Business Debt in a Sole Proprietorship

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Business debt mixed with our personal finances

DFA Reader Micki asked:

How should we begin to address this financial debt? How do we untangle our personal/business debt and does it even matter since our business is a sole proprietorship? (I have worked outside the business to earn extra money, but my absence cripples the business even more.)

Here is an explanation of their detailed situation:

I have been married for 20 years and have 3 teenage children. My husband, Ron and I own a small wholesale business and have done so for about 15 years. My husband initially started the business, and I took care of bookkeeping. As Ron discussed the venture with his father, Bill, he was encouraged to allow Bill to “help” him; So, because the two had a strong relationship, Ron agreed. Bill took over all finances while Ron was responsible for all sales and customer/vendor relationships and activities. I had entered all invoices and bills into the computer. Bill had never used a computer and refused to do so, therefore, all financial records were kept in his home and all bills and payments sent there as well. My mother-in-law entered all receipts, bills, and taxes. Any time questions arose about the finances, we were assured things were handled and that was Bill’s job. We eventually conceded control. We knew the sales numbers and monthly expenditures and felt confident in our business stability. The business grew quickly and was very profitable. At this point, Bill encouraged Ron to take on a partner who agreed to invest capital in return for a percentage of profits. Trusting his father’s advice, Ron agreed. Terms were agreed upon including a set draw for Bill and commissions for Ron. We spent months developing relationships with vendors that resulted in a preliminary agreement for importation and exclusive rights to inventory. After a short time, Bill realized that Ron’s income was increasing and became dissatisfied with the plan, so, instead of renegotiating the agreement, Bill began paying himself bonuses and selling merchandise to his “friends” under the table and pocketing the money. Our business began losing inventory by the thousands each quarter. The financial partner discovered the inconsistencies and insisted on immediate full return of his investment or face legal action. We paid this from our personal accounts, since Bill insisted there was no other way. Then Ron entered the office one afternoon to hear his father berating our importer for his lack of English skills and culture. He insulted the vendor’s daughter to whom we were personally close and whose wedding my husband had attended and explained that our company had no need of their involvement. The relationship was irreparably severed. Gradually, Ron’s time at the office was increasingly spent arriving late, taking long lunches, napping at his desk, then leaving early. Soon thereafter, I was involved in a severe automobile accident and was unable to work for a couple of months. When I returned, I found things even more unsettling. I overheard my father-in-law on the phone discussing business credit card payments to our vendors, and when I inquired as to the details, I was told it was not my business. Bill was handling the finances. This was the “final straw”. After many years of his promises to retire and leave the company to us, he again gave a date of his departure, and, on that day, we held him to it. He was enraged. He threatened to bankrupt us and said personal things I never imagined a father could say to his son. Upon his leaving he brought bills that we were now responsible for assuring us he would bankrupt our business if we held him responsible for any debt. We were hundreds of thousands in credit card debt. He had apparently forged Ron’s name on some documentation and, on others, had simply claimed full decision-making ability. Ron refused to hold Bill legally responsible or to claim bankruptcy on moral grounds, and we have since been tortured month after month with the magnitude of the debt with which we have been saddled. We continue to pay the bills on time, even those that are in Bill’s name, and his credit has been bolstered as a result. We struggle daily to “rob Peter to pay Paul”. The situation has, over three years time, broken us and nearly our marriage. Initially we were able to begin recovery and advanced repayment of the debts. Then the economy failed. Our business was in the direct line of losses, and customer bankruptcies hit us hard. I am responsible for all finances now, and it is overwhelming. Ron cannot reason with the situation and refuses to talk it through. He did make the decision to use all our available personal credit to shore up the business. We had previously made the decision not to carry any revolving debt. He has cut off all friendships and relationships and looks to me to be his strength. I am at the end. We take full responsibility for our failure to adamantly address the financial questions with his father. We are now paying the price for that mistake. We have forgiven Bill. It remains difficult, however, each month as we see Ron’s parents brandishing new purchases as we struggle to meet minimal obligations and upcoming college expenses. So I guess we are in the process of continual forgiveness.

Business debt, personal finance, and family partnerships

Unfortunately, there is no way to “untangle” your debt from the business. You say it is a sole-proprietorship, although to me it appears to be a partnership, both of which leave the proprietors/partners personally liable for business debt, unless they are incorporated. How to address this debt is more complicated. It is one thing to acknowledge that money is owed, in this case, it will be figuring out what to do about it that will be tricky.

The first thing that strikes me about this situation is how far back the problem goes. You say you have had this business (and these financial problems) for 15 years. Any situation that long in the making will not be fixed quickly. However, decisions must be made and a course set to correct the situation, or you may eventually find yourself in bankruptcy. You say that until recently the two of you did not carry revolving debt, so you know how to handle money, but there may be no realistic way for you to support your business and finance your father-in-laws debts.

Your story is the perfect example of why people should be careful with whom and how they conduct business. Reluctance to confront family members when they do something wrong often makes a bad situation worse. This appears to have been the case here, and I think the first step to dealing with your situation is to be honest with yourself about your father-in-law’s actions. He robbed you and your husband when he paid himself more than was agreed upon and stole the merchandise he sold off the books.

It is one thing to admit that your father-in-law stole from you, quite another to decide what to do about it. I understand your husband’s reluctance to take legal action against his father, however I believe it is misguided. While the Bible does say we are not to take Christian brothers to court, in context that is an injunction against civil disputes. You are dealing with criminal actions, and I see nothing immoral about pursuing legal action in this case, especially if your father will not do right by you after speaking with church leadership about the situation.

I would recommend meeting with an attorney to discuss options. Once you have a good idea of what is open to you, you will be able to decide what you want to do. It sounds to me like your-father-in-law was a full partner in the business, which would make him equally liable for business debt. Even if you pursue no other legal action, at the very least, I would not make any more payments on anything in your father-in-law’s name, what would be the point? If they are his debts, he should pay them, and you gain nothing by paying them for him. Let the collectors come knocking on his door. His threat to bankrupt you if you send him his bills rings hollow.

Finally, I would recommend that the two of you reconnect with your church, other family, and friends. Meet with your pastor to discuss your struggles, especially where you are concerned about legal action against family, and how these business troubles are affecting your marriage. This type of situation is not the kind of thing you two can afford to handle on your own. You need the prayers of others, you need fellowship, and you need counsel. You need to face this challenge as a team, communicate with each other, and make decisions together. Remember that your marriage is more important than the business.

Do You Have Any Other Advice for Micki?

Something you think I missed? Drop a line in the comments below.

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