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, the last major reform being the Act for the Further Facilitation of the Restructuring of Companies (ESUG) which largely came into force as of 1 March 2012. Further modifications were implemented in a second reform which came into force on 1 July 2014.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 brgerlichen Rechts). Special rules apply in case of the insolvency of specifically regulated entities, e.g. banks (in particular, Sections 46 to 47 German Banking Act Kreditwesengesetz, KWG), payment institutes (Section 16 Payment Services Supervision Act Zahlungsdiensteaufsichtsgesetz, ZAG) or insurance companies (Section 88 German Insurance Supervision Act Versicherungsaufsichtsgesetz, VAG).
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Historically, the objective of the proceedings provided by the Insolvency Code (Insolvenzordnung, InsO) or its precursor, the Bankruptcy Code (Konkursordnung, KO) has been the collective, non-discriminatory satisfaction of creditors on a pro rata basis. To achieve this objective, the proceedings provide a framework for the liquidation of the insolvent debtor's assets by an independent court-appointed insolvency practitioner, either by way of asset-stripping or sale of the debtor's entire business, followed by a distribution of the proceeds to the creditors.
Following an increasing trend towards strengthening the chances for a restructuring of the debtor's business as opposed to liquidating it, the Insolvency Code also provides for the reaching of 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. More recent amendments to the Insolvency Code have aimed to extend the formerly scarce use of the insolvency plan procedure and shift influence on the proceedings away from the Courtappointed independent insolvency practitioners to the creditors and the debtor's management. To this end, the rights of creditors have been strengthened and hurdles for the Insolvency Court to reject an application by the debtor for selfadministration proceedings have been increased. Lawmakers have justified both changes by arguing that these innovations will encourage earlier filings for insolvency, favor restructuring versus liquidation and increase the attractiveness of Germany as jurisdiction of choice for restructuring distressed businesses.
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The insolvency proceeding can be divided into the preliminary insolvency proceeding and the final insolvency proceeding. Both stages are supervised by the Insolvency Court. Proceedings commence when the initial financial crisis of the company has led to an insolvency situation within the meaning of the Insolvency Code (see Grounds for Filing for Insolvency), prompting the management (or, in certain cases, the shareholders) to file for insolvency with the competent Court in order to avoid personal criminal and financial liability. Aside from filings by the management itself, filings for insolvency by creditors are also possible and common. As a rule, the Insolvency Court will react to the filing by appointing a preliminary creditors' committee and a preliminary insolvency administrator whose task it is to secure the assets of the debtor and to prepare the ground for the Insolvency Court's decision whether to open final insolvency proceedings.
Grounds for Filing for Insolvency
Final 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 (Zahlungsunfhigkeit), or (ii) the debtor is over-indebted, in the event that the debtor is a legal person or a legal entity which does not have at least one natural person who is personally liable without limitation, i.e. if the debtor's assets do not cover its liabilities (berschuldung).
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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. if it is predominantly probable that the debtor will become unable to meet its payment obligations when they fall due in the future (drohende Zahlungsunfhigkeit).
Regarding the question of whether a debtor is over-indebted, the crucial question is whether a positive business continuation forecast (positive Fortfhrungsprognose) can be made. The minimum requirements for the affirmation of such a positive forecast are the debtor's intention to continue its business and a continuously updated liquidity planning pursuant to which the debtor is predominantly likely to stay in business during the current and the subsequent fiscal year and to be able to pay its debts when due during the foreseeable future. The debtor's management should diligently document these facts and, depending on the situation, it can be advisable to have an outside counsel prepare a professional opinion as to whether the requirements are met.
