Articles > Construction law in California

U.S. Bankruptcy Code Section 547:
The 90-Day “Preferential Payment”

by William L. Porter, Attorney at Law

Many businesses are surprised to learn that there is a Bankruptcy Code provision, commonly referred to as the “Preferential Payment Rule,” which generally provides that where a debtor makes a payment to a creditor and the debtor files bankruptcy within 90 days thereafter, the creditor can often be forced by the Bankruptcy Court to pay all the sums paid by the debtor back into the bankruptcy estate for distribution to general creditors. When the creditor is an “insider” with the debtor the time period increases from 90 days to one year. This Rule is found in U.S. Bankruptcy Code section 547. The impact of this rule is often devastating to those who have received payment and disbursed it to their own creditors and no longer have the funds to pay to the bankruptcy court.

Some common general exceptions to the preferential payment rule are:

  1. Where the payment was made as part of a contemporaneous exchange for new value given; or
  2. Where the payment was made in the “ordinary course of business” between the debtor and creditor (note: this has sometimes been held to mean that invoices must be paid within the time period required on the invoice); or
  3. Where the transfer creates a security interest in property acquired by the debtor securing a new value given after signing a security agreement describing the property as collateral and given by or on behalf of the secured party to enable the debtor to acquire the property and where the debtor does acquire the property.

There are other exceptions to the preferential payment rule and this description gives only the most cursory description of Bankruptcy Code section 547 and the body of law that surrounds it.

These claims can sometimes be resolved by demonstrating one of the defenses to the claim or by compromising with the bankruptcy trustee in a discounted settlement. If this issue arises, contact an attorney with experience in dealing with preferential payment claims.

The exact text of Bankruptcy Code section 547 as well as legislative commentary and rules of recent revisions as of January 1, 2005, follows:

TITLE 11 – BANKRUPTCY
CHAPTER 5 – CREDITORS, THE DEBTOR, AND THE ESTATE
SUBCHAPTER III – THE ESTATE

Sec. 547. Preferences

  (a) In this section–
    (1) “inventory'” means personal property leased or furnished, held for sale or lease, or to be furnished under a contract for service, raw materials, work in process, or materials used or consumed in a business, including farm products such as crops or livestock, held for sale or lease;
    (2) “new value” means money or money's worth in goods, services, or new credit, or release by a transferee of property previously transferred to such transferee in a transaction that is neither void nor voidable by the debtor or the trustee under any applicable law, including proceeds of such property, but does not include an obligation substituted for an existing obligation;
    (3) “receivable” means right to payment, whether or not such right has been earned by performance; and
    (4) a debt for a tax is incurred on the day when such tax is last payable without penalty, including any extension.

  (b) Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section, the trustee may avoid any transfer of an interest of the debtor in property–
    (1) to or for the benefit of a creditor;
    (2) for or on account of an antecedent debt owed by the debtor before such transfer was made;
    (3) made while the debtor was insolvent;
    (4) made–
      (A) on or within 90 days before the date of the filing of the petition; or
      (B) between ninety days and one year before the date of the filing of the petition, if such creditor at the time of such transfer was an insider; and
    (5) that enables such creditor to receive more than such creditor would receive if–
      (A) the case were a case under chapter 7 of this title;
      (B) the transfer had not been made; and
      (C) such creditor received payment of such debt to the extent provided by the provisions of this title.

  (c) The trustee may not avoid under this section a transfer–
    (1) to the extent that such transfer was–
      (A) intended by the debtor and the creditor to or for whose benefit such transfer was made to be a contemporaneous exchange for new value given to the debtor; and
      (B) in fact a substantially contemporaneous exchange;

    (2) to the extent that such transfer was–
      (A) in payment of a debt incurred by the debtor in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee;
      (B) made in the ordinary course of business or financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee; and
      (C) made according to ordinary business terms;

    (3) that creates a security interest in property acquired by the debtor–
      (A) to the extent such security interest secures new value that was–
        (i) given at or after the signing of a security agreement that contains a description of such property as collateral;
        (ii) given by or on behalf of the secured party under such agreement;
        (iii) given to enable the debtor to acquire such property; and
        (iv) in fact used by the debtor to acquire such property; and

      (B) that is perfected on or before 20 days after the debtor receives possession of such property;

