Limited Liability Company
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Limited Liability Company
A noncorporate business whose owners actively participate in the organization's management and are protected against personal liability for the organization's debts and obligations.
The limited liability company (LLC) is a hybrid legal entity that has both the characteristics of a corporation and of a partnership. An LLC provides its owners with corporate-like protection against personal liability. It is, however, usually treated as a noncorporate business organization for tax purposes.
The LLC is a relatively new business form in the United States, although it has existed in other countries for some time. In 1977, Wyoming became the first state to enact LLC legislation: it wanted to attract capital and created the statute specifically for a Texas oil company (W.S. 1977 § 17-15-101 et seq., Laws 1977, ch. 158 § 1). Florida followed with its own LLC statute in 1982 (West's F.S.A. § 608.401, Laws 1982, c. 82-177 § 2). At this point states had little incentive to form an LLC because it remained unclear whether the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would treat an LLC as a partnership or as a corporation for tax purposes.
In 1988, the IRS issued a ruling that an LLC in Wyoming would be treated as a partnership for tax purposes. This allowed the taxable profits and losses of an LLC to flow through to the LLC's individual owners; unlike a typical corporation, an LLC would not be taxed as a separate business organization. After the 1988 IRS ruling, nearly every state in the United States enacted an LLC statute, and the LLC now is a widely recognized business form. Many legal issues concerning the LLC are still developing, however.
In 1995, the Commissioners on Uniform Laws approved the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act. It was amended in 1996. Unlike other Uniform Acts related to business entities, such as the Uniform Partnership Act, the uniform law governing LLCs has not been influential. As of 2003, only eight states and the U.S. Virgin Islands had adopted the uniform law; the remaining states have drafted their own laws.
State law governs the creation of an LLC. Persons form an LLC by filing required documents with the appropriate state authority, usually the secretary of state. Most states require the filing of Articles of Organization. These are considered public documents and are similar to articles of incorporation, which establish a corporation as a legal entity. The LLC usually comes into existence on the same day the articles of organization are filed and a filing fee is paid to the secretary of state.
The minimum information required for the articles of organization varies from state to state. Generally, it includes the name of the LLC, the name of the person organizing the LLC, the duration of the LLC, and the name of the LLC's registered agent. Some states require additional information, such as the LLC's business purpose and details about the LLC's membership and management structure. In all states an LLC's name must include words or phrases that identify it as a limited liability company. These may be the specific words Limited Liability Company or one of various abbreviations of those words, such as LLC or Ltd. Liability Co.
The owners of an LLC are called members and are similar in some respects to shareholders of a corporation. A member can be a natural person, a corporation, a partnership, or another legal association or entity. Unlike corporations, which may be formed by only one shareholder, LLCs in most states must be formed and managed by two or more members. LLCs are therefore unavailable to sole proprietors. In addition, unlike some closely held, or S, corporations, which are allowed a limited number of shareholders, LLCs may have any number of members beyond one.
Generally, state law outlines the required governing structure of an LLC. In most states members may manage an LLC directly or delegate management responsibility to one or more managers. Managers of an LLC are usually elected or appointed by the members. Some LLCs may have one, two, or more managers. Like a general partner in a limited partnership or an officer in a corporation, an LLC's manager is responsible for the day-to-day management of the business.
A manager owes a duty of loyalty and care to the LLC. Unless the members consent, a manager may not use LLC property for personal benefit and may not compete with the LLC's business. In addition, a manager may not engage in self-dealing or usurp an LLC's business opportunities, unless the members consent to a transaction involving such activity after being fully informed of the manager's interest.
Nearly every LLC maintains a separate written or oral operating agreement, which is generally defined as the agreement between the members that governs the affairs of the LLC. Some states call an operating agreement regulations or a member control agreement. Although some states do not require an operating agreement, nearly all LLCs create and maintain a written document that details their management structure.