Commencement of Insolvency Proceedings
The insolvent company itself or any creditor can file for insolvency of the company with the competent Insolvency Court, thus initiating preliminary 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. Pursuant to a reform introduced by the Accompanying Budget Law (Haushaltsbegleitgesetz) 2011 of December 9, 2010, the debtor's ability to avert preliminary insolvency proceedings by paying off the creditor that initiated the insolvency filing has been restricted. Paying off a creditor only works once. If the creditor files for insolvency of his non-performing debtor for a second time within a two-year timeframe of a previous application, he can uphold his application even if his underlying claim is subsequently fulfilled. Creditors should make sure to prepare the filing carefully and liaise with suitable insolvency practitioners in order to maximize their influence on the subsequent proceedings.
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 (Fhrungslosigkeit), 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
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company lies in Germany. Omission or delay in filing can lead to criminal and/or financial liability of the company's management personnel.
The interim period between the filing for insolvency and the decision of the Insolvency Court whether to open final insolvency proceedings is often referred to as the preliminary insolvency proceeding (vorlufiges Insolvenzverfahren) or opening proceedings (Insolvenzerffnungsverfahren). 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. Except in cases where the debtor is a small company and does not reach certain economic thresholds or where its business operations have been discontinued or the appointment would be disproportionate, the Court will appoint a preliminary creditors' committee. This committee's most important right at this stage is that it can nominate a candidate for appointment as preliminary insolvency administrator by the Insolvency Court. In principle, the Court cannot depart from this suggestion if it is unanimous and the candidate is suitable. Therefore, the preliminary insolvency proceeding is a crucial stage for creditors as they can use the preliminary creditors' committee to entrust the proceedings to an insolvency practitioner of their choice. This constitutes a significant deviation from the former law which gave over the sole responsibility for the choice of the preliminary insolvency administrator to the Insolvency Court.
Usually, upon appointing the preliminary insolvency administrator the Court will also order that all or certain transactions of the debtor require the preliminary administrator's consent, otherwise leaving the debtor's legal representatives in charge of conducting the debtor's business. However, it is in the Court's discretion to grant further powers to the preliminary administrator and even transfer the administration of the debtor's business entirely 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 resulting from business transaction with the debtor 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.
Final Insolvency Proceedings/Legal Consequences/ Reorganization by the Administrator
Final insolvency proceedings are opened by the Court if, based on the assessment of the preliminary administrator, it arrives at the conclusion that (i) an insolvency ground exists and (ii) the debtor's estate comprises sufficient assets 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's order to open the insolvency proceedings imposes a stay on individual actions and enforcement measures initiated by creditors against the insolvent
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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 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. Ordinarily, the same person who was appointed as 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 (Glubigerversammlung) has taken place. The first creditors' meeting is to be 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 company is to be liquidated or provisionally continued and restructured. It can instruct the administrator to prepare an insolvency plan (see below). If the administrator wants to shut down the debtor's business or parts thereof prior to the first creditors' meeting, he requires the consent of the creditors' committee (to the extent appointed).
Both the preliminary and final administrator are under the supervision of the Insolvency Court. The creditors can exert influence by way of the creditors' meeting and the (preliminary or final) creditors' committee (Glubigerausschuss). It is in the authority of the creditors' meeting to either confirm or exchange the final insolvency administrator. Decisions are made by a 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 on whether or not the appointment of a preliminary creditors' committee by the Court is to be upheld or, in case no preliminary creditors' committee has been appointed, whether to appoint a creditors' 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 distributed to the creditors (see below for a more detailed description of the distribution). After the proceeds have been distributed, the company is dissolved and any 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 (Geschftsbesorgungsvertrag) entered into by the insolvent company as principal, e.g. sales agency agreements, are automatically
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terminated as of the opening of the insolvency proceedings, regardless of their term. Furthermore, the administrator can decide whether to refuse further performance of certain agreements entered into prior to the opening of proceedings which have not been fully performed by both parties. Depending on his choice, the creditor's respective 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 will be void as has recently been decided by the Federal Court of Justice.
