Many businesses not only sell products or services to another company, they also buy products and services from that company.  If you do business with a customer or vendor and you each end up owing the other money, you may have the right to "set off" the amount the other company owes you against the amount you owe it.  

Setoff. When a complete setoff is made, no cash changes hands but each side’s debt to the other is canceled. In some business relationships, including in the telecommunications industry, these kinds of cross-debts occur frequently and setoffs can be an important part of the payment structure. In others, setoffs only come up if one side fails to pay what it owes.  The term is also used to describe a bank’s right to sweep or set off the amounts owed on a loan against amounts the borrower has on deposit at the bank. 

Recoupment. A related concept called "recoupment" is similar to a setoff but it applies only when the offsetting amount or other defense to payment arises from the same contract or transaction that gives rise to your debt to the other company.

Impact of bankruptcy. The U.S. Bankruptcy Code does not create any setoff rights, but with certain limitations it does recognize the rights that exist under other applicable law.  However, with a bankruptcy filing comes a new risk that is similar to the preference risk that arises when you receive a direct payment before a bankruptcy.

  • If you made a setoff within 90 days before the bankruptcy filing, the debtor company (or its bankruptcy trustee, if one has been appointed) may have a right to sue you to recover the amount of that pre-bankruptcy setoff.  
  • Be sure to maintain detailed records of any setoffs made, along with the amounts each side owed the other during the business relationship. These records can be very helpful to your defense if such a claim is ever brought.

Setoff after bankruptcy. Making a setoff after a bankruptcy is filed — also known as a "post-petition" setoff — is allowed only in narrow circumstances.  Among other technical requirements, the debts have to be mutual between you and the actual debtor (not with one of its subsidiaries, for example) and they have to have arisen before the bankruptcy was filed.  Another very important point to remember is that you cannot make a setoff unless the bankruptcy court first grants you relief from the automatic stay that arises as soon as a company files for bankruptcy.

Get legal advice. This is a complex area of bankruptcy law and neither setoffs nor recoupments should be attempted after a bankruptcy has been filed without the advice of a bankruptcy attorney.  The old adage “Don’t try this at home” definitely applies.