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Before You Personally Guarantee A Business Loan, Read This

By A. Thomas DeWoskin

Most small businesses owners have borrowed money to start and grow their businesses and, in most cases, had been requested by the lender to personally guarantee those debts. Sometimes the lender also requires the spouse to guarantee the debt, even if the spouse has nothing to do with the business.
In a loan context, a guarantee is a promise to pay the debt if the borrower is unable to do so.

In a business loan context, a personal guarantee is the promise of an individual, often the business owner, to pay the debt if the business is unable to do so.

Why is it important to pay attention to these personal guarantees? Because starting and growing a small business is risky. If the startup fails, the personal guarantor is on the hook for those debts. All of the guarantor’s assets can be seized by the creditor once it obtains a judgment against the guarantor.

Why is it important to pay attention to a request that the spouse guarantee the debt? Because when in Missouri a husband and wife own an asset together, such as a home or joint bank account, it is said to be owned as “Tenants by the Entirety” or TBE. In Illinois, TBE ownership is limited to homes owned by married couples.

TBE ownership is different than joint ownership. If two owners of an asset aren’t married, creditors of only one owner can reach that owner’s interest in the asset. With TBE ownership, however, only creditors of both owners can reach the asset. Obviously, it is to the business owner’s advantage not to have the spouse on the guarantee. This prevents the lender from seizing the jointly owned asset should the business fail.

Federal law protects a lender from demanding a spouse’s signature unless the spouse is a partner, director, or officer of the business or a shareholder or member. Regulation B, a provision of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, provides that a lender cannot demand the signature of a spouse who is not involved in the business if the applicant qualifies for credit without the spouse’s guarantee and the spouse is not a joint applicant. Before your spouse signs any loan documents, be sure to consult with your attorney to ensure that a spousal signature is not required.

Should your business fail, and the lender tries to enforce the guarantee, your attorney should review the loan documents to determine if you have any defenses to the guarantee. For instance, a lender cannot enforce an “embedded guarantee,” in which some provision in the loan document itself states that the owner’s signature as a representative of the borrower also serves as a personal guarantee of the loan personally. These are not enforceable.

Because of the risk inherent in signing a personal guarantee, a separate individual signature underneath the terms of the guarantee is required for the guarantee to be effective. This can be either in a separate portion of the loan document or in a stand-alone guarantee document.

Thomas DeWoskin, bankruptcy attorney with Danna McKitrick, P.C., practices in the areas of bankruptcy, creditor’s rights, and commercial law. He represents creditors, as well as business debtors, and individuals with difficult or unusual financial situations. Tom served as a bankruptcy trustee in the Eastern District of Missouri for more than 35 years. Tom can be reached at 314.889.7128 or tdewoskin@dmfirm.com.
 

Submitted 30 days ago
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