Many business owners establish corporations to shield themselves from personal liability for business debts and protect their personal assets from creditors of the company. When established and maintained properly, a corporation is treated under the law as an independent entity, with many of the rights afforded to individuals. Such rights include the ability to own and transfer property, enter into contracts, obtain funding and to initiate legal action. A corporation is a separate, distinct entity, apart from its shareholders; as a result, only the corporation’s assets can be seized to pay judgments or satisfy other debts owed by the company.
However, the liability protection afforded by the corporate business structure is only available if the integrity of the corporation as a separate entity is respected by the courts and taxing authorities. Certain corporate formalities must be observed in order to preserve the corporation’s status as a separate entity apart from its owners. Failure to comply with these requirements may permit creditors to “pierce the corporate veil” and seek payment from the individual shareholders directly. To ensure the corporate veil remains intact, the corporation must act like a separate and distinct entity, and the shareholders must treat it as such. If certain corporate formalities are not consistently observed, a court may find that the corporation is merely an “alter ego” of the individual owner(s), and the corporate structure may be “disregarded”. When this occurs, the corporate veil is pierced and the individual shareholders can be held personally liable for the debts of the company.
Formalities that must be observed in order to preserve the integrity of the corporation and ensure the protection afforded by the corporate veil remains intact include:
The corporation’s financial and corporate records must be documented. Most states also require that the shareholders and the directors meet at least once per year. A record of these meetings, in the form of minutes or written resolutions must be properly executed and maintained by the company.
Commingling of Assets
The corporation and the shareholders must treat themselves as separate entities. The corporation should have its own bank and credit card accounts. Business owners should clearly document and account for expenditures made from corporate accounts if they were for personal benefit.
The corporation must be fully capitalized, or funded. This is typically accomplished by selling shares. Even in a one-person corporation, that individual shareholder must purchase his or her shares of stock in the company. The corporation should also avoid becoming intentionally insolvent by transferring assets to the shareholders if it is likely that such transfer will inhibit the corporation’s ability to meet its financial obligations.
Failure to Pay Dividends
Payment of dividends is neither required, nor appropriate in every situation. However, if the payment of dividends is appropriate, or required, and the corporation fails to pay them, this could suggest that the corporation is actually an alter ego and not a separate legal entity.