If you are an investor in a company funded by a Small Business Administration (“SBA”) loan, then you may wondering whether you are liable for the company debt should the business fail. The Borrower is principally responsible for repayment of the underlying promissory note associated with the SBA loan, but what about shareholders and members (in the case of a limited liability company) — are they liable too? It depends.
Am I automatically responsible for the business debt if I am a shareholder?
No, shareholders who simply invested in the company are not automatically liable for the business debt of the company. This is true whether your business entity is a corporation or a limited liability company (“LLC”). A shareholder or member will not be liable, unless they sign an Unconditional Guarantee agreement for the SBA loan (SBA Form 148 in most cases). It is the guarantee agreement itself and not the fact they are a shareholder or member of the Borrower that creates the personal liability for the repayment of the SBA loan in the event of a default.
What is the magic percentage that triggers the SBA’s requirement for a personal guarantee on an SBA loan?
The SBA requires a personal guarantee from all owners with at least 20% ownership in the Borrower. This means of you are a stockholder or member in an LLC and own 20% or more of the company you will be asked to sign a personal guarantee.
What If my spouse owns 5% and I own less than 20%, will either of us still have to sign a guaranty agreement?
If a shareholder or member’s spouse owns 5% or more of the Borrower and the combined ownership interest of both spouses is 20% or more, then the spouse must also provide a full personal guarantee. This is set forth in SBA’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP 50 10 5(J)).
What if I am a shareholder and I own 5% or less of the Borrower?
SBA Lenders may still require a guarantee from a shareholder or member’s spouse if they think it is necessary to perfect their lien on collateral pledged by a shareholder or member. In such cases, it may be that the lender will ask the spouse to sign SBA Form 148L which limits the spouses liability to their interest in specific collateral pledged by their husband or wife; this is called an Unconditional Limited Guarantee.
In many states, it is standard practice for an SBA lender to ask a loan guarantor to pledge their home as collateral in connection with their unconditional guaranty. If the business loan you guarantee goes into default, your homestead could be at risk of foreclosure. However, the SBA may not always urge a lender to foreclosure on your home, even if the SBA and the SBA Lender have a legal right to do so. Here are a few factors that may impact this decision:
Do you have a first mortgage on your home ahead of the SBA loan? This may help you.
The general rule in property law is that liens have priority in the order that they are filed in the county records office. This is known as the first in time, first in right rule. Based on this principle, a recorded interest has priority over later recorded interests. If your first mortgage is ahead of the SBA loan, it will make foreclosure less attractive to the SBA Lender since foreclosure proceeds must first be applied to payoff the first mortgage entirely, plus the costs of foreclosure before the second mortgage holder receives anything.
If your home equity is zero or very low, it may be that the SBA lender will choose to do nothing for now and wait hoping the home will increase in value over time. In many cases, if this occurs, a foreclosure may not be initiated for years and then only if the value of your home has substantially increased and some factor has brought this to the attention of your SBA Lender or the SBA.
What is Home Equity?
Home equity is the market value of a homeowner’s unencumbered interest in their real property, that is, the difference between the home’s fair market value and the outstanding balance of all liens on the property. For example, if your home is worth $225,000 and you have a first mortgage to Bank X for $100,000, then you have $125,000 of “Equity” in your property and, in an SBA default situation, that might tempt the SBA Lender or the SBA to foreclose. However, if you add a second mortgage of $75,000, then you only have $50,000 of equity in your property and, in a foreclosure setting, this may not be enough for the SBA Lender (in a third position behind your second mortgage) to foreclose. Be sure to review all your mortgage debt with your attorney if you are discussing the consequences of an SBA loan default.
Can I make the SBA or the SBA Lender an Offer to Release My Home as Collateral?
Yes, you can make the SBA Lender an Offer in Compromise to settle your total liability associated with your personal guaranty or you can just make an offer for the release of the lien on your home. But, use caution. If you obtain a release of SBA Lender’s lien on your home without also completely settling your liability under your personal guaranty, you might later be sued by the SBA Lender. If the SBA Lender obtains a judgment, and then places a judgment lien on you real property, your home may be at risk all over again.
Handling the release of an SBA lien on your home correctly may require professional assistance. It is important to consider this action as a part of your overall strategy. In many cases, it may be possible to combine the release of the lien on your home as part of your complete offer in compromise settlement package. But, many variables can affect the outcome, so be sure to discuss your goals completely with your attorney and/or CPA.
If the Small Business Administration (SBA) has accepted your offer in compromise, then congratulations are in order. But, be warned, you must follow the terms of your offer precisely and make all payments on time or risk default. In many cases we are approached by well intentioned people who established settlements with the SBA calling for payment of the settlement in equal consecutive monthly installments; however, for one reason or another they missed a payment or two. Missing a payment can have disastrous consequences and result in a referral to Treasury, the imposition of additional collection fees adding nearly 30% to your original debt, less a credit for your prior settlement payments and the resumption of interest on the uncollected balance (this assuming the SBA agreed to zero interest settlement for you).
I knew a default was bad news – what can I do?