The operating agreement typically provides the procedures for admitting new members, outlines the status of the LLC upon a member's withdrawal, and outlines the procedures for dissolution of the LLC. Unless state law restricts the contents of an operating agreement, members of an LLC are free to structure the agreement as they see fit. An LLC can usually amend or repeal provisions of its operating agreement by a vote of its members.
A member of an LLC possesses a membership interest, which usually includes only an economic interest. A membership interest is considered Personal Property and may be freely transferred to nonmembers or to other members. The membership interest usually does not include any right to participate in the management of the LLC. Accordingly, if a member assigns or sells a membership interest to another person, that other person typically receives only the right to the assigning member's share of profits in the LLC. Persons who receive a membership interest are not able to participate as voting members or managers unless they are admitted as new members.
State law and an LLC's operating agreement or articles of organization provide the circumstances under which a person may be admitted as a new member. These circumstances vary. Usually the admission of a new member requires the consent of existing members, and in most cases the consent must be unanimous. In some cases the articles of organization do not allow for admission of new members. In others the recipient of a membership interest may be automatically admitted as a new member.
Members of an LLC contribute capital to the LLC in exchange for a membership interest. There is no minimum amount of capital contribution, and members usually can contribute cash, property, or services. By default, the total amount of a member's capital contribution to an LLC determines the member's voting and financial rights in the LLC. In other words, unless an LLC's operating agreement provides for a different arrangement, the profits and losses of the LLC are shared proportionally in relation to the members' contributions to the LLC. For example, if a member's capital contributions constitute 40 percent of an LLC's capital, that member typically has a 40 percent stake in the LLC and has more voting power than a member with a 20 percent interest.
A member may promise a future contribution to an LLC in exchange for a membership interest. If the member later fails to make the contribution, the LLC generally may enforce the promise as a contract or sell the member's existing interest to remedy the failure.
Distributions of profits or assets to members are usually governed by an LLC's operating agreement. Most state LLC laws do not require distributions to members other than when a member withdraws or terminates membership. Members vote to determine all aspects of distributions to members, including amount and timing. Because a member's share of any distribution or loss depends on the member's share of all capital contributions to an LLC, the LLC maintains records of each member's capital contribution.
State LLC statutes specifically provide that members of an LLC are not personally liable for the LLC's debts and obligations. This limited liability is similar to the liability protection for corporate shareholders, partners in a limited partnership, and partners in a limited liability partnership. Under certain circumstances, however, a member may become personally liable for an LLC's debts.
An individual member is generally personally liable for his or her own torts and for any contractual obligations entered into on behalf of the member and not on behalf of an LLC. In addition, a member is personally liable to a third person if the member personally guarantees a debt or obligation to the third person. A person who incurs debts and obligations on behalf of the LLC prior to the LLC's formation is jointly and severally liable with the LLC for those debts and obligations.
Members may also become personally liable for an LLC's debts or obligations under the "piercing-the-corporate-veil" theory. This doctrine imposes personal liability upon corporate shareholders and applies primarily if a corporation is undercapitalized, fails to follow corporate formalities, or engages in Fraud. Although the law of LLCs is still developing, piercing the corporate veil is likely applicable to an LLC that fails to follow the legal formalities required to manage the LLC. LLC statutes in Colorado, Illinois, and Minnesota specifically apply the corporate veil-piercing theory to LLCs.
A member is generally considered an agent of an LLC and thus may bind the LLC for the debts and obligations of the business. When a member has apparent or actual authority and acts on behalf of an LLC while carrying on the usual business of the LLC, the member binds the LLC. If a third person knows that the member is not authorized to act on behalf of the LLC, the LLC is generally not liable for the member's unauthorized acts. Some states also limit a member's authority to act as an agent of an LLC.
Records and Books
Many LLC statutes require an LLC to maintain sufficient books and records of its business and management affairs. This requirement varies from state to state. The books and records generally detail the members' contributions to the LLC, the LLC's financial and tax data, and other financial and management information. Like a partnership's books, an LLC's books generally must be kept at the LLC's principal place of business, and each member must have access to and must be allowed to inspect and copy the books upon reasonable demand.
