German Insolvency Law
German insolvency law is governed by a comprehensive Insolvency Code which entered into force on January 1, 1999 and has been amended from time to time. There is only one primary uniform insolvency procedure which applies to both individuals and companies. In the following we focus on companies. Insolvency proceedings can be initiated against any natural or legal person, excluding certain legal persons organized under public law, such as the German Federation or the German states. Proceedings can in principle also be initiated against legal entities which are not legal persons, such as private partnerships (Gesellschaft bürgerlichen Rechts).
Special rules apply in case of the insolvency of a bank (in particular, Sections 46a to 46c German Banking Act [Kreditwesengesetz, KWG]) and of an insurance company (Section 88 German Insurance Supervision Act [Versicherungsaufsichtsgesetz, VAG]).
The objective of the proceedings provided by the Insolvency Code is the collective, non-discriminatory satisfaction of creditors on a pro rata basis. This can be achieved via a liquidation of the insolvent debtor’s business, either by asset-stripping or by way of sale of the debtor’s entire business, followed by distribution of the proceeds, or by reaching an arrangement with all stakeholders by means of an insolvency plan procedure in order to reorganize the business and enable the enterprise to continue as a going concern.
The insolvency proceeding can be divided into three parts: the initial financial crisis (Krise), the preliminary insolvency proceeding and, subsequently, the final insolvency proceedings. The latter two are supervised by the Insolvency Court. After the initial financial crisis has led to an insolvency situation within the meaning of the Insolvency Code (see Grounds for Filing for Insolvency below), the management (or, in certain cases, the shareholders) of for example an insolvent limited liability company or a stock corporation, is obliged to file for insolvency with the competent court. Creditors are also entitled to file for insolvency of their debtors. As a rule, the court opens the preliminary proceedings by appointing a preliminary administrator who secures the assets of the debtor and prepares the ground for the Court’s decision whether the regular proceedings are opened.
Grounds for Filing for Insolvency
Insolvency proceedings will be opened if the Court finds that (i) the debtor is illiquid, i.e. unable to pay its debts when they fall due (Zahlungsunfähigkeit), or (ii) in case the debtor is a legal entity, it is over-indebted, i.e. if the debtor’s assets do not cover its liabilities (Überschuldung).
Pursuant to case law, illiquidity does not exist in the event of certain limited temporary liquidity gaps. Rather, the debtor is deemed to be illiquid if it has stopped making payments as they fall due. The debtor itself can also, voluntarily, file a petition on the grounds of pending illiquidity, i.e. it is predominantly probable that the debtor will become unable to meet its payment obligations when they fall due in the future (drohende Zahlungsunfähigkeit).
Regarding the question of whether a debtor is over-indebted, pursuant to current law which will be in effect until December 31, 2013, the crucial question is whether a positive business continuation forecast (positive Fortführungsprognose) can be made. As of January 1, 2014 a company will be deemed over-indebted if its assets are exceeded by its liabilities (balance sheet test), no matter whether a positive outlook exists or not. A positive outlook may, however, influence the value at which the debtor’s assets will be valued (continuation or liquidation values).
Commencement of Insolvency Proceedings
Any creditor or the insolvent company itself can file for insolvency of the company with the competent Insolvency Court, thus initiating insolvency proceedings. The Insolvency Court is not entitled to initiate insolvency proceedings “ex officio”. In the event a creditor files for insolvency of the debtor the debtor’s legal representatives are entitled to be heard by the Court.
If there are indications for the existence of grounds for the opening of insolvency proceedings, the debtor’s management must assess the company’s financial status. In the event illiquidity or over-indebtedness exists certain executives are personally obliged to file for insolvency. If a company is without management (Führungslosigkeit), the debtor’s shareholders or the members of its supervisory board can be under a personal obligation to file for insolvency.
In case of an obligation to file for insolvency, the filing must be made without delay, however, within a maximum limit of three weeks starting at the occurrence of illiquidity or over-indebtedness. The filing should be delayed this long only if realistic options exist to avert insolvency. The obligation to file a petition for insolvency also applies to the management of companies incorporated under the law of foreign jurisdictions if the actual centre of main interests of such a company lies in Germany. Omission or delay in filing can lead to criminal and/or financial liability of the company’s management personnel.
