Series LLCs: An Uncertain Innovation
Given the ubiquity of the LLC today, it’s easy to forget that in its early days the LLC wasn’t always the go-to legal form for founders who wanted the benefits of limited liability without the hassles of incorporation. As Vicki Harding notes in an article in the Michigan Business Law Journal, when the LLC was still a novel legal construct, founders often shied away from the form. In those early days, it was not clear how courts in states without LLC statutes would treat LLCs that had been formed in other states. Faced with this legal uncertainty, founders elected to form more traditional legal entities rather than risk an adverse judgment in a state court that refused to recognize the LLC’s liability protections. Today, a similar phenomenon can be seen in a more recent legal innovation: the series LLC.
A series LLC is a group of limited liability entities that operate under one parent entity that is registered with the state. The parent is usually referred to as the “series LLC,” and the constituent entities are called “series.” Each series is treated as an independent LLC with its own assets and liabilities. Creditors of one series cannot reach the assets of another series.
While series LLCs are often associated with venture capital funds and real estate management companies, entrepreneurs who want to engage in multiple “synergistic” lines of business might be drawn to the form, too. A tech startup, for example, might want to simultaneously explore several potentially viable lines of business. The series LLC would allow the tech startup to do that, while protecting each line of business from the liabilities of the others. The startup could create the same liability structure by founding several independent LLCs, but that approach would typically involve more work and more taxes and fees. Often, forming a series LLC is a thriftier alternative.
However, there’s a catch. Only a few states have adopted series LLC laws, and the courts in states without series LLC laws may not recognize the liability limitations series LLC laws provide. Founders who wish to operate in states without series LLC laws should consider whether the benefits of forming a series LLC outweigh the risks posed by the legal uncertainty surrounding their liability limitations.
Whether this uncertainty will ever be resolved is an open question. It doesn’t look like the series LLC is catching on as quickly as the LLC did. The first series LLC statute was passed twenty years ago, and next year marks the fortieth anniversary of the nation’s first LLC statute. The series LLC is already half as old as the regular LLC, yet little progress has been made toward its nationwide adoption. Ten years ago, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws declined to introduce series LLCs into the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act. Vicki Harding reports that the Commissioners found “difficult and substantial questions remain[ed] unanswered,” including whether the series form would be respected in state courts of states without series LLC laws. They concluded that “[g]iven the availability of well-established alternative structures (e.g., multiple single member LLCs, an LLC ‘holding company’ with LLC subsidiaries), it made no sense for the Act to endorse the complexities and risks of a series approach.” To date, only eleven states (Alabama, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas), the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have adopted series LLC laws. In non-series states, there seems to be very little case law on series LLCs, perhaps because few people form series LLCs for out-of-state operations. For example, no Michigan court has had occasion to rule on whether series LLCs are effective in Michigan.
Is it worth it?
For founders of entities that will do business only in a series-LLC state, forming a series LLC in that state is a low-risk option (provided of course there’s no reasonable likelihood the entity will be subject to suit in a non-series state). In series-LLC states, entrepreneurs participating in the local business scene (e.g., restauranteurs, property managers, independent retailers) might find that forming a series LLC saves them time and money.
Founders who will do business in non-series states need to consider whether the advantages of the series LLC outweigh the risk that a state court could hold the entire series LLC liable for the obligations of one of its constituent series.
Some states, like Illinois and Delaware, have higher than average franchise taxes and filing fees. In Illinois, it costs $750 just to file articles of organization for a series LLC. In Michigan, you could file fifteen separate LLC articles for the same amount of money. The entrepreneur will have to do the math, but in some cases it could be cheaper to form multiple regular LLCs, even before discounting for the risky nature of series LLCs.
Can a series LLC preserve limited liability when it operates out of state?
If a founder is willing to risk forming a series LLC that will operate in non-series states, he or she should carefully consider where to form the series LLC. Series LLC laws differ slightly from state to state, and those differences may have interesting legal implications for a founder who wants to operate a series LLC in a non-series state. For example, Vicki Harding explains that an entity that registers under Illinois law can obtain from the Illinois government a certificate of good standing for any single series in its series LLC. The entity can use that certificate to register the series to do business in other states and may thus preserve its limited liability. However, if the entity chooses to register under Delaware law, it can only get a certificate of good standing for the series LLC as a whole, and registering to do business in a non-series jurisdiction with that certificate could lead a court to treat the entire series LLC as a single entity for liability purposes.
The series LLC may well end up being a niche product, but for those who aren’t worried about ensuring they have limited liability in non-series states, forming a series LLC might be the least expensive way to structure a group of ventures in a way that preserves limited liability for each of them.