Practically every contract has a provision that makes the bankruptcy or insolvency of one contracting party a trigger for the other party to terminate the contract. These are standard fare and rarely negotiated unless they also include a provision for the reversion back of ownership of property, often intellectual property, upon bankruptcy or insolvency. This post takes a look at these provisions and examines whether they are enforceable.

The Typical Ipso Facto Clause. Termination on bankruptcy provisions are often known as ipso facto clauses (the Latin phrase meaning "by the fact itself") because the language provides that the fact of bankruptcy itself is enough to trigger the termination of the agreement. Here’s a common provision:

This Agreement shall terminate, without notice, (i) upon the institution by or against either party of insolvency, receivership or bankruptcy proceedings or any other proceedings for the settlement of either party’s debts, (ii) upon either party making an assignment for the benefit of creditors, or (iii) upon either party’s dissolution or ceasing to do business.

Variants of this language are found in many types of contracts, including licenses, leases, and development agreements. Some provide that termination is automatic and others first require notice. Termination triggers may include:

  • Filing a voluntary bankruptcy;
  • Having an involuntary bankruptcy filed against a party;
  • Becoming insolvent (frequently the term is left undefined in the contract);
  • Admitting in writing that the party is insolvent;
  • Making a general assignment for the benefit of creditors (a liquidation alternative recognized under the laws of many states); or
  • Tripping a financial condition covenant.

The bankruptcy or insolvency of either party is frequently a termination trigger. However, when the financial condition of only one contracting party is in doubt, the more financially stable party may insist on a one-sided provision allowing it to get out of the agreement upon the weaker party’s insolvency or bankruptcy. 

Notso Fasto: The Bankruptcy Code Stops The Clause In Its Tracks. These termination provisions may be common, but are they enforceable? The short answer, which may be surprising to some, is generally "no." Two key provisions of the Bankruptcy Code lead to this result. First, Section 541(c) of the Bankruptcy Code provides that an interest of the debtor (the bankrupt company or person) in property becomes "property of the estate," meaning that the debtor does not lose the property or contract right, despite a provision in an agreement:

that is conditioned on the insolvency or financial condition of the debtor, on the commencement of a case under this title, or on the appointment of or taking possession by a trustee in a case under this title or a custodian before such commencement, and that effects or gives an option to effect a forfeiture, modification, or termination of the debtor’s interest in property.

11 U.S.C. §541(c). Translated from bankruptcy-ese, this statute means that a clause that terminates a contract because of the "insolvency" or "financial condition" of the debtor, or due to the filing of a bankruptcy case, will be unenforceable once a bankruptcy case has been filed.

A second Bankruptcy Code provision, Section 365(e)(1), governs ipso facto clauses in executory contracts, which are agreements under which both sides still have important performance remaining (discussed in more detail in this earlier post). Section 365(e)(1) provides:

Notwithstanding a provision in an executory contract or unexpired lease, or in applicable law, an executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor may not be terminated or modified, and any right or obligation under such contract or lease may not be terminated or modified, at any time after the commencement of the case solely because of a provision in such contract or lease that is conditioned on—

(A) the insolvency or financial condition of the debtor at any time before the closing of the case; (B) the commencement of a case under this title; or (C) the appointment of or taking possession by a trustee in a case under this title or a custodian before such commencement.
11 U.S.C. §365(e)(1). This statute generally makes ipso facto provisions in executory contracts and leases unenforceable.

Why Put Ipso Facto Clauses In Contracts In The First Place? If these termination provisions are generally unenforceable, why do parties seem to include them in almost every contract? There are three main reasons.

Force Of Habit. One reason is that under the old Bankruptcy Act of 1898, replaced by the Bankruptcy Code in 1979, these ipso facto clauses were enforceable. Over the years, lawyers and businesses got used to including them in their contract forms and they have continued to write them into many agreements. Since it’s always possible that the Bankruptcy Code could be changed to reinstate the old rule, lawyers often see little reason to take them out.

It Takes An Actual Bankruptcy. Another and perhaps more important reason is that the rule applies only if a bankruptcy is actually filed. If an ipso facto provision provides that the agreement terminates upon a party’s insolvency, and no bankruptcy case is ever filed, it’s possible that the solvent party could terminate the agreement using the ipso facto provision. But be forewarned: if a bankruptcy case is later filed, an insolvency-based termination made before the bankruptcy filing may not be enforced in the bankruptcy case. This means that the debtor may still have a chance to retain the rights under the contract, including assuming or assigning an executory contract during the bankruptcy case.

A Limited Exception In Bankruptcy. A third reason is that an important, albeit limited, exception to the rule applies even after a bankruptcy is filed. The exception stems less from the ipso facto clause itself and more from the rules governing assumption of certain types of executory contracts, including intellectual property licenses (at least in some circuits).

  • Section 365(e)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code, in conjunction with Section 365(c)(1), provides that an ipso facto clause can be enforceable if the debtor or trustee is not permitted by "applicable law" to assume or assign the executory contract. Simply put, if applicable law provides that an IP license or another executory contract cannot be assumed by the debtor or trustee without the other party’s consent, then the non-debtor contracting party can force rejection of the license or seek relief from the automatic stay to terminate the agreement based on the ipso facto clause.
  • Although an analysis of the law governing assumption and assignment of IP licenses and related agreements is beyond the scope of this post, you can find a detailed discussion in an earlier one entitled "Assumption of IP Licenses In Bankruptcy: Are Recent Cases Tilting Toward Debtors?

A Word To The Wise. Parties include "termination on bankruptcy" provisions in contracts all the time, despite the general rule making them unenforceable in bankruptcy. Unfortunately, some do so without realizing that the provision may be ineffective, and that can lead to trouble. If enforcing an ipso facto clause is important to one of your agreements, especially if you also seek the highly problematic reversion of intellectual property or other rights upon such a termination, be sure to get specific legal advice on your situation, including whether alternative approaches may exist to help achieve your objectives.