A limited liability company (LLC) is a specific form of a private limited company. It is a business structure that combines the pass-through taxation of a partnership or sole proprietorship with the limited liability of a corporation.
An LLC is not a corporation in itself; it is a legal form of a company that provides limited liability to its owners in many jurisdictions. LLCs do not need to be organized for profit. In certain U.S. states (for example, Texas), businesses that provide professional services requiring a state professional license, such as legal or medical services, may not be allowed to form an LLC but may be required to form a similar entity called a professional limited liability company (PLLC).
A Limited Liability Company is a hybrid legal entity having certain characteristics of both a corporation and a partnership or sole proprietorship (depending on how many owners there are). An LLC is a type of unincorporated association distinct from a corporation. The primary characteristic an LLC shares with a corporation is limited liability, and the primary characteristic it shares with a partnership is the availability of pass-through income taxation. It is often more flexible than a corporation, and it is well-suited for companies with a single owner.
Although LLCs and corporations both possess some analogous features, the basic terminology commonly associated with each type of legal entity, at least within the United States, is sometimes different. When an LLC is formed, it is said to be organized, not incorporated or charted, and its founding document is likewise known as its articles of organization, instead of its articles of incorporation or its corporate charter.
Internal operations of an LLC are further governed by its operating agreement, rather than its bylaws. The owner of beneficial rights in an LLC is known as a member, rather than a shareholder. Additionally, ownership in an LLC is represented by a membership interest or an LLC interest (sometimes measured in membership units and at other times simply stated only as percentages), rather than represented by shares of stock (with ownership measured by the number of shares held by each shareholder). Similarly, when issued in physical rather than electronic form, a document evidencing ownership rights in an LLC is called a membership certificate rather than a stock certificate.
In the absence of express statutory guidance, most American courts have held that LLC members are subject to the same common law alter ego piercing theories as corporate shareholders. However, it is more difficult to pierce the LLC veil because LLCs do not have many formalities to maintain. As long as the LLC and the members do not commingle funds, it is difficult to pierce the LLC veil. Membership interests in LLCs and partnership interests are also afforded a significant level of protection through the charging order mechanism. The charging order limits the creditor of a debtor-partner or a debtor-member to the debtor’s share of distributions, without conferring on the creditor any voting or management rights. Limited liability company members may, in certain circumstances, also incur a personal liability in cases where distributions to members render the LLC insolvent.
LLCs are subject to fewer regulations than traditional corporations, and thus may allow members to create a more flexible management structure than is possible with other corporate forms. As long as it remains within the confines of state law, the operating agreement is responsible for the flexibility the members of the LLC have in deciding how their LLC will be governed. State statutes typically provide automatic or default rules for how an LLC will be governed unless the operating agreement provides otherwise.
The limited liability company has grown to become one of the most prevalent business forms in the United States. However, the use of a single member LLC may do little to protect the assets of the member, as compared to operating as an unincorporated entity.
Choice of tax regime. An LLC can elect to be taxed as a sole proprietor, partnership, S corporation or C corporation (as long as they would otherwise qualify for such tax treatment), providing for a great deal of flexibility.
A limited liability company with multiple members that elects to be taxed as partnership may specially allocate the members’ distributive share of income, gain, loss, deduction, or credit via the company operating agreement on a basis other than the ownership percentage of each member so long as the rules contained in Treasury Regulation (26 CFR) 1.704-1 are met. S corporations may not specially allocate profits, losses and other tax items under US tax law.
The owners of the LLC, called members, are protected from some or all liability for acts and debts of the LLC, depending on state shield laws.
In the United States, an S corporation has a limited number of stockholders, and all of them must be U.S. citizens; an LLC may have an unlimited number of members, and there is no citizenship restriction.
Much less administrative paperwork and record-keeping than a corporation.
Pass-through taxation (i.e., no double taxation), unless the LLC elects to be taxed as a C corporation.
Using default tax classification, profits are taxed personally at the member level, not at the LLC level.
LLCs in most states are treated as entities separate from their members. However, in Connecticut, case law has determined that owners were not required to plead facts sufficient to pierce the corporate veil and LLC members can be personally liable for operation of the LLC.
LLCs in some states can be set up with just one natural person involved.
For real estate companies, each separate property can be owned by its own individual LLC, thereby shielding not only the owners but their other properties from cross-liability.
Although there is no statutory requirement for an operating agreement in most jurisdictions, members of a multiple member LLC who operate without one may encounter problems. Unlike state laws regarding stock corporations, which are very well developed and provide for a variety of governance and protective provisions for the corporation and its shareholders, most states do not dictate detailed governance and protective provisions for the members of a limited liability company. Thus, in the absence of such statutory provisions, the members of an LLC must establish governance and protective provisions pursuant to an operating agreement or similar governing document.
