As many people have learned, it is relatively easy to form a new limited liability company (LLC) these days. Often when new clients come in for business advice, they have already filed the Articles of Organization through the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (www.wdfi.org). Sometimes they figured it out on their own, and other times another advisor, such as an accountant, helped them with the filing. All it takes is a credit card and a few minutes of time, and you too can have your very own LLC. These simple state filings are an important and necessary step in the business organization process. However, there is more that should be done to ensure that your business is properly organized!
One of the foundational documents that every LLC should have in place is an operating agreement. An operating agreement provides the basic rules of the road with respect to management and ownership of the company. Without a written operating agreement, the LLC and its members (members are the “owners” of an LLC) will be governed by the default statutory rules. For Wisconsin-based LLCs, those rules are found in Chapter 183 of the Wisconsin Statutes. No offense to our hardworking legislators, but would you really want to rely on the statutes to govern your relationship with your company and business partners?
Operating agreements range from the relatively simple to the extremely complex. The level of complexity depends on the nature of the business and the goals of the members. For example, a husband and wife forming an LLC usually need a straightforward operating agreement that spells out the basics about governance (like who can sign contracts on behalf of the LLC) and liability protections (helping ensure the members are not liable for the debts of the LLC). Typically, extensive rules governing transfers of ownership are not needed when just two spouses are involved. (That is what marital property agreements are for…a topic for another day.)
As soon as ownership of the LLC expands beyond one person and their spouse, it is extremely important to spell out the rules on who can own the LLC and under what terms. For example, if one member wants out of the LLC, will the other members have to buy their interest? At what price? What happens if one member dies or gets divorced? (Would you want to be in business with your partner’s kids or ex?) How will the owners handle a fundamental disagreement about the direction of the business? These are just a few of the questions and issues that an operating agreement should address.
Addressing these types of issues up-front, hopefully before there is a death, disability, divorce, or disagreement, may save both the business and the relationships between the members. While negotiating and drafting these agreements does take time and cost money, it is an investment in peace of mind and, hopefully, a way to avoid future litigation.
These same issues and concerns are present in business corporations, partnerships and even family cottage LLCs. And remember, even when the business owners are all family (or maybe especially when that is the case), addressing these issues up-front is better than losing those relationships or ending up in court