    (4) to or for the benefit of a creditor, to the extent that, after such transfer, such creditor gave new value to or for the benefit of the debtor–
      (A) not secured by an otherwise unavoidable security interest; and
      (B) on account of which new value the debtor did not make an otherwise unavoidable transfer to or for the benefit of such creditor;

    (5) that creates a perfected security interest in inventory or a receivable or the proceeds of either, except to the extent that the aggregate of all such transfers to the transferee caused a reduction, as of the date of the filing of the petition and to the prejudice of other creditors holding unsecured claims, of any amount by which the debt secured by such security interest exceeded the value of all security interests for such debt on the later of–
      (A)(i) with respect to a transfer to which subsection (b)(4)(A) of this section applies, 90 days before the date of the filing of the petition; or
      (ii) with respect to a transfer to which subsection (b)(4)(B) of this section applies, one year before the date of the filing of the petition; or
      (B) the date on which new value was first given under the security agreement creating such security interest;

    (6) that is the fixing of a statutory lien that is not avoidable under section 545 of this title;
    (7) to the extent such transfer was a bona fide payment of a debt to a spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor, for alimony to, maintenance for, or support of such spouse or child, in connection with a separation agreement, divorce decree or other order of a court of record, determination made in accordance with State or territorial law by a governmental unit, or property settlement agreement, but not to the extent that such debt–
      (A) is assigned to another entity, voluntarily, by operation of law, or otherwise; or
      (B) includes a liability designated as alimony, maintenance, or support, unless such liability is actually in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support; or

    (8) if, in a case filed by an individual debtor whose debts are primarily consumer debts, the aggregate value of all property that constitutes or is affected by such transfer is less than $600.

  (d) The trustee may avoid a transfer of an interest in property of the debtor transferred to or for the benefit of a surety to secure reimbursement of such a surety that furnished a bond or other obligation to dissolve a judicial lien that would have been avoidable by the trustee under subsection (b) of this section. The liability of such surety under such bond or obligation shall be discharged to the extent of the value of such property recovered by the trustee or the amount paid to the trustee.
  (e)(1) For the purposes of this section–
    (A) a transfer of real property other than fixtures, but including the interest of a seller or purchaser under a contract for the sale of real property, is perfected when a bona fide purchaser of such property from the debtor against whom applicable law permits such transfer to be perfected cannot acquire an interest that is superior to the interest of the transferee; and
    (B) a transfer of a fixture or property other than real property is perfected when a creditor on a simple contract cannot acquire a judicial lien that is superior to the interest of the transferee.

  (2) For the purposes of this section, except as provided in paragraph (3) of this subsection, a transfer is made–
    (A) at the time such transfer takes effect between the transferor and the transferee, if such transfer is perfected at, or within 10 days after, such time, except as provided in subsection (c)(3)(B);
    (B) at the time such transfer is perfected, if such transfer is perfected after such 10 days; or
    (C) immediately before the date of the filing of the petition, if such transfer is not perfected at the later of–
      (i) the commencement of the case; or
      (ii) 10 days after such transfer takes effect between the transferor and the transferee.

  (3) For the purposes of this section, a transfer is not made until the debtor has acquired rights in the property transferred.
  (f) For the purposes of this section, the debtor is presumed to have been insolvent on and during the 90 days immediately preceding the date of the filing of the petition.
  (g) For the purposes of this section, the trustee has the burden of proving the avoidability of a transfer under subsection (b) of this section, and the creditor or party in interest against whom recovery or avoidance is sought has the burden of proving the nonavoidability of a transfer under subsection (c) of this section.

(Pub. L. 95-598, Nov. 6, 1978, 92 Stat. 2597; Pub. L. 98-353, title III,
Secs. 310, 462, July 10, 1984, 98 Stat. 355, 377; Pub. L. 99-554, title
II, Sec. 283(m), Oct. 27, 1986, 100 Stat. 3117; Pub. L. 103-394, title
II, Sec. 203, title III, Sec. 304(f), Oct. 22, 1994, 108 Stat. 4121,
4133.)

