What’s an ABC? If you ask ChatGPT, “ABC” is an acronym that can have multiple meanings, depending on the context—for example, referring to the alphabet. But here we are talking about a type of business liquidation process in the United States known as an Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors (“ABC”). An ABC is governed by state law and has long been viewed as an alternative to a liquidation under Chapter 7 of the US Bankruptcy Code. Although the ABC process has existed for more than a century, it now has increased interest in certain market environments due to its speed, flexibility, and comparatively lower expense than a bankruptcy proceeding.
When Does an ABC Make Sense? As a potential buyer, you want to assess potential legal risks if a target’s liabilities exceed (or are reasonably expected to exceed) its assets. In such a situation, third parties may later seek to assert that the purchase price you paid for the assets of the target was below fair value and to unwind the transaction or impose continuing liability under successor liability and fraudulent conveyance theories, among others. Unlike a direct asset purchase in such circumstances, in an ABC it’s less likely that individual creditors will bring claims against you on fraudulent transfer, successor liability, or other theories because the assets are purchased from an independent fiduciary through a legally recognized wind-down process rather than directly from the distressed company. As a company in distress, you may want to avoid the length and expense of the federal bankruptcy process.
The Basics. The specifics of the ABC process vary by state, but it generally involves four main steps, as follows:
- A company authorizes (through board and any necessary shareholder consent) the shutdown of its operations and assignment of all of its assets to a third-party assignee for the benefit of the company’s creditors. The assignee, who is functionally similar to a bankruptcy trustee, is an independent fiduciary selected by the company and typically has experience in insolvency matters, the relevant industry, or both. In many states, such as California, Texas, and Illinois, the ABC process ordinarily is initiated and undertaken with little or no court involvement. Other states, such as Delaware and New York, provide for varying levels of court involvement with the ABC process, though generally substantially less than a bankruptcy proceeding. Once the ABC commences (which includes the appointment of the independent fiduciary), the company’s board has no further role in the ABC process.
- The assignee provides notice of the assignment to creditors and other parties in interest and requests submission of claims within a certain time. The time period in which notice must be given and claims must be filed varies by state and is based on specific statutory requirements (such as in California) or, in the absence of specific statutory requirements, may be based on local practice or custom (such as in Delaware and Illinois).
- The assignee liquidates the assets, seeking to maximize the value it obtains. In some cases, the assets are sold as a going concern shortly following commencement of the ABC, pursuant to definitive documentation that has been negotiated with the proposed buyer prior to commencement of the ABC. The liquidation may take other forms as well, such as by sale of certain key assets in bulk and sale of the remaining assets through auctions or other private or public methods.
- The assignee distributes the net proceeds of sale to the company’s creditors in accordance with priorities under applicable law.
The Buyer’s Perspective. As a potential buyer, you may already be in discussions with the target company prior to the ABC process or you may become involved through the assignee. Although there are some similarities with a Section 363 sale (like a shorter period for due diligence and the potential to lose key personnel through the process), the ABC process differs in several notable respects from a bankruptcy proceeding:
- The commencement of an ABC does not (i) give rise to an automatic stay of collection or enforcement actions against the company or its property, (ii) prevent creditors from attempting to commence an involuntary bankruptcy case against the company, or (iii) invalidate contractual provisions allowing for counterparties to terminate or modify a contract.
- Unlike a sale conducted under Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code, the assignee generally cannot sell assets “free and clear” of liens and security interests—if you are buying assets subject to a security interest, the secured party will need to be paid in full or agree to release its lien. Some states that provide for judicial approval of a sale, such as Florida and Minnesota, may provide some ability for an assignee to obtain relief similar to a “free and clear” sale order in an ABC process.
- Anti-assignment provisions in leases or contracts cannot be overridden. So, any consents required under contracts that the buyer wants to assume will need to be obtained.
How We Can Help. We have successfully navigated the ABC process for our clients in a variety of states and industries, including technology, finance, chemicals, and manufacturing and maximized the advantages that acquiring assets through an ABC can provide to buyers. Although sales are usually done on an “as-is, where-is” basis, with limited ability to obtain operational or asset-level representations and warranties and without any indemnity rights in favor of the buyer, we have advised buyers in transactions where additional rights have been obtained (without the use of representation and warranty insurance).