The period of time between the filing and the decision of the court whether to open final insolvency proceedings is the so called preliminary insolvency proceeding (vorläufiges Insolvenzverfahren). The Insolvency Court does not automatically open insolvency proceedings upon receipt of a corresponding filing. During the preliminary proceedings it determines whether an insolvency ground in fact exists. As a general rule, the Court appoints a preliminary administrator. Usually, the Court orders that all or certain transactions require the preliminary administrator’s consent. In this case the debtor’s legal representatives remain in charge of conducting the debtor’s business. However, at its discretion the Court can grant further powers to the preliminary administrator. For creditors who are doing business with the insolvent company at this stage, it is important to determine what kind of power has been vested in the preliminary administrator and what other restrictions the Court has imposed, for example, a stay of individual enforcement measures. Depending on this, their claims may be preferential or not. Generally, claims arising from transactions entered into by the insolvency debtor with the consent of the preliminary administrator rank only as unsecured insolvency claims subsequent to the opening of insolvency proceedings.
Final Insolvency Proceedings/Legal Consequences/Reorganization by the Administrator
Final insolvency proceedings are opened by the Court if it arrives, based on the assessment of the preliminary administrator, at the conclusion that (i) an insolvency ground exists, and (ii) the debtor’s assets are sufficient in order to at least cover the costs of the insolvency proceedings. Otherwise, the opening of insolvency proceedings will be rejected due to insufficient assets.
The court order opening the insolvency proceedings imposes a stay on individual actions and enforcement measures initiated by creditors against the company. Creditors can no longer enforce their rights regarding claims in existence as of the opening of the insolvency proceedings outside of the insolvency proceedings, with exceptions applying for the realization of certain securities.
Upon ordering the opening of insolvency proceedings, the Court also usually appoints a (final) insolvency administrator. He is charged with the administration of the debtor’s assets and business. The management of the insolvent company and the preliminary administrator are no longer in charge of the company affairs. Usually, the same person who was appointed preliminary administrator is also appointed final administrator. The (final) administrator is authorized to enter into transactions which bind the insolvency estate and grant creditors preferential claims (Masseforderungen). The administrator may try to maintain the insolvent company as a going concern, at least until the first creditors’ meeting (Gläubigerversammlung) has taken place. The first creditors’ meeting is held at the latest three months after the opening of final proceedings. On the basis of a report compiled by the administrator, the creditors’ meeting decides whether the enterprise will be liquidated or continued for the purpose of reorganization. Closure of the business or parts of it prior to the first creditors’ meeting requires the Insolvency Court’s consent.
Both the preliminary and final administrator are monitored by the Insolvency Court and, to a certain extent, controlled by the creditors through the creditors’ meeting and, at the creditors’ meeting’s option, the creditors’ committee (Gläubigerausschuss). The creditors’ meeting either confirms or exchanges the final administrator. Decisions are made by the majority that represents the majority of the value of the claims against the debtor, whereas subordinated claims confer no voting rights. Major creditors can, to a certain extent, force their will upon a minority, e.g. to accept a certain transaction. However, the Court can repeal a creditors’ meeting’s resolution on the grounds that it contradicts the common interest of all creditors. The administrator must submit certain major decisions to a vote by the creditors’ meeting. The creditors’ meeting also decides whether or not a creditors’ committee is to continue to exist and it appoints and dismisses members of the committee.
The administrator must pay particular attention to securing the debtor’s assets, the collection of outstanding claims and the decision as to whether to continue the business based upon an economic evaluation of the enterprise and the reasons for the insolvency. If the decision is made that the business of the insolvent company will not be continued, the assets of the business will be liquidated and the proceeds will be paid to the secured creditors and the rest thereof, if any, to unsecured creditors on a pro rata basis. After the proceeds have been distributed, the enterprise is dissolved and the residual claims of the creditors are essentially of no value.
