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Are You Protected? What You May Not Know About “Piercing the Corporate Veil.”
One of the first things to do when going into business is to select the appropriate business structure for your venture and set it up correctly. A primary advantage of doing so is gaining the protection of the entity so that your personal finances are safe from being used to settle company debts or pay the company’s bills. Having the right business structure also allows for the business to be considered a separate entity, with its own income and debts separate from other businesses that you may also own.
But don’t assume that just because you’ve set up a legal structure that you and your business are fully protected; that protection is only valid if you follow all the rules. In other words, you are not guaranteed liability protection just because you have created a limited liability company or a corporation. (Note that sole proprietorships and partnerships do not offer the same liability protection and so are excluded from this discussion.)
Today we’ll look at the concept of “piercing the corporate veil” (PCV), which is when a court suspends the liability protection your business entity gives you, what it means, and how you can avoid it.
What Can Happen When You Fail to Keep Business and Personal Accounts Separate
One of most important ways to maintain your personal liability protection is to be scrupulous about keeping business and personal finances separate. Maintain separate checking and savings accounts and use different credit cards for your business and for yourself. The key idea is not to “commingle” your personal finances with your company’s finances. You pay your own bills from your personal account and you make sure to pay the company’s bills from the company’s account.
Let’s say you aren’t meticulous about keeping finances separate. Then your business hits a rough patch and is unable to pay a debt it owes. Since your finances aren’t separate, it may look like you and your business are essentially the same, and you personally may be on the hook. Your assets – including investments, cash, your car, and your house – could be taken to satisfy your company’s debt. That’s why it’s crucial to keep separate accounts.
What Can Happen When You Fail to Keep Individual Businesses Separate
PCV isn’t just an issue of separate business from personal accounts. It’s also a matter of keeping businesses distinct from each other.
Imagine a scenario like this. Alpha Corp. and Bravo Corp. are run by the same management group. About 60% of the shareholders are the same between the two, as well. Alpha Corp. runs into trouble and needs to pay a creditor immediately, but has no money. No problem, because Bravo Corp. has plenty of money. Bravo Corp. writes a check directly to pay Alpha Corp.’s debt.
The companies have now commingled funds. When this happens, they may be considered “alter egos” of one another under the alter ego doctrine, a.k.a. the instrumentality rule. Here are two examples of what can happen next:
- Three shareholders of Bravo Corp. who are not also shareholders of Alpha Corp. are, understandably, not happy that Bravo’s funds are being used to pay off Alpha’s debts. They bring a type of lawsuit called a derivative action against the management group arguing that there’s one giant pool of money, and the companies are in fact not separate.
- Another creditor sues Alpha Corp. for not paying its debt. During discovery, it’s determined that Alpha and Bravo have commingled funds. Now Bravo Corp. can be compelled to pay Alpha Corp.’s debts, as the two are alter egos.
It’s not just about money, either. Even seemingly simple things as sharing the same mailing address, office space, and letterhead may lead to trouble, as the “blurred identity theory” addresses situations where individual businesses don’t have individual identities. The two companies may be confused with each other as their identities are “blurred” into one another.
Proving PCV in Court
The concept of piercing the corporate veil (also known as “lifting the corporate veil”) was put to the test in the 1976 case that originated in South Carolina, DeWitt Truck Brokers v. W. Ray Flemming Fruit Co. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision to pierce the corporate veil and impose individual liability on the owner. Flemming was found personally liable for debts owed by his company after it was discovered the business did not follow basic corporate protocols and that he, as the dominant shareholder, had drawn a salary, leaving the company undercapitalized and in debt.
In its decision, the court reiterated that while it recognizes a corporation is a separate entity that’s distinct from its owners and officers, it can “decline” to recognize that autonomy when doing so would “produce injustices or inequitable consequences.” Still, it will do so “reluctantly” and “cautiously.”
Bases for PCV noted in the DeWitt decision include:
- Inadequacy of capital
- Complete domination of the corporate entity
- Instrumentality theory (discussed above)
- Failure to observe corporate formalities
- Non-payment of dividends
- Insolvency of the debtor corporation at the time
- Siphoning of funds by the dominant shareholder
- Non-functioning of the other officers and directors
- Absence of corporate records
- Existence of the corporation as a façade for the operations of the dominant stockholder(s)
Ultimately, the court may pierce the corporate veil when “a number” of the above factors exist in order to right an injustice or unfairness.
How to Avoid PCV
You can make it less likely for a plaintiff/complainant to win (and less likely to sue in the first place) over this issue if you follow proper procedures.
- Keep finances separate between individual and company or company and company
- Move funds between entities through loans or other above-the-board methods
- Keep distinct business identities through separate addresses, trademarks, letterheads, etc. for each company
- *Hold regular shareholder meetings
- *Keep minutes
- *Pay dividends if applicable
*Applicable to corporations, not LLCs.
It’s not difficult to follow protocols to avoid PCV, it just takes discipline. When people get lazy and let basic things slip, that’s when problems arise.
Speak with a corporate attorney about your business
This is a very general overview of some elements of PCV; the topic is extensive and can become very complex. Maintaining the liability protection your business entity gives you is one of the most important things you can do. Make sure you’ve got your bases covered by speaking with a corporate attorney like Gem McDowell.
Gem handles a wide range of corporate law issues and advises on business matters. Contact Gem at their Mount Pleasant office today by calling (843) 284-1021 or filling out this contact form online. They are ready to help you with your business.