Historical and Revision Notes
Legislative Statements

  No limitation is provided for payments to commodity brokers as in section 766 of the Senate amendment other than the amendment to section 548 of title 11. Section 547(c)(2) protects most payments.
  Section 547(b)(2) of the House amendment adopts a provision contained in the House bill and rejects an alternative contained in the Senate amendment relating to the avoidance of a preferential transfer that is payment of a tax claim owing to a governmental unit. As
provided, section 106(c) of the House amendment overrules contrary language in the House report with the result that the Government is subject to avoidance of preferential transfers.
  Contrary to language contained in the House report, payment of a debt by means of a check is equivalent to a cash payment, unless the check is dishonored. Payment is considered to be made when the check is delivered for purposes of sections 547(c)(1) and (2).
  Section 547(c)(6) of the House bill is deleted and is treated in a different fashion in section 553 of the House amendment.
  Section 547(c)(6) represents a modification of a similar provision contained in the House bill and Senate amendment. The exception relating to satisfaction of a statutory lien is deleted. The exception for a lien created under title 11 is deleted since such a lien is a statutory lien that will not be avoidable in a subsequent bankruptcy.
  Section 547(e)(1)(B) is adopted from the House bill and Senate amendment without change. It is intended that the simple contract test used in this section will be applied as under section 544(a)(1) not to require a creditor to perfect against a creditor on a simple contract in the event applicable law makes such perfection impossible. For example,
a purchaser from a debtor at an improperly noticed bulk sale may take subject to the rights of a creditor on a simple contract of the debtor for 1 year after the bulk sale. Since the purchaser cannot perfect against such a creditor on a simple contract, he should not be held responsible for failing to do the impossible. In the event the debtor goes into bankruptcy within a short time after the bulk sale, the trustee should not be able to use the avoiding powers under section 544(a)(1) or 547 merely because State law has made some transfers of personal property subject to the rights of a creditor on a simple contract to acquire a judicial lien with no opportunity to perfect against such a creditor.
  Preferences: The House amendment deletes from the category of transfers on account of antecedent debts which may be avoided under the preference rules, section 547(b)(2), the exception in the Senate amendment for taxes owed to governmental authorities. However, for purposes of the ``ordinary course'' exception to the preference rules contained in section 547(c)(2), the House amendment specifies that the 45-day period referred to in section 547(c)(2)(B) is to begin running, in the case of taxes from the last due date, including extensions, of the return with respect to which the tax payment was made.