The Insolvency Code provides opportunities for the administrator to reorganize the company’s business. Certain types of agreements such as assignment contracts (Auftrag) and agency agreements (Geschäftsbesorgungsvertrag), e.g. sales agency agreements, are automatically terminated, as of the opening of the insolvency proceedings, regardless of their term. Furthermore, the administrator can decide whether to refuse further performance of agreements entered into prior to the opening of proceedings which have not been fully performed by both parties. Depending on his choice, the respective creditor’s claim is either preferential or a mere insolvency claim. Different provisions and legal consequences apply to different types of agreements, such as financing arrangements, rent and lease contracts, contracts regarding the purchase of goods under retention of title clauses and employment/service contracts.
Creditors are in principle not prevented from exercising contractual termination rights by the opening of insolvency proceedings. However, if a contractual clause provides for a right of termination upon the occurrence of insolvency such provision could be held void if standing in conflict with mandatory provisions of the Insolvency Code.
The administrator can challenge certain transactions entered into prior to the opening of insolvency proceedings which have an adverse effect on insolvency creditors as a whole (“claw back right”). The most crucial period are the last three months prior to the filing for insolvency as well as the period between the filing and the opening of proceedings. However, longer challenge periods of up to ten years exist, depending on the nature of the transaction. The repayment of a shareholder loan or a similar transaction (e.g. credit on goods by group company) is challengeable if it occurred within the year before filing for insolvency. Gratuitous benefits granted by the debtor and transactions which wilfully prejudice other creditors are challengeable if they were entered into in four years (in case of gratuitous benefits), or ten years (in the case of wilful prejudice) prior to the filing for insolvency.
Creditors can be differentiated as secured, unsecured and preferential creditors (Massegläubiger). As a general rule, creditors must file their non-preferential claims with the insolvency schedule in order to receive payment. The administrator either denies the filed claim or registers it with the insolvency schedule. This decision can be disputed by the creditor. Registered claims are usually settled on a pro rata basis.
Depending on the nature of their security rights, secured creditors may have a direct claim against the insolvency estate for surrender of collateral or may have a claim to receiving the proceeds resulting from the realization of the security by the administrator (deducting certain fees). To the extent, the security was not sufficient to cover the total amount of the secured claim, the remaining claim will in general be treated as unsecured debt. In order to improve the chance of enforcing their claims and realizing the security successfully, secured creditors sometimes enter into so called “pool-agreements” to improve their leverage in negotiations with the administrator.
Preferential claims against the insolvency estate are satisfied in priority to the claims of unsecured creditors but only after the costs of the insolvency proceedings have been paid. Only the remaining cash funds, if any, are distributed to the unsecured creditors registered with the insolvency schedule. The same quota is applied to the nominal amount of their respective claim.
Certain claims are subordinated and rank even behind unsecured claims. This affects, inter alia, claims for repayment of shareholder loans and similar transactions. Exceptions apply for loans granted by certain minority shareholders as well as for lenders who have become shareholders during the company’s crisis for restructuring purposes. Subordinated claims will only be settled in the rare case that all higher ranking claims have been entirely satisfied.
Insolvency within Insolvency
In the event that the insolvency estate does not contain enough assets to satisfy all preferential creditors, the administrator declares mass insufficiency (Masseunzulänglichkeitsanzeige) to the Court. This declaration creates an “insolvency within insolvency”. Transactions entered into by the administrator after this notification are now preferential, while “old” preferential creditors are confined to a claim against the “old” insolvency estate, satisfied only on a pro rata basis and after the “new” preferential creditors have been fully satisfied. In this case, insolvency claims will not be satisfied at all. In the event that a mass insufficiency declaration becomes necessary, the administrator can be personally liable to the “old” preferential creditors.
Employees are protected by so called “insolvency money” (Insolvenzgeld) which covers wages for the period of three months. Contracts of employment are not automatically terminated by the initiation of the insolvency proceedings but may be terminated with three months notice or, if applicable, with a shorter notice period. Certain other employee rights are limited in insolvency proceedings as well.
Special Insolvency Proceedings
Besides the administration procedure outlined above there are two alternative insolvency proceedings.
