chapter 7 case can be a relatively quick and efficient way for a former sole proprietor to put the closed business legally into the past. While an “asset” case can take somewhat longer, it can help pay some of the special creditors you want to be paid anyway.