If you have been advised that your SBA OIC is in default you must act quickly. It may not be possible to get the original settlement back by simply making up the missing payments and a new SBA Offer in Compromise may need to be submitted. There are simply too many variables in these cases and consulting a licensed attorney with experience in this area should seriously be considered.
Missing a payment and paying ahead are both equally dangerous
How can paying ahead be bad? When the SBA accepted your offer to pay in installments, it programmed its computers to look for payment in accordance with its terms; in most cases equal, consecutive, monthly payments of an exact amount are called for under the agreement. Many people concerned about defaulting think that paying ahead can protect them from default by establishing a cushion of sort. However, that is a very dangerous train of thought. In fact, all you will do is pay down the balance and in effect short the remaining duration of your agreement (much like paying a mortgage off earlier), but the next month’s payment will still be due. When the SBA’s computers fail to register payment, you are at risk of default and the account may be referred to Treasury (this process is highly automated).
If you have paid ahead on your offer, but nonetheless received a notice of default, you should contact the SBA at once and explain the situation or consult with a licensed attorney experienced in this area. Although it may seem unfair, the government may strictly enforce the terms of your settlement to the letter. Instead of appreciating the gesture on your part, they may refer the debt to Treasury! Remember, SBA computers do a lot of this work and once transferred to Treasury, the SBA staffers may be unwilling to even discuss the matter.
Can I pay off my settlement early?
If your payment will completely pay off your settlement, then you may be able to do so safely, but you should contact the SBA or advise your attorney before doing so. The terms of your offer control and making a mistake can cost you dearly.
The SBA Offer-in-Compromise process requires a guarantor to prepare a detailed financial statement and provide very detailed supporting documentation. In fact, the whole process feels a lot like applying for your loan all over again, but is quite the opposite. Instead, the company for whom you pledged your assets and your good name as security has already received the loan proceeds and failed! Worse, as a guarantor, the SBA is now looking at you to make good on the defaulted SBA loan.
With great care and after reviewing your financial situation in detail, your professional advisor has crated an offer for you. The offer is intended to catch the eye of the government and persuade them that a bird in the hand is still worth two in the bush.
A good offer will take into account your earning potential, age, employment history, health, and the health of your dependents, your assets, and those of your spouse in some cases. All of this information rolls up into an analysis that provides the SBA with the ability to compare what they think they may be able to recover through enforced collections to what you are offering. In short, you are making the case that your voluntary offer of settlement is the better deal between the two possibilities.
After submitting your offer, which agains feels like a mortgage application and is about as thick, several weeks pass. After a long wait, the SBA has responded — they have rejected your offer! Is it this end? As you look more carefully at their response, they have made a counteroffer!
In some cases, the SBA believes that a guarantor’s offer is, shall we say, in the ballpark, but they may disagree on some points supporting your offer and feel that you could do a little better. In such cases, the SBA believes the guarantor’s offer warrants something more than just a rejection. A counteroffer represents a deal that the SBA will do. These deals are often great opportunities because a referral to Treasury Department will cost you a 28% collection surcharge on top of what you already owe. Should you take it? That all depends; it may well represent your last chance to settle this matter and avoid bankruptcy or a referral to Treasury and possible wage garnishment.
Before you accept the counteroffer, take a day or two to calmly and cooly look it over. If you believe you can make it work, accepting the counteroffer will immediately stop the referral to Treasury — all that remains is to complete the payments required. On the other hand, if you believe the counteroffer calls for too much, but is almost manageable, then by all means let the SBA know. If a deal is close, you may still be able to gain some small concessions and perhaps enough to close a deal.
Do deals really get done?
The SBA Offer-in-Compromise process is there because the government knows that not all businesses make it and that repaying these debts is not always possible without causing extreme financial hardship. The default position of the SBA will always be — pay us, but don’t afraid to tell your story and ask for relief. You have very little to lose and much to possibly gain. Not all offers are accepted, even some really good ones get rejected, but the SBA Offer-in-Compromise is an option that should not be overlooked.
There is really no way to know. Period. There are so many variables:
1. Who handles your file;
2. What SBA office is handling your file;
3. Your level of cooperation with the lender, both real and perceived;
4. Whether you have liquid assets vulnerable to traditional collection methods.
In general, the following factors will impact the likelihood of settling with the SBA:
1. The amount of the Deficiency Balance;
2. Whether a Bankruptcy would shield some or all of the Guarantor’s assets;
3. The Guarantor’s net worth, including exempt retirement assets.
4. What would a wage garnishment yield over 5 years?
5. Is the Guarantor really likely to file bankruptcy or is it a bluff;
6. The Guarantor’s health or special circumstances (e.g., hardship);
7. The costs of collection, and in particular, the likely ROI on collection activities.
In short, the SBA, like the IRS, already sees the exposed assets you have pledged as the baseline of any offer. What they want is more. The SBA is looking for an Offer, usually a lump-sum offer, that is better than any alternative that can be obtained through enforced collection activities that consume time and money and may carry an uncertain outcome.
The hard truth is that thousands of businesses fail every year and not everyone will settle with the SBA. But, the SBA Offer in Compromise represents a powerful alternative to bankruptcy in many cases.