The administrator can challenge certain transactions entered into prior to the opening of insolvency proceedings which constitute an unfair preference and have an adverse effect on insolvency creditors as a whole ("claw back right"). Transactions carried out within a period of three months prior to the filing for insolvency as well as the period between the filing and the opening of proceedings are particularly sensitive. 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 granted by a group company) is challengeable if it occurred within the year before filing for insolvency. Gratuitous benefits granted by the debtor and transactions entered into with the intention of inflicting damages on other creditors are challengeable if they were entered into within the period of four years (in case of gratuitous benefits), or ten years (in the case of intentional infliction of damages) prior to the filing for insolvency.
Creditors can be differentiated as secured creditors, unsecured creditors and preferential creditors (Masseglubiger).
Preferential claims against the insolvency estate are satisfied in priority to the claims of unsecured creditors and can be enforced by legal action against the insolvency estate.
Secured creditors may, depending on the nature of their security right, have a direct claim against the insolvency estate for surrender of collateral or payment of the proceeds resulting from the realization of a security by the administrator (after deduction of certain fees). To the extent the security was not sufficient to cover the total amount of the secured claim, the remaining claim will in principle be treated as an unsecured insolvency claim. In order to improve their chances to enforce their claim and realize the security successfully, secured creditors sometimes enter into so called "pool-agreements" which can reduce complexity and sometimes improve their leverage in negotiations with the administrator.
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Unsecured creditors must file their nonpreferential insolvency claims (Insolvenzforderungen) for registration with the insolvency claims schedule in order to receive (partial) payment, if any. The administrator either rejects the filed claim or registers it with the insolvency schedule. In case of a rejection, which can be due to insolvency specific reasons such as a claw back right or due to general principles, the creditor can bring a legal action to enforce acceptance. Accepted insolvency claims entitle unsecured creditors only to a collective, equal and non-discriminatory satisfaction on a pro rata basis in accordance with the insolvency quota. The insolvency quota is determined by the insolvency administrator (under supervision by the Court and the creditors' meeting and committee) at the end of the insolvency proceedings. It is calculated by setting into proportion the distributable assets of the insolvency estate, i.e. in essence the proceeds from the liquidation of all assets after deduction of all preferential claims, all security interests to the extent paid off or settled and the cost of the proceedings including court fees and the administrator's fees, to the total amount of accepted and unsecured insolvency claims.
Certain claims are subordinated and rank even lower than unsecured claims. This affects, inter alia, claims for repayment of shareholder loans and similar transactions. Exceptions can 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 will notify the Court that a state of mass insufficiency (Masseunzulnglichkeit) has occurred. This declaration creates an "insolvency within insolvency". Transactions entered into by the administrator after the date of this notification are now preferential. The "old" preferential creditors, similar to unsecured creditors prior to the "insolvency within insolvency", are now confined to a claim against the "old" insolvency estate and are satisfied only on a pro rata basis and after the "new" preferential creditors have been fully satisfied. In an "insolvency within insolvency", unsecured insolvency claims will not be satisfied, at all. In the event that a mass insufficiency notification becomes necessary, the administrator can be personally liable to compensate damages incurred by 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.
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Apart from the above described administration by a court appointed insolvency administrator, the Insolvency Code also provides companies with the possibility to enter insolvency proceedings under self-administration (Eigenverwaltung), a proceeding comparable to Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code which leaves the debtor in possession. In self-administration proceedings, the debtor's own management remains in charge of the administration of the debtor's assets throughout the insolvency proceedings. In doing so, it is both advised and supervised by an insolvency trustee (Sachwalter) appointed by the Insolvency Court. Certain rights entrusted to the insolvency administrator in regular insolvency proceedings, such as the right to challenge transactions, reside with this insolvency trustee.
Self-administration proceedings are ordered by the Court in its decision to open final insolvency proceedings if applied for by the debtor and if no circumstances are known which lead to the expectation that self-administration will have detrimental consequences for the creditors. The preliminary creditors' committee can force the Court to approve a motion for self-administration if it so resolves unanimously. The order of self-administration can be subsequently revoked by the Court if certain requirements are met, e.g. upon motion of the creditors' meeting. A motion for self-administration should be filed with the initial filing for insolvency so that the Court appoints a preliminary insolvency trustee instead of an preliminary administrator. In case the self-administration is to be combined with an insolvency plan, the debtor can also apply for a so called "Protective Shield Proceedings" (see below).
