There are a number of relatively simple strategies an organization can use to provide significant protection for its assets.
1. Separate Entities. Consider creating a separate entity (possibly a limited liability company) to hold real estate, machinery, or assets relating to a new line of business. If there were a future judgment against the corporation, the assets held in the separate entity or entities would likely not be subject to that judgment as long as appropriate formalities were followed. Tax issues can arise in connection with the transfer of assets, and these should be considered prior to any transfers. For example, the transfer of real estate out of a C corporation into a limited liability company could trigger a significant amount of tax, and thus make the transfer impractical. But if additional real estate or a significant piece of machinery or equipment is being acquired, having a new limited liability company purchase it (and then lease it to the corporation) could have significant advantages.
2. Limited Liability Companies. A limited liability company (“LLC”) is a hybrid type of legal entity that has some characteristics of a corporation and some characteristics of a partnership.
- Owners of an LLC are called members;
- They can elect to receive pass through tax treatment like a partnership or an S corporation, or to have the LLC taxed like a C corporation;
- They have limited liability like in a corporation;
- They have a great deal of flexibility in management structure.
LLCs can provide significant asset protection advantages. A creditor of an owner of a corporation (that is, a creditor of a stockholder) often can gain control of a corporation by getting control of the owner’s stock. Creditors will have a much more difficult time gaining control of an LLC. Thus, many business owners now prefer to form an LLC instead of a corporation when the need for an additional entity arises.
3. Insurance. Review all of your business insurance with both your attorney and your insurance agent. Since your attorney is not selling any insurance products, he or she can often provide an objective review of the types and amount of your business insurance. Having adequate insurance is one of the most important (and generally one of the most cost effective) ways to provide protection for your business.
4. Update Corporate Records and Follow Required Formalities. Many closely held businesses do not keep their corporate record books up to date. In the event of a lawsuit against the company, a plaintiff’s attorney can attempt to “pierce to corporate veil”. This means the corporation will essentially be ignored and the owners (shareholders) will be personally liable for the corporate debts. Following basic corporate formalities, including
- Holding an annual shareholders meeting;
- Holding regular meetings of the Board of Directors;
- Avoiding any mixing of personal and corporate assets; and
- Keeping corporate records up to date.
will all help to insure that the assets of the owner(s) of the business are insulated from any judgment against the business. One of the many advantages of an LLC over a corporation is that LLCs require fewer formalities in both their organization and operation. However, piercing of the LLC veil is also possible under various circumstances, including inadequate capitalization or failure to maintain a separate indentity (for example, failing to have a separate bank account for the LLC).
5. Business Succession Plan. Many business owners lose sleep worrying about lawsuits and other potential legal claims. While these concerns are often justified, more businesses collapse from lack of a business succession plan than from a lawsuit bought by a party unrelated to the business. Lack of such a plan can lead to fights among family members, including litigation, which can be disastrous at both a business and a personal level. Paying attention in advance to at least some form of succession plan can save an enormous amount of trouble later. Life insurance should be considered as one part of the business succession arrangement. Good business succession planning is also a form of asset protection planning.
6. General Legal Review of Business Operations. Is your business in compliance with applicable employment laws and other regulatory requirements? Has your employee manual been reviewed recently? One lawsuit will likely cost far more than a basic legal compliance review. A legal “check up” is like a medical check up: identifying one or more serious problems and taking care of them now can avoid a much greater problem later.