Miriam Goott, a bankruptcy attorney at Walker & Patterson at her home in Houston, Friday, May 8, 2020.Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
Houston attorney Miriam Goott, who represents small businesses in their bankruptcies, likes telling potential clients: “I hope to never see you again.” That’s because she’s worked out a deal with their creditors or helped them solve a problem that avoided bankruptcy altogether.
“Half the time, I play the role of a therapist,’’ she said. “What they perceive to be this huge problem generally isn’t. It’s typically one or maybe two creditors that are really the issue.”
Some attorneys predict a wave of bankruptcies in the months ahead, as the economic toll of the oil bust and the pandemic create long-term struggles for the area’s economy, according to a University of Houston Bauer College of Business forecast. Plus, the CARES Act made it even easier for small businesses to file for bankruptcy.
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Bankruptcy may provide much-needed relief for small businesses but it’s more of a last resort than a first resort. The good news is, for many borrowers struggling to make payments, a bankruptcy may not even be necessary.
Goott focuses her practice at Walker & Patterson on consumer and small business bankruptcy.
“I don’t feel comfortable filing a bankruptcy until we know we’ve exhausted all our options,’’ she said. Why? Bankruptcy can help beleaguered business owners sleep at night, but it also comes with risks.
Personal bankruptcy will have a significant impact on credit and borrowing costs in the future. Businesses have to open their books to public scrutiny and there are reputational risks as well.
“It’s different to hear your CPA filed bankruptcy than maybe your hairdresser,’’ Goott said. Plus, bankruptcy is expensive. Goott charges as little as $10,000 to $15,000 for a business Chapter 7, or liquidation, and fees can run as high as $300,000 for a complicated Chapter 11, or reorganization. Some law firms charge millions for complex, big-business reorganizations.
For a small business, the first step to avoid bankruptcy is to get a handle on its financial situation. That’s easier said than done, given the current uncertainty in the economy. But secured creditors are going to be running projections anyway, said Patrick Hughes, a bankruptcy attorney and partner at Haynes Boone in Houston.
Estimate operating costs and revenues for the next 12-week to 1-year periods, taking a look at the business’ capital structure and tax obligations, he said. “What does it take to survive in the near term?’’ Hughes said. “It’s a sobering exercise. It’s disheartening. Sometimes, you realize cuts have to be made.”
A big mistake small businesses make is failing to pay taxes. What starts as a business obligation quickly becomes a personal liability, as owners will be on the hook and even criminally responsible, bankruptcy lawyers said. Make sure some cash is set aside in case the business does need to file for bankruptcy.
A handle on debt
The details of loan terms matter. Go to creditors, focusing on secured creditors first.
“Your primary concern is the lifeblood assets of your business,” Hughes said. “If you’re a trucking company, you don’t want a lender to declare a default and exercise remedies against your trucks.”
Creditors may be hardheads and won’t want to work with you. But they are more likely to take aggressive steps if you’re not upfront and transparent about the state of your business, he said.
“If your lender doesn’t have confidence because the debtor has gone turtle and won’t give information, they’re going to be more aggressive in how they handle that,’’ Hughes said.
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Your creditors may not be willing to negotiate. But lenders usually don’t want to foreclose on assets in a bad economy. If your business is viable and has a track record of making payments on time, generating revenue and attracting customers, that will work in your favor, Hughes said.
Goott frequently gets on the phone with creditors and negotiates a solution. Sometimes, she tells creditors that if they don’t negotiate, the debtor is going to file for bankruptcy. Sometimes, she just needs to tell creditors the reality of someone’s business and the chances of collecting on the debt.
One of Goott’s clients, for example, was personally liable for the debts of the business, and an ex-business partner was successful in obtaining a judgment in court. Goott was able to negotiate a payment plan over a 12-month period that lowered the interest rate on the debt.
Her one piece of advice: get the agreement in writing. When you’re relying on a verbal agreement, creditors can change their minds. Bank employees move on and you’re stuck with someone who doesn’t acknowledge the agreement. Or the employee might not have had the authority to offer a modification in the first place.
Unsecured creditors are a different matter. They can sue you; they can get a judgment. In Texas, certain assets are exempt from most judgments, including the owner’s residence, car and retirement accounts. Creditors can garnish bank accounts, however. If that hasn’t happened yet, you may want to wait and see what happens, Goott said. An unsecured creditor may sell your debt to a collection agency. Or they may go out of business. You may never get sued.
Of course, efforts to avoid bankruptcy may be unsuccessful. If creditors simply won’t negotiate and start lawsuits and the process of acquiring assets of the company, or even personal assets, it’s possible to hand over the keys, or negotiate a transfer outside of bankruptcy. You might be able to get an injunction in court, although that’s rare, Hughes said.
A bankruptcy filing can be useful because it triggers a stay — basically, the courts block landlords and creditors from evictions or seizing assets while the case winds its way through the court system.
Congress passed the Small Business Reorganization Act last year, making it easier and less costly for small businesses to file. For example, business owners normally have to pay creditors in full under a Chapter 11 reorganization to retain ownership. But a small business Chapter 11 allows small businesses to pay less than 100 percent in exchange for shelling out three to five years of the business’ disposable income instead.
No creditors’ committees are allowed, which helps lower the cost of the bankruptcy.
The CARES Act, which passed in March, also raised the cap on total debt for a small business Chapter 11 from $2.7 million to $7.5 million, allowing many more businesses to qualify. “This creates a huge opportunity for small business to restructure their debt,’’ Hughes said.
Often, bankruptcy can be avoided altogether. Goott doesn’t make any money that way. But she builds trust with potential clients. “The best thing I do for (businesses) is to give them the ability to narrow in and focus on the problem,” she said.