Senate Report No. 95-989

  This section is a substantial modification of present law. It modernizes the preference provisions and brings them more into conformity with commercial practice and the Uniform Commercial Code.
  Subsection (a) contains three definitions. Inventory, new value, and receivable are defined in their ordinary senses, but are defined to avoid any confusion or uncertainty surrounding the terms.
  Subsection (b) is the operative provision of the section. It authorizes the trustee to avoid a transfer if five conditions are met. These are the five elements of a preference action. First, the transfer must be to or for the benefit of a creditor. Second, the transfer must be for or on account of an antecedent debt owed by the debtor before the transfer was made. Third, the transfer must have been made when the debtor was insolvent. Fourth, the transfer must have been made during the 90 days immediately preceding the commencement of the case. If the transfer was to an insider, the trustee may avoid the transfer if it was made during the period that begins one year before the filing of the petition and ends 90 days before the filing, if the insider to whom the transfer was made had reasonable cause to believe the debtor was insolvent at the time the transfer was made.
  Finally, the transfer must enable the creditor to whom or for whose benefit it was made to receive a greater percentage of his claim than he would receive under the distributive provisions of the bankruptcy code. Specifically, the creditor must receive more than he would if the case were a liquidation case, if the transfer had not been made, and if the
creditor received payment of the debt to the extent provided by the provisions of the code.
  The phrasing of the final element changes the application of the greater percentage test from that employed under current law. Under this language, the court must focus on the relative distribution between classes as well as the amount that will be received by the members of the class of which the creditor is a member. The language also requires
the court to focus on the allowability of the claim for which the preference was made. If the claim would have been entirely disallowed, for example, then the test of paragraph (5) will be met, because the creditor would have received nothing under the distributive provisions of the bankruptcy code.
  The trustee may avoid a transfer of a lien under this section even if the lien has been enforced by sale before the commencement of the
case,
  Subsection (b)(2) of this section in effect exempts from the preference rules payments by the debtor of tax liabilities, regardless of their priority status.
  Subsection (c) contains exceptions to the trustee's avoiding power. If a creditor can qualify under any one of the exceptions, then he is protected to that extent. If he can qualify under several, he is protected by each to the extent that he can qualify under each.
  The first exception is for a transfer that was intended by all parties to be a contemporaneous exchange for new value, and was in fact substantially contemporaneous. Normally, a check is a credit transaction. However, for the purposes of this paragraph, a transfer involving a check is considered to be “intended to be contemporaneous,” and if the check is presented for payment in the normal course of affairs, which the Uniform Commercial Code specifies as 30 days, U.C.C. Sec. 3-503(2)(a), that will amount to a transfer that is “in fact substantially contemporaneous.”
  The second exception protects transfers in the ordinary course of business (or of financial affairs, where a business is not involved) transfers. For the case of a consumer, the paragraph uses the phrase “financial affairs” to include such nonbusiness activities as payment of monthly utility bills. If the debt on account of which the transfer was made was incurred in the ordinary course of both the debtor and the transferee, if the transfer was made not later than 45 days after the debt was incurred, if the transfer itself was made in the ordinary course of both the debtor and the transferee, and if the transfer was
made according to ordinary business terms, then the transfer is protected. The purpose of this exception is to leave undisturbed normal financial relations, because it does not detract from the general policy of the preference section to discourage unusual action by either the debtor or his creditors during the debtor's slide into bankruptcy.
  The third exception is for enabling loans in connection with which the debtor acquires the property that the loan enabled him to purchase after the loan is actually made.
  The fourth exception codifies the net result rule in section 60c of current law [section 96(c) of former title 11]. If the creditor and the debtor have more than one exchange during the 90-day period, the exchanges are netted out according to the formula in paragraph (4). Any new value that the creditor advances must be unsecured in order for it to qualify under this exception.
  Paragraph (5) codifies the improvement in position test, and thereby overrules such cases as DuBay v. Williams, 417 F.2d 1277 (C.A.9, 1966), and Grain Merchants of Indiana, Inc. v. Union Bank and Savings Co., 408 F.2d 209 (C.A.7, 1969). A creditor with a security interest in a floating mass, such as inventory or accounts receivable, is subject to preference attack to the extent he improves his position during the 90-day period before bankruptcy. The test is a two-point test, and requires determination of the secured creditor's position 90 days before the petition and on the date of the petition. If new value was first given after 90 days before the case, the date on which it was first given substitutes for the 90-day point.
  Paragraph (6) excepts statutory liens validated under section 545 from preference attack. It also protects transfers in satisfaction of such liens, and the fixing of a lien under section 365(j), which protects a vendee whose contract to purchase real property from the debtor is rejected.
  Subsection (d), derived from section 67a of the Bankruptcy Act [section 107(a) of former title 11], permits the trustee to avoid a transfer to reimburse a surety that posts a bond to dissolve a judicial lien that would have been avoidable under this section. The second sentence protects the surety from double liability.
  Subsection (e) determines when a transfer is made for the purposes of the preference section. Paragraph (1) defines when a transfer is perfected. For real property, a transfer is perfected when it is valid against a bona fide purchaser. For personal property and fixtures, a transfer is perfected when it is valid against a creditor on a simple contract that obtains a judicial lien after the transfer is perfected. “Simple contract”' as used here is derived from Bankruptcy Act Sec. 60a(4) [section 96(a)(4) of former title 11]. Paragraph (2) specifies that a transfer is made when it takes effect between the transferor and the transferee if it is perfected at or within 10 days after that time. Otherwise, it is made when the transfer is perfected. If it is not perfected before the commencement of the case, it is made immediately before the commencement of the case. Paragraph (3) specifies
that a transfer is not made until the debtor has acquired rights in the property transferred. This provision, more than any other in the section, overrules DuBay and Grain Merchants, and in combination with subsection (b)(2), overrules In re King-Porter Co., 446 F.2d 722 (5th Cir. 1971).
  Subsection (e) is designed to reach the different results under the 1962 version of Article 9 of the U.C.C. and under the 1972 version because different actions are required under each version in order to make a security agreement effective between the parties.
  Subsection (f) creates a presumption of insolvency for the 90 days preceding the bankruptcy case. The presumption is as defined in Rule 301 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, made applicable in bankruptcy cases by sections 224 and 225 of the bill. The presumption requires the party against whom the presumption exists to come forward with some evidence to rebut the presumption, but the burden of proof remains on the party in whose favor the presumption exists.

William L. Porter is a principal in Porter Law Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California.
He can be reached at (916) 381-7868.