Many business owners seek to form a formal business entity for the primary purpose of protecting their personal assets from any future legal claims there may be against their business. Although forming a corporation or a limited liability company (“LLC”) is surely a step in the right direction, this protection can be lost if the business owner does not comply with other formalities required by Michigan law. These formalities must be complied with in order to ensure that a potential lawsuit or creditor’s claim against the business does not reach the business owner’s personal assets.
HOW MAY MY PERSONAL ASSETS BE AT RISK?
In a civil lawsuit, a business defending a lawsuit may lack sufficient funds to pay the entire judgment that is awarded to the plaintiff. In order to ensure recovery for the full amount, plaintiffs will often argue a legal theory called “piercing the corporate veil” in order to allow the plaintiff to move beyond the assets of the business and recover directly from the personal assets of the business owner. This is not to say all businesses are at risk from this. Piercing the veil is only proper where the court perceives there is abuse of the corporate form, which is simply another way of saying that corporate formalities are not being followed by the business owner. It is also important to note that under Michigan law, piercing the veil is applied to LLC’s by courts in the same manner as corporations.
In addition, a plaintiff may name the individual directors and officers of a corporation (or members and manager of an LLC) as defendants in a lawsuit in order to have additional pockets to reach and to intimidate the directors and officers into settling the case. The best means to protect against this is for the business owner to add directors and officers liability coverage to the general liability insurance policy maintained by the company. This coverage will protect directors and officers (to the same extent as the business) for the types of claims and lawsuits the general liability policy covers.
WHAT FACTORS ARE CONSIDERED BY THE COURT WHEN DETERMINING WHETHER FORMALITIES HAVE BEEN COMPLIED WITH?
Outside of engaging in illegal acts such as fraud, here are a few of the most common reasons Michigan courts may permit a plaintiff to pierce the corporate veil:
1. Absence of Corporate (or LLC) Formalities:
This is most commonly a problem for businesses that have attempted to create an entity, but have not retained an attorney who specializes in assisting business owners and entrepreneurs. In starting their business, many entrepreneurs will pay an attorney a one-time fee to prepare the necessary documents to form a corporation or LLC. Sometimes business owners who have attempted to set up a corporation or an LLC on their own only use inception documents consisting of only a short document called the Articles of Incorporation (for corporations) or Articles of Organization (for LLCs). There are several other documents, however, that must be prepared beyond these Articles to ensure all formalities are met. Additionally, there are documents required to fulfill these formalities every year the company is in existence. An experienced business attorney will prepare all of the required documents for the business.
2. Commingling Personal and Business Funds:
If you operate your business under a corporation or LLC, it is imperative that you open a separate bank account under the name of your business entity. It is equally important that all transactions of the business flow through the business’s bank account and none of the business transactions flow though the owner’s personal bank account. It is equally important that none of the owner’s personal expenses and transactions flow though the corporate bank account. Although personal funds may be contributed to the business as a capital contribution, for all intents and purposes, the contribution must be treated as a formal transaction (ex: shareholder exchanges cash for stock in the corporation).
3. “Undercapitalization”, a/k/a Siphoning Funds to a Shareholder (Corporation) or Member Interest Holder (LLC):
A business must maintain enough capital to sustain itself as a separate entity and not operate as a mere façade for the personal operations of a shareholder. Some small business owners, especially those who operate a single-shareholder corporation or single-member LLC, may distribute all annual profits of the business to themselves as dividends, leaving their business’ bank account barren. It is a violation of Michigan law for a business entity to pay all or almost all of its cash to its owner(s) if doing so leaves the business unable to pay its creditors in the normal course of business.
In this situation, courts are reluctant to allow business owners to shield their personal assets, and may reach the personal assets of the business owner to satisfy a judgment. The simple solution here is to keep the appropriate amount of capital in the business to support its operations and run such operations independent of the personal needs of the business owner(s).
ACTION STEP: PREVENTING A PLAINTIFF FROM REACHING YOUR PERSONAL ASSETS
The first step is to engage an attorney who specializes in assisting business owners and entrepreneurs and direct them to do a review of your business documents and operating procedures. By putting a plan in place to create or update these documents to comply with current law, a savvy business owner can ensure their business complies with all requisite formalities, as well as ensure that the business is being run and managed in a way that does not abuse the corporate (or LLC) form under Michigan law.