Under the self-administration proceedings (Eigenverwaltung) (comparable to Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code – Debtor in Possession) the insolvency debtor’s management remains in charge of the administration of the debtor’s assets during the insolvency proceedings. In doing so, it is both advised and supervised by a trustee. The trustee is empowered with certain administrator rights, such as the right to challenge transactions. Self-administration proceedings are ordered by the court on the debtor’s or a creditor’s motion in its decision to open insolvency proceedings if the court is convinced that such proceedings will not cause any delay or disadvantages to the creditors. Alternatively, the court will order self-administration proceedings on the basis of a corresponding decision by the creditors’ meeting. Self-administration requires a lot of preparation prior to filing for insolvency. In practice, the debtor must gain the support of its main creditors, prepare restructuring measures and, ideally, install a new management with restructuring experience.
The insolvency plan proceedings (Insolvenzplan) are aimed at maintaining the insolvency debtor as a going concern and may be initiated if the economic evaluation of the debtor’s business leads to the conclusion that it can be restructured. An insolvency plan can be prepared before and submitted together with the filing for insolvency, or it can be developed and suggested by the debtor or the administrator and implemented after the opening of insolvency proceedings. The insolvency plan must be approved by the court as well as the creditors. It divides the creditors into different groups such as employees, suppliers, senior secured lenders, junior secured lenders, etc. according to their type of claim. All creditors within one group must receive equal treatment, i.e. be offered the same quota. The grouping is of strategic importance as, in principle, the approval of a majority of creditors by heads and by total amount of claims is required in every group. Refusal to approve the plan by certain creditor groups can in certain cases be overcome if the Court holds that the plan does not worsen that group’s position compared to their situation in the absence of an insolvency plan and if the plan provides them with a reasonable economical share of the assets that are to be distributed on the basis of the insolvency plan (“cram-down-rule”). In case of its approval, the insolvency plan proceedings end with the payment of the creditors pursuant to the plan.
Companies can restructure their business under the protection of insolvency procedures by combining the application for insolvency through self-administration with an insolvency plan.
However, in German insolvency practice both the self-administration and the insolvency plan proceedings are rarely ever used. Rather, the insolvent company’s business is frequently sold by way of an asset deal (übertragende Sanierung).
End of Insolvency Proceedings
If, after a successful recovery, the administrator can pay the debts of the company, the debtor is released from administration. Otherwise, as is usually the case, creditors only receive partial satisfaction in the course of the final distribution, with each unsecured creditor receiving an equal pro rata share of the proceeds once the cost of the proceedings have been deducted and preferential and secured claims have been satisfied.
International Insolvency Law
Germany has not adopted the UNCITRAL Model Law. International insolvency law is regulated in the European Regulation on Insolvency Proceedings 1346/2000 (“Regulation”), Sections 335 et seq. Insolvency Code as well as in Article 102 Introductory Act to the Insolvency Code (Einführungsgesetz zur Insolvenzordnung). Insofar as applicable, the Regulation takes precedence providing, inter alia, (i) the general recognition of the commencement of insolvency proceedings in all European Community Member States; (ii) rules regarding the international jurisdiction in insolvency proceedings and (iii) the competence of the insolvency administrator. Under Section 3 of the Regulation, the international jurisdiction is derived from the “centre of main interest” of the debtor, which, according to the reasoning of the Regulation, shall be located where the commercial interests of the debtor are managed. Under Section 3(2) of the Regulation regarding companies, the centre of interest is presumed to be in the country in which the company is domiciled. This assumption can be rebutted. As a rule, foreign insolvency proceedings cover debtor’s domestic assets if the courts of the state in which the proceedings were initiated have international jurisdiction. In spite of the recognition of foreign proceedings, special insolvency proceedings may be initiated in Germany with respect to debtor’s domestic assets (Partikularverfahren, Sekundärinsolvenzverfahren).
Outside the scope of the Regulation, in particular regarding insolvency proceedings of insurance companies and financial institutions, Sections 335 et seq. Insolvenzordnung (InsO) apply.