Prior to 1997, the IRS generally treated an LLC as a partnership for federal Income Tax purposes. If an LLC is taxed as a partnership, its members are taxed only on their share of the LLC profits. Any gains, losses, credits, and deductions flow through the LLC to the members, who report them as income and losses on their personal tax return.
The IRS developed a system for determining whether an LLC was formed more like a corporation or more like a partnership. Under prior regulations, if the IRS determined that the LLC's operation was more similar to a corporation, the LLC is taxed as a corporation, meaning that both the LLC and its members were taxed. Specifically, the IRS observed whether the LLC had such characteristics as limited liability, centralized management, free transferability of interests, and continuity of life.
However, the IRS passed regulations in 1996, effective in 1997, that allowed LLC members to elect whether the company is a corporation or a partnership for taxation purposes, 26 C.F.R. § 301.7701-3 (2002). The regulations, known as "check-the-box" regulations, generally freed LLC owners from worrying about whether their method of operation would require them to pay corporate taxes instead of partnership taxes. Accordingly, many LLCs may operate similar to a corporation (centralized management with member owners), yet the members may enjoy taxes that flow through the entity.
Members may withdraw from an LLC unless the operating agreement or articles of organization limit their ability to do so. A member must usually provide to the LLC written notice that he or she intends to withdraw. If a withdrawal violates the operating agreement, the withdrawing member may be liable to the other members or the LLC for damages associated with it. State law frequently sets forth the circumstances under which a member may withdraw from an LLC. In many states a member may withdraw only if he or she provides six months' written notice of the intent to withdraw. In a few states, an LLC cannot prevent a member's withdrawal.
A member who withdraws is usually entitled to a return of his capital contribution to an LLC, unless the withdrawal is unauthorized. Some LLCs instead pay a withdrawing member the fair market value of his or her membership interest. The operating agreement typically provides for the method and manner of payment of a withdrawing member's interest. State law also governs those issues.
Dissolution means the legal end of an LLC's existence. In most states an LLC legally dissolves upon the death, disability, withdrawal, Bankruptcy, or expulsion of a member. These occurrences are generally called disassociations. Other circumstances that bring about dissolution include bankruptcy of the LLC, a court order, or the fulfillment of the LLC's stated period of duration.
Most states provide for the continuation of an LLC after the disassociation or withdrawal of a member. Continuation after a member's disassociation usually requires the remaining members' unanimous consent. Some states require that the articles of organization or operating agreement allow for the continuation of the business after a member's disassociation. Some states allow an LLC's articles of organization or operating agreement to require the continuation of the business after a member's dissociation even if the remaining members do not provide unanimous consent.
If an LLC dissolves, state law and the LLC's operating agreement usually outline the process for winding up the LLC's business. In this process the LLC pays off its remaining creditors and distributes any remaining assets to its members. The LLC's creditors receive priority. Although members may be creditors, they are not creditors in determining the members' distributive shares of any remaining assets. After the LLC pays off its creditors, and only then, it distributes the remaining assets to its members, either in proportion to the members' shares of profits or under some other arrangement outlined in the operating agreement. After an LLC winds up its business, most states require it to file articles of dissolution.
Callison, J. William, and Maureen A. Sullivan. 1994. Limited Liability Companies: A State-by-State Guide to Law and Practice. St. Paul, Minn.: West.
Casey, Robert R. 2002. "Planning for Entity Choice After the 'Check-the-Box' Regulations." American Law Institute-American Bar Association Continuing Legal Education.
Ribstein, Larry E., and Robert R. Keatinge. 1995. Ribstein and Keatinge on Limited Liability Companies. Colorado Springs: Shepard's/McGraw-Hill.
Whynott, Philip P. 1999. The Limited Liability Company. Costa Mesa, Calif.: James.
Wolf-Smith, Risa L., and Robert R. Keatinge. 1994. "Start with Limited Partnership Agreement." Journal of Limited Liability Companies 1 (summer).