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Minimizing risk in your business

Running a business is risky and small businesses can be especially so. Minimizing risk in your business is crucial.

Often, SME owners put their own personal assets on the line, whether to borrow funds from a lender to start up or buy stock or equipment or by signing a guarantee in relation to suppliers and others for the debts of the business.

There are several methods of protecting personal assets from creditors, but it is a process that many don’t follow. Some are quite simple and easy to put in place. They include…

Placing assets in a spouses’ name or in a family trust

In most circumstances, creditors will not be able to make a claim upon assets owned by your spouse or held by a discretionary trust, provided that you are not the trustee. If your spouse is the trustee, then he or she is the person who will usually decide how to divide up the income or capital of a trust (or not to).

Of course, stamp duty and capital gains tax issues must also be considered before acquiring or transferring assets as well as the potential operation of claw back provisions. The loss of the principal place of residence CGT exemption or the land tax issues may be a factor weighing against doing this.

In the end, it is weighing up risk vs benefits and making an informed decision regarding any asset protection measures.

Encumbering assets if you cannot transfer them

An asset that is mortgaged to its value is not attractive to a creditor. The mortgagee in such a case is the only entity that will benefit from the subsequent sale of the asset.

A guarantee form a person without assets is effectively valueless. Often businesses don’t check to see what a guarantor actually owns.

If you seek a guarantee from a director of another business, you could make some inquiries about their credit/financial position before creating an account,

Correctly structuring your business

Sometimes it is not feasible to establish an asset-holding entity and a trading entity (as many small business start-ups are strapped for cash) but it can be a great way to protect the business assets from day to day trading risks. Even getting the type of business structure right from the beginning (sole trader, partnership, company, trust or combination etc) can have a massive impact on your business.

It is possible to establish a company with a single director and/or single shareholder. The company dealing with third parties, supplies, customers and the like is the entity that may be liable to them, not the shareholders.

The shareholders are only liable to the company for the unpaid amounts (if any) on any issued share capital. This liability is usually a nominal amount such as a dollar. Shareholders have no liability to third parties unless they agree to it, such as by giving a guarantee.

Company directors may have some liability but only in limited circumstances can the corporate veil be lifted. Courts may be prepared to lift the veil in limited circumstances, such as in the case of insolvent trading, fraud or misrepresentation, inappropriate transactions or where public policy requires it.

Charging assets (and properly recording the charge)

Before lending money to your business, a charge should be created in the correct form and that form recorded as against assets such as real property (by way of mortgage recorded at Land and Property Information or another State’s land titles registry) or against non-real estate assets (by way of a Specific or General Security Deed and making a registration on the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR)) to secure repayment of that money in preference to other creditors should the business fail.

Having proper terms of trade

Most businesses, if they have them at all, have terribly inadequate terms and conditions of trade. Often they are just copied and pasted from other documents and not tailored, leaving businesses thinking they are adequately protected when they really are not covered at all.

T&Cs should be built to protect your particular business and should be a work in progress, tweaked to solve or prevent problems that have arisen in your business from occurring again,

Avoiding personal guarantees altogether

A guarantee is a contract by which a guarantor promises that another person or entity will comply with his, her or its obligations to a third party and if they don’t, the guarantor will. The most common example involves bank loans where a guarantor such as a parent promises to repay the loan of their child if the child defaults.

Becoming a guarantor can be extremely risky, particularly when large liabilities are involved. Under most guarantees, the guarantor becomes immediately and primarily liable to repay the debt (and the lender does not have to wait for attempt to recover from the borrower before calling on the guarantee).

As a practical matter, many businesses cannot obtain finance unless a personal guarantee is provided. If this is the case however, whenever the loan is actually repaid or if the business can prove it is financial stable and secure, the guarantee should be discharged so that the guarantor cannot continue to rely on it at a later date concerning subsequent transactions.

Managing staff

One of the biggest risks to your business is that of staff leaving, and worse still, taking valuable information and assets with them.

