Many companies are LLCs. While the abbreviation can be spotted at the end of many company names, it’s understandable that you might not be entirely clear on what, exactly, an LLC is and its purpose.
Each state has its own unique statutory law that sets forth requirements to form a Limited Liability Company (hereinafter “LLC” or “Company”). These laws and their purposes are generally similar. However, do not assume what works in your home state is also the procedure in another state. That is a trap for the unwary.
Most states’ refer to their LLC law as its “LLC Act”. For example, Delaware has the “Delaware LLC Act” and Illinois has the “Illinois LLC Act”. Most states set forth their LLC laws separately from laws pertaining to corporations. One of the reasons for the separation is because LLC’s and corporations are like apples and oranges. Most formalities and rigidities required for corporations do not apply to LLCs.
What is an LLC (Limited Liability Company)?
An LLC is a flexible business structure. It combines the pass-through taxation of a partnership with the limited liability of a corporation. Regarding the purpose, the Certificate of Formation does not usually state the purpose of the LLC. Instead, the Operating Agreement contains this. Should the Certificate of Formation and the Operating Agreement contain conflicting information, it is not always clear that the public filing prevails because these are contractual entities. In other words, the Operating Agreement of the parties should control over some statement in a document someone filed before they finalized the Operating Agreement.
An LLC’s purpose usually is any purpose authorized by law. However, for certain types of financings where the LLC is required to be a single purpose LLC, the LLC may only be permitted to engage in transactions related to the purchase, sale and operation of a particular real estate project.
What Is the Purpose of an LLC?
By forming a Delaware LLC, business owners safeguard their personal assets by building a shield between them and business liabilities. This means that, if the business itself cannot pay a creditor, then this shield makes it difficult for creditors to penetrate into your personal assets. This includes your house, car and other personal possessions. What if the business owner does not form an LLC and chooses to remain an unincorporated sole proprietor (or general partnership)? They have unlimited liability for judgments against the business.
The business uses can range from one person sales or consulting businesses to multi-million dollar commercial properties. It may operate an active business or simply hold passive assets, like real estate or intellectual property.
As an added benefit, having “LLC” after your company name can lend credibility. This signals to customers and your vendors that you are a legitimate business. It tells them your company is not a fly-by-night alter ego of its owner/operator.
How Does LLC Formation Work?
Fundamentally, there are two organizational documents essential to every LLC formation. This includes (1) a public document filed with the applicable Secretary of State and (2) a private document (“Operating Agreement” or “Limited Liability Company Agreement”).
Some states refer to the LLC’s organizational document filed with the Secretary of State as “Articles of Organization”; other states refer to this document as a “Certificate of Formation” (either will be referred to herein as a “Certificate of Formation”). Usually these bare bones Certificates of Formation only list the name of the LLC and its registered agent. Some states also require that a manager or managing member be listed along with an election to be “member managed” or “manager managed” (when a non-member third party is the designated manager).
You should be careful when following the state’s pre-printed or online forms. Often times the instructions can be incomplete or misleading. For example, in New York it is optional to list whether an LLC is member managed or manager managed. However, if manager managed is not selected, the LLC by default is member managed. This may not be what your client wants or has in its Operating Agreement. Other states, like Delaware, do not require you to list whether the LLC is member managed or manager managed. You should also be aware that should an LLC be a “Series LLC” that will also need to be listed in the LLC’s Certificate of Formation.
How to Name Your LLC
The LLC’s proposed name must be “available” with the Secretary of State. The LLC name cannot be identical or substantially similar to any other business entities in the state. For example, if you want to form ABC Capital, LLC, but there is already an ABC Capital, Inc., that would present a conflict making the proposed name unavailable. However, if ABC Capital, Inc. became administratively dissolved for failing to pay its franchise tax, then most states “recycle” that name and allow a new entity to be filed under the identical name. The secretary of state also reviews names, even if they are otherwise available. This is to ensure they do not have prohibited words in the name, such as “bank” (requiring bank commissioner pre-approval), “insurance” (requiring approval of a state’s department of insurance) or offensive or misleading language.
The name must also end in an LLC indicator, such as L.L.C., LLC or Limited Liability Company. In the few states recognizing professional limited liability companies, PLLC or Professional Limited Liability Company may be used. Do not use “Limited Liability Corporation” because that is impermissible and incorrect.
The LLC’s registered agent in the state of formation may be the office of the company itself in the state of formation. You can “self-represent” as the LLC’s registered agent. If you form an LLC in a state other than your own, the LLC will need to appoint a third-party registered agent service to receive lawsuits and legal notices on behalf of the LLC.
Some states require the managing member or manager to sign the LLC Certificate of Formation. In other states, such as Delaware, an “Organizer” or “Authorized Person” can sign the LLC Certificate of Formation.
The LLC Members
The question you may have is: How do you know who the members are? The members are the owners. You do not need to list the members’ names in the LLC’s Certificate of Formation. Instead, the Operating Agreement contains that ownership information.
