Family Businesses: Succession planning for LLCs

iStock_000017700348Small.jpgOwners of Indiana LLCs (and their lawyers) can learn some lessons from a recent case involving an Alabama LLC. The case is L.B. Whitfield, III Family LLC v. Virginia Ann Whitfield, et al.

The Whitfield Case

L.B. Whitfield, III owned half of the voting stock in a business that had been in his family for generations. The other half had belonged to L.B.’s brother, who died and left the stock to a trust for the benefit of his son.

L.B. had four children, his son Louie, and three daughters. After his brother’s death, L.B. became concerned that the 50/50 voting balance might be disturbed if, after he died, his stock were to be divided among his four children. To prevent that from happening, L.B. created a manager-managed Alabama limited liability company to hold his half of the voting stock. L.B. was the sole member, and he and Louie were the two managers. His will provided that his interest in the LLC would pass to his four children in four equal shares.

After L.B. died, Louie continued as manager, and the four children were treated as members of the LLC, with each of them holding 25% of the interest in the LLC. About 10 years later, a dispute arose between Louie and his sisters, and the dispute escalated into litigation. Ultimately, the litigation was resolved on a theory that was not argued in the original pleadings and apparently did not even occur to the parties’ lawyers until several months into the case.

The Alabama Supreme Court noted that L.B. had been the sole member of the LLC and that, after he died, the LLC had no members. Although L.B.’s will gave his children equal shares of his economic rights in the LLC (his “interest”), economic rights in an LLC and membership are two different things, and the will did not make his children members. The Court further noted that, under the Alabama LLC statute, a limited liability company that has no members is dissolved and its affairs must be wound up, a process which includes payment of its debt and distribution of its remaining assets to the holders of interest in the LLC. Accordingly, the Court held that the assets of the LLC should be distributed in four equal shares to Louie and his sisters.

Interestingly, the Alabama statute provides a way that L.B.’s heirs could have become members and avoided the dissolution of the LLC, but they had to do it by mutual written agreement within 90 days of L.B.’s death, and there was no such written agreement.

How does it work in Indiana?

If the Whitfield case had involved an Indiana LLC, the results might well have been the same. Unless other provisions (discussed below) have been made to avoid the result, when the single member of an LLC dies, that member will be dissociated (i.e., will cease to be a member, Ind. Code 23-18-6-5(a)(4)), the LLC will have no members, and, as a result, it will be dissolved, at least if the LLC was formed after June 30, 1999, (Ind. Code 23-18-9-1.1(c)). As a result, the member’s heirs will not receive an ongoing business; instead, they will receive only the rights to receive distributions from the dissolved LLC after all obligations are satisfied — which may be far less valuable than the business would have been as an ongoing concern.

Note that there are other scenarios that can create a similar result. Under Ind. Code 23-18-6-4.1(e) (which applies only to LLC’s formed after June 30, 1999), a member who assigns her entire interest to another person ceases to be a member. If the person making the assignment is the sole member, the person who receives the interest can become a member under Ind. Code 23-18-6-4.1(b), which provides that the person who receives the interest can become a member “in accordance with the terms of an agreement between the assignor and the assignee.” But what if there are no such terms? What if the agreement simply says, “Seller hereby assigns her interest in the LLC to Buyer,” but doesn’t mention membership? In that case (unless the operating agreement already deals with the situation some other way), the LLC will have no members, and it will be dissolved. In other words, the person who thought he bought an ongoing business may well have bought only the rights to receive distributions from a dissolved LLC.

Now, what if there are multiple members and one of them dies? In that case, the LLC is not dissolved, at least not if it was formed after June 30, 1999, but the member’s heirs may not become members. Although they may inherit the deceased member’s interest (i.e., rights to receive distributions), they will become members (and therefore have the right to participate in the management of the company), only if the operating agreement makes them members or the other members unanimously consent.

What should you do?

If you own an LLC, or if you own part of an LLC, and these possibilities make you uncomfortable, you need a business succession plan that includes two different components. First, it should include appropriate estate planning tools to make sure that your economic interest in the LLC goes to the people you want to taken care of after your death. For example, you may want to designate a transfer-on-death beneficiary to inherit your interest in the LLC. Second, the LLC should have an operating agreement with appropriate provisions to ensure that your heirs benefit not only from the right to receive distributions from the LLC but also receive the other rights of membership, including the right to participate in the management of the business. There are different ways to do that; an attorney with experience in business succession planning, particularly with Indiana LLCs, can help you choose the best one for you.

You are invited to read more about our business succession and estate planning practice area.