Having appropriately drafted Employment Contracts with restraints of trade in them is a must.

Superannuation contributions

In many circumstances, superannuation entitlements can be protected from bankruptcy trustees. There may be no protection for example where the payments are made for the primary purpose of defeating creditors.

Making contributions to super is getting harder and harder with the Federal Government’s recent changes to the superannuation laws however, this can be an effective long term tool for wealth creation and asset protection. This will also usually involve the assistance of your financial planner.

Business succession planning

If you are in business with another person, what happens to your business if you or your business partner gets seriously injured or dies?

Do you have an appropriate and valid Will, Enduring Power of Attorney and Appointment of Enduring Guardians in place?

Usually having these estate planning documents is not enough. Presumably your business partner would give all of his or her assets to their spouse on their death through their Will. What if you don’t want to me in business with your business partner’s partner?

You should have in place business succession documents to deal with this such as a Buy/Sell Deed with appropriate insurances, a Shareholders Agreement (for companies), Unitholders Agreement (for unit trusts) or a Partnership Agreement (for businesses operating through a partnership structure).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Craig Pryor is principal solicitor at McKillop Legal. For further information in relation to starting a new business, commercial law, business disputes or estate planning/business succession issues generally, contact Craig Pryor on (02) 9521 2455 or email craig@mckilloplegal.com.au.

This information is general only and is not a substitute for proper legal advice. Please contact McKillop Legal to discuss your needs.

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What is a director penalty notice? (and what to do if you receive one)

WHAT IS A DIRECTOR PENALTY NOTICE?

In addition to potential liability for insolvent trading, company directors need to be aware of their potential personal liability if their company fails to remit certain amounts as and when due.

Directors will become personally liable when a company fails to remit amounts withheld under the PAYG withholding system or fails to meet its superannuation guarantee obligations.

This personal liability arises through the issue by the ATO of a Director Penalty Notice (DPN) under s. 222AOE of the Income Tax Assessment Act. If not complied with, a DPN makes the director it was issued to personally liable for the amount that the company should have paid, through imposition of a penalty.

The director’s PAYG withholding credits can also be reduced/taxed as part of the process.

The Commissioner is using the Director Penalty Notice provisions to pursue directors more and more.

The Commissioner of Taxation will usually first make a formal demand on the company seeking payment. If the company fails to comply with the notice, at the Commissioner’s discretion, a DPN may be served.

HOW TO AVOID LIABILITY

A director’s liability under the DPN is remitted if, within the 21 days stated in the DPN, the company either:

  • pays the amounts due,
  • is placed into Administration, or
  • has a Liquidator appointed.

The liability will not be remitted if the company has failed to report its PAYG withholding liability or superannuation guarantee shortfall within 3 months of the lodgement day. This encourages reporting.

Importantly:

  •  The 21 days cannot be extended.
  • Notice is given on the day the DPN is issued, not when it is or is likely to have been received.
  • A DPN is sent via ordinary mail to the last recorded residential address on the ASIC database – so these details need to be kept up to date as actual non-receipt of a DPN is not a defence.
  • The DPN provisions can also apply to new directors where, if after 30 days of their appointment, the company has not discharged its relevant liabilities.
  • A DPN can be served on a director’s registered tax agent.
  • Resigning as a director at or before the due date is no escape from the DPN regime.

Defences may be available where recovery proceedings are subsequently instituted against a director following non-compliance with a DPN.

All directors must ensure they stay completely abreast of their company’s affairs and must ensure the company meets all relevant obligations at all times.

This is why having good procedures and good advisors – whether legal, accounting, financial or otherwise – can prove invaluable.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Craig Pryor is principal solicitor at McKillop Legal. For further information in relation to bankruptcy/insolvency, litigation and dispute resolution or any commercial law matter, contact Craig Pryor on (02) 9521 2455 or email craig@mckilloplegal.com.au.

Have you just been served?

COURT PAPERS JUST DELIVERED TO YOUR OFFICE?

