Can Directors Be Held Personally Liable For Business Debts?

If you’re a Ltd company director whose business is struggling to pay its bills and staring down the barrel of an insolvency, you might be concerned that you could be made personally liable for your business debts.

One of the main reasons people form a private limited company or a limited liability partnership is to limit their liability for company debts.

However, there are some circumstances in which you can be held personally liable for these debts.

When Can a Company Director Be Held Personally Liable for Corporate Debts?
If you've signed a personal guarantee
If, knowing the company is insolvent, you've continued to prioritise shareholders over creditors
If you've disposed of company assets below their market value or for free
If you've overpaid yourself from the company account, creating an overdrawn director's loan
If you have raised funds to repay creditors via fraudulent means, i.e. obtaining finance via inaccurate information, or accepting money for goods which you know won't be delivered
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Directors Personal Liabilities for Limited Company Debts

If you aren’t personally liable for the debts of your business, you have a lot less to worry about if your business is undergoing a company insolvency, company liquidation or company rescue procedure. In this case, a creditor will only be able to recover the monies they are owed through your business’ bank account or assets, and creditors will not be able to touch your bank account, home or personal property. Of course, any director who becomes personally liable for any of the debts has a lot more to lose.

For example, no matter what business structure you have in place, whether it’s a sole proprietorship, partnership or private limited company, if you withhold tax payments from your employees’ pay cheques, you could be personally liable for the debt to HMRC. For other types of business debt, the structure of your business and the type of contract you have in place will determine whether you’re personally liable for a business debt.

Personal Liability for Limited Company Debts

Can Sole Traders and Partnerships be Held Personally Liable for Business Debts?

If you run your business as a sole proprietorship, you and your business are legally treated as the same entity, which means you’ll be personally responsible for repaying every penny the business can’t pay. In this case, if your business does not have the money or assets to repay its debts, creditors can, and sometimes will take personal assets to reclaim the money that is owed.

Partnerships in the UK can be run as limited partnerships or limited liability partnerships. In a limited partnership, ‘general’ partners can be personally liable for all the partnership’s debts, while ‘limited’ partners are only personally liable for the amount they invest in the business.

In a limited liability partnership, the partners are not personally liable for debts the business cannot pay, so their liability is limited to the amount of money they invest in the business.

Debts from Private Limited Companies

Private limited companies are a separate legal entity to their shareholders and directors, and as such, they have no personal liability for the debts of the company. The shares in a private limited company are not available to the members of the public, so the shareholders and directors of the company will often be the same.

Despite the protection offered by limited liability partnerships and private limited companies, there are still some common ways the owners and directors of companies structured in this way can be made personally liable for company debts.

Signing a Director’s Personal Guarantee

Banks, suppliers and landlords understand that the directors or private limited companies and limited liability partnerships do not have personal liability for the company’s debts, many will refuse to extend credit or loan money to small businesses without the owner’s personal guarantee.

If you have signed a director’s personal guarantee on any loan, lease or contract, you will be made personally liable for the debt if the company is unable to pay. Typically, personal guarantees are required on loans for business vehicles or equipment, a credit line from a bank, or a commercial lease.

Circumstances alter slightly for a personal guarantee in liquidation. But the debt remains unsecured unless you have specifically offered assets as security.

Using your Property as Loan Security

In some circumstances, banks and building societies will require the owners of private limited companies and limited liability partnerships to use their home or other personally held assets as security on loan. If your business defaults on loan, the lender can repossess the asset and use the proceeds from its sale to repay the company’s debt.

Funding the business with credit cards or personal loans

If you use personal credit cards or home equity loans to increase the capital in your business, you will always be personally liable for those debts. In fact, you will almost always be personally liable for making payments on a business credit card under the terms of the credit card application you signed.

Fraud, Misrepresentations and Insufficient Record Keeping

If you lied or misrepresented any of the facts while applying for a credit or loan agreement on behalf of your business, you could be held personally liable for the debt. Similarly, if you failed to maintain a formal separation between your personal and business finances, creditors could also pursue you personally for business debts. You are also obliged to preserve and maintain accurate company accounts. If you fail to do so, you could be made personally liable for some of the company’s debts.

If your company is experiencing financial difficulties, the moment the company becomes insolvent, i.e. it can no longer pay its debts when they become due, you are legally obliged to act in the best interests of your creditors. If your company becomes insolvent and you are engaged in any of the following practices, you may be held personally liable for the debts of the company.

• Continue to trade with no intent to repay your debts
• Repay debts through fraudulent means
• Sell assets for less than they’re worth
• Favour some creditors over others
• Pay yourself and not your staff or creditors

Directors Personal Liability for Debt During Insolvency

When a company becomes officially insolvent, any insolvency practitioner will be on the look out for ‘wrongful trading’ which is an indication that the director did not behave in a way that was intended to maximise the return for company creditors. If you suspect your company is insolvent, or close to it, our suggestion is that you behave with the utmost diligence, and make contact with us as soon as possible for advice. It’s also worth checking to see whether there is an overdrawn directors’ loan account within the company as this can be quite serious as the business becomes insolvent. HMRC will want to see evidence that you:

  • Always placed creditors interests first once you understood the company’s financial position
  • Kept clear lines of communication with both creditors and shareholders
  • Did everything you could to find new business and manage your debts responsibly
  • Took Professional Advice

You can read a full article here on Wrongful Trading.

Can Shareholders be Made Liable for Company Debts?

Related to the subject of directorial liability is the question of whether company shareholders can be made liable for corporate debts. As with directors, shareholders enjoy the limited liability status which mean they are largely protected for incurring responsibility for debts. There are exceptions to this which include:

  • Where a shareholder or group of shareholders have personally guaranteed a debt
  • Where shareholders have acted improperly or fraudulently, (this holds for any individual, not just shareholders), for example using company money for personal use.

Get Free Advice Now on the Extent of Your Personal Liability?

If you’re worried about being made personally liable for your business’ debts, contact us today. We can help you meet your obligations as a company director and avoid any personal liability for your debts while undergoing a company insolvency, company liquidation or company rescue procedure.

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