Commercial Loans Blog

Commercial Loans and Holding Title as a Limited Liability Company

Posted by George Blackburne on Sun, May 20, 2018

roof holeA majority of all commercial properties today are owned by limited liability companies (LLC's).  The reason why goes back to a bizarre personal injury action in the 1970's.

About 40 years ago, a thief was climbing on the roof of a commercial building in New York City.  He was trying to break into the store to steal stuff, and he had no business being on the roof.  The roof was near the end of its useful life, and the thief fell through the roof and severely injured himself.

 

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The thief must have had unbelievable audacity because he actually sued the owner of the commercial building for negligence for failing to maintain the roof.  To the shock of commercial property owners everywhere, this miserable thief won his lawsuit and was awarded over a million dollars in damages by the brain-dead jury.

The property owner held title to the building personally, and he was personally wiped out when the judgment debtor took virtually everything the store owner owned.

 

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From that moment on, commercial property owners across the country desperately sought a way to insulate themselves from liability.  They could not hold title as a regular "C-corp" because they would be taxed twice - once as a corporation and another time when the owners drew out their profits as dividends.  Limited liability companies had not yet been invented.

The solution was the subchapter-S corporation.  A subchapter-S corporation can only be used for new business ventures, and there is a limit of 35 shareholders.  You can therefore never take a subchapter-S corporation public.

 

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The big advantage of the subchapter-S corporation, however, was that it was not taxed twice.  The net income of a subchapter-S corporation passes directly through to the owners of the corporation without taxation.  The shareholders only pay taxes once on the profits, as they are added to their personal income on their 1040's.

As a result, for about 15 years, title to a great many commercial properties was held by a subchapter-S corporation.

 

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The first state to enact a law authorizing limited liability companies was Wyoming in 1977.  The form did not become immediately popular, in part because of uncertainties in tax treatment by the Internal Revenue Service.  After an IRS ruling in 1988 that Wyoming LLCs could be taxed as partnerships, other states began enacting LLC statues.  By 1996, all 50 states had LLC statutes.

Modernly, subchapter-S corporations have been almost entirely replaced by limited liability companies (LLC's).  LLC's are taxed just like subchapter-S corporations; i.e., only once.  Unlike subchapter-S corporations, LLC's do not have to be new ventures, and ownership is not limited to 35 shareholders.

 

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Although LLCs and corporations both possess a lot of the same features, the basic terminology commonly associated with each type of legal entity is slightly different.  When an LLC is formed, it is said to be "organized", not "incorporated".  Its founding document is therefore known as its "Articles of Organization", instead of its "Articles of Incorporation". 

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", rather than represented by "shares of stock".  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".

 

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Most American courts have held that LLC members are subject to the same common law alter ego piercing theories as corporate shareholders.  In other words, there are times when the acts of of the LLC are so horrific (intentionally polluting a stream with a cancer-causing pollutant) that an injured party can go after the personal assets of the members.

However, it is more difficult to pierce the LLC veil, compared to the corporate veil, because LLCs do not have many formalities (annual meetings, corporate resolutions, etc.) to maintain.  In our example of the thief above, he would probably have been unable to go after the personal assets of the retail building owner - unless perhaps the building owner set up a spring gun to impale trespassers.  As long as the LLC and the members do not commingle funds, it is difficult to pierce the LLC veil.

 

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Membership interests in LLCs and partnership interests are also afforded a significant level of protection through the charging order mechanism.  The charging order (an order of the court instructing the LLC to pay a judgment creditor of a Member) 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.

Its no wonder why most commercial property owners choose to hold title to the property as a limited liability company, as opposed to personally, corporately, or as a subchapter-S corporation.

 

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Topics: Limited liability companies