Avoid Piercing the Corporate Veil

Shadow Theatre by tamadhanaval, Piercing the corporate veil

Shadow Theatre by tamadhanaval

After I published the blog post on starting a business in Arizona, someone asked me if there was anything wrong with using PayPal to accept business payments if their PayPal account is connected to a personal bank account. I cringe when I hear stories like this.

One of the benefits of creating a business entities is it limits your liability. If you have a corporation or an LLC and the business gets sued and loses, the prevailing party can only take the business’ assets if the business is set up properly. They can’t go after your personal home, car, bank accounts, or other possessions.

You get this protection by keeping the business assets and your personal assets separate. Your business needs its own bank account, credit card, etc. You should pay for business expenses with the business accounts and personal expenses with your personal accounts. If you don’t keep your accounts separate and you lose in a lawsuit, the prevailing party could make the argument that the business is not a separate entity but is merely an alter ego for you. If that happens they can take assets from the business and your personal property to collect their damages.

Creating an LLC is a good start to protecting yourself against personal liability, but it may not be enough if you don’t keep your business and personal accounts independent from each other. Services like PayPal are so easy to use that it will be simple to create separate accounts for business and personal use.

If you have questions about whether you’ve properly set up your business to protect yourself against liability, please contact a business lawyer (like me) in your community.

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Why You Need an Operating Agreement

Sailor race cardboard boat in base competition by Official U.S. Navy Imagery

If you have an LLC and your company has more than one owner, you need an operating agreement. Period.

An operating agreement is a contract between the owners of a business that tells them how they’re going to run their business. Think of it as the owners’ rule book and prenuptial agreement. It puts everyone on the same page from the beginning in terms of what each person owns, what each person is responsible for, and how you’re going to resolve problems.

Your operating agreement can answer important questions like:

  • If an owner wants out, how much notice does he have to give? Do the other owners have first dibs on buying his portion of the company?
  • Do owners ever have to contribute their own money to the business?
  • What do you do if an owner isn’t pulling her weight? Can she be voted out of the company?
  • How will disputes be settled? If there’s an even number of owners with equal votes on each side, what’s the tie-breaker?
  • What happens if an owner dies?

Don’t think that you don’t have to create an operating agreement if you’re going into business with your best friend, spouse, or relative. We all know someone who has gone through a nasty divorce. The same can happen in the break up of a business if there isn’t an operating agreement that tells you how events will proceed.

It may seem strange to think about how you’ll handle problems at the beginning of the business, but it’s the ideal time to put these provisions into place. Hopefully everyone is optimistic and thinking about the business’ best interests which will make it easier to decide the best way to handle major decisions down the road. If you put off figuring out how you’ll resolve disputes until one occurs, you’ll be fighting over how the company should resolve its problems and you’ll be fighting over the problem at hand.

Operating agreements aren’t just about resolving problems. They give you the ability to create the company you want. Some companies may decide disputes in mediation, but you can choose to settle problems with a coin flip, a game of ping pong, or let your dog decide if that’s what you and the other owners want. You can also use your operating agreement to declare other rules like requiring everyone to bring pie to work on March 14th (Pi Day) and allowing video games as an acceptable brainstorming technique.

You’re not required to have an operating agreement if your LLC is in Arizona, but you’re asking for trouble if you don’t. This is one of those times when it’s worth it to pay a lawyer. You will pay a lot less to have someone draft the agreement for you, than to clean up the mess that could result when you and the other owners have a major dispute and everything goes to hell.