So how do the members prove the connection between them and the LLC if a third-party signed the Certificate of Formation? One way is through a contract between the LLC and the Authorized Person, such as an incorporation service. Then the incorporation service’s Authorized Person sends the LLC Certificate of Formation back to you after it has received a file date and time stamp, plus a file number. Some Incorporation Agents will send out a cover letter indicating who ordered the LLC. That customer is the person who is typically responsible for coordinating with the other parties to the LLC, its Operating Agreement.
Sometimes you can also request the Authorized Person sign a “Statement of Organizer”. This sets forth the initial members and or managers of the LLC. It also declares that the Authorized Person is not a member and has no further authority to act on behalf of the LLC in the future beyond signing the Certificate of Formation.
Filing Your LLC
Although the “legal formation” happens at the time the Certificate of Formation is received by the state of incorporation, that delivery alone is not sufficient to ensure the proper filing. An LLC is not considered legally formed until the Secretary of State attaches the “time and date stamp” and its state file number. Note that the state file number is different from the IRS Employer ID Number (EIN or Tax ID No.). An EIN is obtained after the incorporation process and is not required for due formation.
The other legal requirement after the public filing of the Certificate of Formation is the adoption of a private Operating Agreement for the LLC. Some states, such as Delaware, require every LLC have an operating agreement In Delaware. It can be “written, oral or implied”. Requiring your clients have written Operating Agreements is a best practice. This reduces the likelihood of conflicts in the future. Usually LLC Operating Agreements provide for “prenuptial” provisions to reduce the risk of a dispute when there is a break-up. Note that Delaware has a provision that allows for an oral Operating Agreement as an exception to the Statute of Frauds (where normally writings are required for certain real estate transactions).
Delaware provides for maximum freedom of contract that allows members from the outset to establish an Operating Agreement that can even reduce or waive fiduciary duties. There are very few statutory requirements in Delaware that are un-waivable by agreement. Delaware courts will generally enforce an LLC Operating Agreement as written, even if unequitable to its members. This is called the “contractarian” approach. Delaware courts will treat the members to an LLC Operating Agreement like adults. They follow the four corners of the Operating Agreement to make the members of the LLC “sleep in the bed they make”.
Be careful when clients or their accountants have filed their own Certificate of Formation. Often times they do not enter into an Operating Agreement. This may mean the LLC may not even be “duly formed,” even if it has a Certificate of Formation on record. A Certificate of Good Standing is not the only document a bank requests when deciding whether an LLC was duly formed, so you will need to draft an Operating Agreement eventually. Also often the Operating Agreement by self-filers or the generic form provided by formation agents may not be appropriate for the client’s particular business or deal.
Although a single member LLC Operating Agreement can be rather simple, such is not the case with a multi-member LLC. This is due to the need that the Agreement address potential partnership disputes in advance. The American Bar Association (the “ABA”) has a sample single member LLC Operating Agreement for use in real estate transactions, but it has no such sample agreement for LLC’s with multiple members. Instead, the ABA has a 30 plus page checklist of all the factors to consider when drafting an operating agreement for a multi-member LLC. These factors include such issues such as whether to provide for amendment by unanimous consent, simple majority or some other super-majority. The checklist also asks whether to include arbitration provisions or court resolution of disputes. These are two small examples of the more than 100 questions to consider when drafting the LLC’s Operating Agreement.
With all of this discussion of Delaware, you may be wondering why a national webinar is focusing this much on a tiny state in the Mid-Atlantic. The reason is because although 90+% of LLCs are formed in a business’s home state, in larger deals, banks and sophisticated investors often insist that the LLCs be established in Delaware. Delaware LLC law is highly developed and therefore allows for more predictability.
Although you are located in one state, you can form an LLC from any state no matter where you operate. An LLC formed in the state where you are doing business is a “domestic” LLC. If you form an LLC in a state other than the state where you operate, it will be referred to as a “foreign” LLC in every other state in which the LLC is qualified to do business.
Therefore the first decision to make is where to form your LLC. The state of formation will control the internal affairs of the LLC. Lenders or managers of LLCs favor some states, such as Delaware, because their courts provide predictable results. The courts honor the LLC agreement as written. You may also want to check the “name availability” in both the domestic state and each foreign state where you will register your LLC. If the name of the LLC is not available in a foreign state, then the LLC will need to file under a “forced DBA,” for example, “ABC Capital of Delaware, LLC.”
The process of forming an LLC starts by filing a certificate of formation with the Secretary of State. However, that is not the end of the formation process. Usually due formation requires that the LLC also have a signed Operating Agreement. The purpose of the LLC is usually set forth in the Operating Agreement. Most LLCs have general-purpose clauses (any purpose authorized by law), while some LLCs used in commercial real estate transactions have narrow purpose clauses limited to a particular transaction.
Attorneys also will need to check applicable state laws in the state of formation for special requirements. For example, New York requires that a notice of formation of each LLC (and of each foreign LLC that seeks authority to do business in New York) be published for six weeks in two newspapers (see NY Limited Liability Company Law Section 206).
MORE: What is a DBA?