Over the past 20 years, many dermatologists have established limited liability companies (LLCs) or family limited partnerships (FLPs) to own real estate, for estate planning, or most often for wealth protection purposes. In our consulting firm, we have reviewed the documents of hundreds of such LLCs and FLPs for our clients—created by more than 200 different law firms across the country. Combine this experience with David’s separate law practice—creating and managing hundreds of such entities over his career—and we have been able to gain some significant insight into how most physicians set up and maintain such entities.
The bad news is simple: In our experience, most physicians’ LLCs and FLPs are not as protective as they believe them to be because their controlling agreement is missing key provisions, or they have not kept up the entity properly on an annual basis. Unfortunately, many doctors do not understand a key fact of the law—that, if the LLC or FLP is not set up or maintained properly, it will not enjoy the protective benefits that it was intended to provide.
In this brief article, we will discuss three common problems we have seen in physicians’ LLCs and FLPs. In some cases we have seen one or more of these problems surface. Even one weakness, though, could be enough to threaten all of the benefits the entity is designed to provide.
1. Not Maintaining All Formalities on an Annual Basis
We mention annual formality compliance first because it is probably where most physicians fail with regard to their entities. Simply put—if you are not having at least an annual review of the following areas (and this is a partial list), then the entity may not get the respect from the law if it is ever challenged. Such annual compliance should include at least (partial list):
Filing of annual state forms & federal/state/local tax forms;
• Annual meeting and minutes;
• A review of all relevant insurances, contracts, leases, etc. in the name of the FLP or LLC;
• Reports to managers or general partners from members/limited partners;
• Update(s) to LLC or FLP agreement language based on any relevant legislative or case law changes;
• Gifting program, if applicable, including assignments and gift tax filings; and
• Additional requirements based on specifics to your entity’s circumstances
2. Language In Operating or Partnership Agreement
An LLC or FLP is only as protective or tax-beneficial as its language dictates – and we have found that most physicians’ LLCs or FLPs are lacking here as well. Let’s use an analogy of a will. First you want the will to be valid from a legal perspective—proper signatures, witnesses etc. This is precisely the weakness of many LLCs and FLPs, per above, regarding their ongoing legal requirements. Even if that is properly managed, then, like a will, the LLC or FLP is only as effective as the language in its operational document. A will might dictate that all assets go to one family member, to all family members or all to charity etc. Similarly, an LLC or FLP can be written to maximize discounting for gift tax purposes or not. It may be written for solid protection against outside lawsuits…or not. Specifically on the lawsuit protection perspective, there are a number of key provisions that an LLC or FLP should have. We will describe just two of them here.
Language on Distributions. If a physician wants their LLC or FLP to effectively provide a solid shield for LLC/FLP assets against outside lawsuits; then proper language regarding distributions is critical. It is especially important that the language not lock in the LLC manager or managing member or FLP general partner to make distributions evenly. This can be problematic if there is ever a lawsuit or judgment creditor against the physician and/or other LLC or FLP owners. Nonetheless, in the typical LLC and FLP “form” agreements we have reviewed over the years, this problematic language is the standard boilerplate. This can be a significant weakness and may undermine the entire purpose of the entity for the physician and his/her family.
Language on Involuntary Transfers. In our estimation, 80 percent of the hundreds of LLC and FLP agreements we have reviewed do not have adequate provisions regarding involuntary transfers. In other words, what exactly are the rights of a judgment creditor (i.e., successful lawsuit plaintiff) against an LLC or FLP owner’s interests? Most often, the only LLC or FLP language related to this issue is regarding the ability of the owner to transfer their interests voluntarily – and may be quite permissive. If this is the only language related to the issue, a judge may very well interpret that permissiveness to the situation to allow a successful plaintiff to become an owner, have voting rights, and even to take control of the LLC or FLP. Even worse, if the LLC or FLP is completely silent on the issue, then the judge has even more leeway.
Ideally, an LLC or FLP defines exactly what occurs in the event of a judgment creditor getting a court order against an owner’s interest, or similar involuntary-type of transfer. The language should define not only what circumstances give rise to the clause but also restrict the rights of such an involuntary transferee to the greatest extent of the relevant statute. This is crucial to take advantage of the strongest “outside risk” protections that an LLC or FLP can afford. Without this language, the entity is certainly not ideally protected.
3. Sub-Optimal Jurisdiction
In the case where the LLC or FLP will own personal property that can be held in any state (i.e., securities portfolio), as opposed to an asset that is fixed in one location (i.e., real estate), one has a choice to create the entity in any of the 50 states. There are three to four top states from a protection perspective, and state fees and taxes are also a factor. For some clients, estate tax planning may dictate other states as preferable. Regardless, the important point is that an LLC or FLP does not need to be created in the client’s home state and should be positioned properly depending on the entity’s purpose.
Conclusion: Make Sure Your LLC or FLP is Strong
LLCs and FLPs can be fundamental tools for business planning, asset protection planning, family wealth planning, estate planning and more. Nonetheless, these tools are only as strong or weak as their operating documents and ongoing compliance management. If you have any of these entities in place, make sure that you have them reviewed by experienced experts. The authors welcome your questions. You can contact them at 877-656-4362 or through their website, www.ojmgroup.com n
Get a free hardcopy of our new book, Wealth Protection Planning for Dermatologists, which we co-authored with Dr. David Goldberg, practicing dermatologist, clinical professor and attorney. For a hardcopy, please call 877-656-4362. For a free ebook download for your Kindle or iPad, visit www.ojmbookstore.com and enter promotional code PRDERM34.
David B. Mandell, JD, MBA, is former attorney, consultant and author of five national books for doctors, including For Doctors Only: A Guide to Working Less & Building More, as well a number of state books. He is a principal of the financial consulting firm OJM Group www.ojmgroup.com along with Jason M. O’Dell, MS, CWM, who is also a principal and author. They can be reached at 877-656-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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