An Outline of Shareholder and Director Liabilities When a Business is in Difficulty

When a company is insolvent the duties of the directors as its officers move from a primary duty to shareholders to a primary duty to protecting the interests of its creditors.

Shareholders’ liabilities are limited to the value of their equity and are protected from liability to creditors under what is known as the “corporate veil”.

However, if the shares are only partly paid for and the company enters formal insolvency the creditors can, via the appointment of a liquidator, demand that the shares be fully paid in order to discharge the creditors’ liability.

It is also possible that a company’s shareholders might have given a personal guarantee at some stage during their involvement with the company.  It might be that at start-up for instance, particularly when a family member has started a small business, or when the company subsequently entered a contract such as a lease, some or all of the shareholders personally guaranteed the contract and then later forget about it, especially if they are no longer directors or officers of the company as they may have been in its early days.  It can also be an issue after the shareholders have sold their shares but not discharged their personal guarantees.

Directors, on the other hand, can be held to be personally liable under the Insolvency Act 1986 for money owed to creditors. They must not sell any assets under their market value. They must not pay some creditors and not others in a way that seeks to prefer those being paid.  The fiduciary duty imposed on the directors of an insolvent company leaves them with personal liabilities that are not imposed on shareholders.

However, it is often the case with small companies that the director and shareholder are one and the same and in those situations the director must remember that he or she wears different hats as director, shareholder, employee and also as a creditor, if they have lent money to the company. This is in particular an area where repaying director loans can attract a charge of preference referred to above.

It therefore makes sense to get outside help from a business turnaround or rescue adviser if you are involved in a business as both a shareholder and as a creditor. It is in the advisor’s interests to offer realistic solutions to help restructure the company.

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