It may be more difficult to raise financial capital for an LLC as investors may be more comfortable investing funds in the better-understood corporate form with a view toward an eventual IPO. One possible solution may be to form a new corporation and merge into it, dissolving the LLC and converting into a corporation.
Many jurisdictions—including Alabama, California, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas—levy a franchise tax or capital values tax on LLCs. In essence, this franchise or business privilege tax is the fee the LLC pays the state for the benefit of limited liability. The franchise tax can be an amount based on revenue, an amount based on profits, or an amount based on the number of owners or the amount of capital employed in the state, or some combination of those factors, or simply a flat fee, as in Delaware.
Effective in Texas for 2007 the franchise tax is replaced with the Texas Business Margin Tax. This is paid as: tax payable = revenues minus some expenses with an apportionment factor. In most states, however, the fee is nominal and only a handful charge a tax comparable to the tax imposed on corporations.
In California, both foreign and domestic LLCs, corporations, and trusts, whether for-profit or non-profit—unless the entity is tax exempt—must at least pay a minimum income tax of $800 per year to the Franchise Tax Board; and no foreign LLC, corporation or trust may conduct business in California unless it is duly registered with the California Secretary of State.
Renewal fees may also be higher. Maryland, for example, charges a stock or non-stock corporation $120 for the initial charter, and $100 for an LLC. The fee for filing the annual report the following year is $300 for stock-corporations and LLCs. The fee is zero for non-stock corporations. In addition, certain states, such as New York, impose a publication requirement upon formation of the LLC which requires that the members of the LLC publish a notice in newspapers in the geographic region that the LLC will be located that it is being formed. For LLCs located in major metropolitan areas (e.g., New York City), the cost of publication can be significant.
The management structure of an LLC may not be clearly stated. Unlike corporations, they are not required to have a board of directors or officers.
Taxing jurisdictions outside the US are likely to treat a US LLC as a corporation, regardless of its treatment for US tax purposes—for example a US LLC doing business outside the US or as a resident of a foreign jurisdiction. This is very likely where the country (such as Canada) does not recognize LLCs as an authorized form of business entity in that country.
The principals of LLCs use many different titles—e.g., member, manager, managing member, managing director, chief executive officer, president, and partner. As such, it can be difficult to determine who actually has the authority to enter into a contract on the LLC’s behalf.
A Professional Limited Liability Company (PLLC, P.L.L.C., or P.L.) is a limited liability company organized for the purpose of providing professional services. Usually, professions where the state requires a license to provide services, such as a doctor, chiropractor, lawyer, accountant, architect, landscape architect, or engineer, require the formation of a PLLC. However, some states, such as California, do not permit LLCs to engage in the practice of a licensed profession. Exact requirements of PLLCs vary from state to state. Typically, a PLLC’s members must all be professionals practicing the same profession. In addition, the limitation of personal liability of members does not extend to professional malpractice claims.
A Series LLC is a special form of a Limited liability company that allows a single LLC to segregate its assets into separate series. For example, a series LLC that purchases separate pieces of real estate may put each in a separate series so if the lender forecloses on one piece of property, the others are not affected.
An L3C is a for-profit, social enterprise venture that has a stated goal of performing a socially beneficial purpose, not maximizing income. It is a hybrid structure that combines the legal and tax flexibility of a traditional LLC, the social benefits of a nonprofit organization, and the branding and market positioning advantages of a social enterprise.
An Anonymous Limited Liability Company is a LLC for which ownership information is not made publicly available by the state. This is typically accomplished by using a third-party to act as the organizer and registered agent of the LLC.
Limited liability is where a person’s financial liability is limited to a fixed sum, most commonly the value of a person’s investment in a company or partnership. If a company with limited liability is sued, then the claimants are suing the company, not its owners or investors. A shareholder in a limited company is not personally liable for any of the debts of the company, other than for the amount already invested in the company and for any unpaid amount on the shares in the company, if any. The same is true for the members of a limited liability partnership and the limited partners in a limited partnership. By contrast, sole proprietors and partners in general partnerships are each liable for all the debts of the business (unlimited liability).
If shares are issued part-paid, then the shareholders are liable, when a claim is made against the capital of the company, to pay to the company the balance of the face or par value of the shares.
Although a shareholder’s liability for the company’s actions is limited, the shareholders may still be liable for their own acts. For example, the directors of small companies (who are frequently also shareholders) are often required to give personal guarantees of the company’s debts to those lending to the company. They will then be liable for those debts in the event that the company cannot pay, although the other shareholders will not be so liable. This is known as co-signing.
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