Unfortunately, as is the case with many legal questions, the answer is maybe. There are a number of factors to look at before that question can be answered, and most likely you would need to see a lawyer to evaluate each individual case.
Generally speaking a party suing your business, if they obtain a judgment against your business, is going to be able to collect against the assets (or at least the unsecured assets) of your business.
This can vary from getting a receiver appointed to force the liquidation of company assets, to freezing business bank accounts, or even having the Sheriff go in and collect cash directly from the cash register to help satisfy the judgment. Thus, if your business has more value in assets than the potential judgment amount, it may be worth contesting the lawsuit or trying to reach a settlement. If not, then you can explore whether you can simply close up shop and move on.
Under Wisconsin law you are not allowed to simply close up shop and raid all of the assets of the business just to avoid a creditor. Neither are you allowed to sell all of the assets to a friend or relative (or anyone for that matter) for a severe discount just to avoid creditors. For example, if your business was Bob’s cleaning Company Inc. and your business were sued, you cannot simply sell all of your business assets to your brother for $1 and open up Joe’s Cleaning Company Inc. This would be known as a “fraudulent transfer” and is covered by Wis. Stat. Section 242.04
242.04 Transfers fraudulent as to present and future creditors.
(1) A transfer made or obligations incurred by a debtor is fraudulent as to a creditor, whether the creditor’s claim arose before or after the transfer was made or the obligation was incurred, if the debtor made the transfer or incurred the obligation:
(a) With actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud any creditor of the debtor; or
The statute provides some guidelines for determining “intent to hinder, delay or defraud any creditor of the debtor.” Some of those include:
- The transfer or obligation was to an insider;
- The debtor retained possession or control of the property transferred after the transfer;
- Before the transfer was made or the obligation was incurred, the debtor had been sued or threatened with suit;
- The transfer occurred shortly before or shortly after a substantial debt was incurred; and
- The debtor transferred the essential assets of the business to a lienor who transferred the assets to an insider of the debtor.
Additionally, it is considered to be a fraudulent transfer if the transfer is made:
242.04(1)(b) Without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer or obligation, and the debtor:
1. Was engaged or was about to engage in a business or a transaction for which the remaining assets of the debtor were unreasonably small in relation to the business or transaction; or
2. Intended to incur, or believed or reasonably should have believed that the debtor would incur, debts beyond the debtor’s ability to pay as they became due.
Not only does this statute prevent you from intentionally disposing of assets to avoid creditors, it also raises issues if you are intending to legitimately sell your business’s assets and you have been sued or you have outstanding creditors. You need to ensure that the transfer cannot be categorized as a fraudulent one.
In any event, if you or your business is sued it is best to immediately see a lawyer who can explore your options with you. If you play your cards right though, one of those options may be to simply close your doors and move on to your next, hopefully more successful, venture.
Sean M. Sweeney is a shareholder at Halling & Cayo. His practice focuses on business litigation, civil litigation, stock broker fraud, business transnational law, and real estate law. Sean represents investors, small business owners, and companies locally in Wisconsin, all over the United States, as well as internationally with clients in Canada, Germany, and Australia.
Email Sean: [email protected]