To be successful, self-administration requires thorough preparation prior to the filing for insolvency. In practice, the debtor must gain the support of its main creditors, prepare restructuring measures and, ideally, add additional members with restructing experience to the exisiting management.
The insolvency plan proceedings (Insolvenzplan) are aimed at preserving the business of the 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 in fact be restructured. An insolvency plan can be prepared prior to, and submitted together with, the filing for insolvency, or it can be developed by the debtor or the administrator after the opening of insolvency proceedings. The insolvency plan can contain provisions with regard to assets of the debtor, insolvency claims, certain secured claims or shares in the debtor and it can provide for all types of measures permissible under corporate law, such as, e.g., a debt-equity swap by which creditors, subject to their approval, acquire an equity participation in the debtor. In order to become effective, an insolvency plan must be approved by a vote of the creditors and the shareholders. For the sake of voting on the plan, the creditors and shareholders are divided into different groups according to their type of claim or stake, such as employees, suppliers, senior secured lenders, junior secured lenders, etc. The plan must provide for equal treatment of all members within one group, i.e. each must be offered the same quota. The grouping is of
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strategic importance, as in principle, the approval by a majority of members by heads and by total amount of claims is required in every group. Refusal by individual groups to approve the plan can be overcome if the Court holds that the plan does not worsen that particular group's position compared to its situation in the absence of an insolvency plan and if the plan provides such group's members with a reasonable economical share of the assets that are to be distributed on the basis of the insolvency plan ("cram-down-rule"). Following the reform of the Insolvency Code effective 1 March 2012, this cram-down-rule now also applies to shareholders of the debtor which, under the former law, had been able to easily obstruct certain corporate measures such as the transfer of their shares to a third party under the insolvency plan.
In case the insolvency plan is approved, the insolvency proceeding ends with the payment of the creditors pursuant to the plan.
Protective Shield Proceedings
Companies can also restructure their business under Insolvency Court protection by combining an early filing for insolvency with a motion for the ordering of self-administration. Upon their application, which must be based on pending illiquidity or over-indebtedness and not actual illiquidity, and which must be endorsed by a certificate of an insolvency law expert, the Court will appoint a preliminary trustee and set a deadline of at most three months for the debtor to submit a draft insolvency plan. Upon the debtor's further motion, the Court must order a stay on individual enforcement measures and grant the debtor the right to incur preferential debt for the period until the deadline expires.
End of Insolvency Proceedings
If, after a successful recovery, the administrator can repay the company's debts , the company will be released from administration. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases creditors receive only partial satisfaction, if any. The debtor is then either deleted from the Commercial Register or released from the insolvency proceeding, stripped of all assets.
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"), in Sections 335 et seq. Insolvency Code as well as in Article 102 Introductory Act to the Insolvency Code (Einfhrungsgesetz zur Insolvenzordnung, EGInsO). 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 (exept Denmark), (ii) rules regarding the international jurisdiction in insolvency proceedings and (iii) the competence of the insolvency administrator. Under Article 3 of the Regulation the international jurisdiction is derived from the "centre of main interests" (COMI) of the debtor, which, according to the reasoning of the Regulation, shall be located where the interests of the debtor are managed. Under Article 3 (2) of the Regulation, the centre of main interests of a company
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is presumed to be in the country in which the company is domiciled. This assumption can be rebutted. As a rule, foreign insolvency proceedings also cover the 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 the debtor's domestic assets (Partikularverfahren, Sekundrinsolvenzverfahren). Outside the scope of the Regulation, in particular regarding insolvency proceedings of insurance companies and financial institutions, Sections 335 et seq. Insolvency Code apply.
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