When you own an LLC or part of an LLC, you own property. This is property that will be part of your estate when you die. If someone came to me and said their business partner just died and they’re not sure what that means for the business, I would initially have two questions.
- What does your operating agreement say in regards to this situation?
- What does the deceased’s estate plan say happens to their portion of the business?
Hopefully both of these documents exist and give clear instructions. If you don’t have an operating agreement and the person didn’t have an estate plan, their portion of the business will pass to their relatives like the rest of their estate per that state’s law. Most likely, if the person was married, their portion of the business would go to their spouse. If they didn’t have a spouse, it would go to their kids. If they didn’t have a spouse or kids, it would go to their parents.
When I draft an operating agreement for LLC owners, I make them answer the hard questions like what happens if an owner dies or gets disabled and document their plans for addressing those situations at the beginning of their business relationship so they won’t be scrambling when they find themselves facing these issues.
If you are a sole LLC owner, you don’t need an operating agreement that tells you how you’re going to run the business, but you may want one to thoroughly document what you want to happen to the business when you become disabled or die. Make sure you document the pertinent information like where keys, passwords, and bank accounts are so your employees or loved ones can take over or wind up the business.
Once you have your estate plan and operating agreement in place, make sure you tell your family and whoever else may need to know where you put it so they can carry out your wishes. My Wills and Estates professor (who is a brilliant estate planning attorney) suggests you put them in a fire-proof and waterproof safe with the door unlocked (or the key in the lock). That way the documents are safe but if a thief gets into your business or house, they will quickly see that it doesn’t contain anything of value to them and leave it.
It’s hard to think about what should happen to your business if you die. If you work in an industry (like law) where a person needs a specific credential to be an owner, you may not be able to keep the business in the family but they could be charged with closing down your operation. Otherwise you will have to decide if you want the business to go to a family member, an employee, or a combination of people. You ultimately won’t have control over whether the business continues to exist, but you can put the documents in place to try to make it happen.
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