If you have received a Statement of Claim, Summons, Originating Process or Writ, be aware that you must act very quickly.

Replying to the person, entity or firm that issued the Court/Tribunal papers is not enough. Formal steps to file an Appearance, Defence, Notice of Intention to Defend or Reply must be taken within the relevant time.

The proper form of response varies depending on which court and in which jurisdiction the proceedings have been commenced as they each have different Rules and Regulations that apply.

Generally, a Defendant, Respondent etc will have only 28 days or such other period as may be specified in the document in which to file the appropriate response. Failure to do so in time or at all will leave the recipient open to summary or default judgment (automatic judgment against you without a hearing).

Failure to file and serve the appropriate document in response in time can have dire consequences.

A judgment can affect credit ratings, the ability to seek finance in the future and is a precursor to enforcement actions such as bankruptcy litigation, liquidation and winding up of companies, garnishee orders, writs of possession, visits from the Sheriff, notices for examination etc!

Default judgments can often be set aside, but this comes at a cost and immediately puts you on the back foot. In litigation, it is best to stay ahead of the game and be pro-active.

Most court documents are required to be served personally however, companies can be served by post at their registered office. Documents commencing proceedings for small claims (claims under $10,000) can be served by post by the court.

If a court document is served, steps should be taken to immediately seek advice from (rather than leaving it to the last few days).

McKillop Legal can assist in various ways such as:

  • seeking more details of the claim from the lawyers for the party commencing the claim,
  • filing and serving the appropriate document to prevent default judgment,
  • advising on the claim and its prospects of success,
  • filing any defence document
  • preparing your evidence,
  • attempting to resolve the matter prior to any hearing, and/or
  • if necessary, running the hearing with a barrister.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Craig Pryor is principal solicitor at McKillop Legal. For further information in relation to litigation and dispute resolution or any commercial law matter, contact Craig Pryor on (02) 9521 2455 or email craig@mckilloplegal.com.au.

Do you have customers that owe you money?

WHAT OPTIONS ARE THERE TO CHASE DEBTS?

Where a customer has not complied with the terms on which goods or services have been provided, in that they have failed to make payment as and when required and despite repeated requests, it can often be of assistance for a demand letter to be sent by a lawyer.

The letter of demand will usually require payment in full by a defined time or may propose a payment plan with payment by instalments.

McKillop Legal is often called upon to advise in relation to debt recovery issues. We find that a strongly worded demand, clearly setting out the situation and seeking payment within a reasonable period usually results in payment.

There are various options available for business owners to recover moneys due.

If a letter of demand does not result in payment, there are various options available.

Where the debt is due by a company and the debt is more than $2,000 and it has not been disputed, a Creditor’s Statutory Demand can be issued under the Corporations Act giving the company 21 days to either pay the debt or to come to an arrangement to you for payment of the debt, failing which the company is presumed at law to be insolvent and can be wound up on application to the Supreme Court.

If an individual or partnership owes the debt, a company owes the debt and it is less than $2,000 or if a company debtor disputes the debt, then usually the commencement of proceedings will be necessary (and you would need to weigh up the costs and benefits of doing so to make a commercially sensible decision).

If the debt is over $5,000 and the debt is the subject of a judgment of a court, you can issue a Bankruptcy Notice. A Bankruptcy Notice provides for payment of the debt or a satisfactory arrangement for payment of the debt to be made within 21 days, failing which an “act of bankruptcy” has been committed, entitling you to commence proceedings in for a bankruptcy/sequestration order.

Options for enforcement of judgments also include:

  • Garnishee orders
  • Write of Execution over property – where the Sheriff sells personal property, land etc
  • Instalment orders

FURTHER INFORMATION

Craig Pryor is principal solicitor at McKillop Legal. For further information in relation to business succession, estate planning, litigation and dispute resolution or any commercial law matter, contact Craig Pryor on (02) 9521 2455 or email craig@mckilloplegal.com.au