Sea Shells: Pros and Cons of Starting an LLC for Yacht, Jet, Golf Cart, or Other Vehicle Ownership

If you purchase a yacht or jet that will be used for the conduct of your business ventures, the acquisition should of course be structured so that the ownership of the vehicle clearly falls to your company, not to you personally. Most often, the appropriate business structure is a Limited Liability Company (LLC), which offers both the liability limits of a corporation and the “pass-through” taxation tax filing of a sole proprietorship, partnership, or S corporation.

Even if you are acquiring a new vehicle with no immediate use for it within the context of your existing businesses, you may want to consider starting a new LLC under which the purchase is made. Ownership of any vehicle that could potentially result in liability claims—from a sleek jet to a sturdy fishing boat, from a third luxury car to a simple golf cart—can put all of your personal assets at risk if a tragedy occurs.

Sea Shells: Pros and Cons of Starting an LLC for Yacht, Jet, Golf Cart, or Other Vehicle Ownership

The Big Benefit: Liability Limitation

The most important benefit of LLC formation for vehicle ownership is embedded in the abbreviation itself: limited liability in the event that injury or property damage results from your use of the vehicle. A single, fluke incident in which the parking brake on your golf cart fails and the vehicle rolls down a hill, striking another golfer, could be financially devastating if the cart is under your personal ownership. However, if the cart is under the ownership of your LLC, a lawsuit related to such an unfortunate event is subject to the same limitations as any other legal action against a corporation. Your personal assets will be protected if the LLC is formed and structured properly.

Mostly. Bear in mind that this protection is not absolute. If the court deems that there is no meaningful distinction between you and the LLC—that is, that the LLC is in fact an empty shell that exists solely to disguise the private nature of the vehicle ownership—the usual protections may be waived, granting the litigant the right to sue you directly. Therefore, in order to realize the benefits of LLC formation, it is necessary to take all the steps normally required to operate a business—hiring a competent business attorney, staff or contractors, revenue and expense tracking, and so on.

Tax Benefits Are Elusive

When considering the benefits of owning a vehicle as a business asset, many people are quick to land on potential tax advantages. Those advantages are not as easily realized as many would like to think, however.

Deducting Ongoing Expenses Related to Vehicle Ownership

In order to deduct expenses related to your yacht, jet, or other vehicle, such as repairs and upkeep, it is necessary to maintain thorough, detailed records and to file appropriate business income/loss forms with your taxes. It is also important to remember that a business is, by IRS definition, an organization or activity that exists for the purpose of attaining profit. If you plan to keep your vehicle for the long haul, it will be necessary for your LLC to somehow generate revenue in order for you to continue deducting expenses.

Furthermore, you will need to demonstrate that the expenses are in fact related to business use of the vehicle. For a jet that you employ for business travel, such a claim is easy to defend. Setting up an office on your yacht where you regularly conduct business and meet clients might also fly (or rather, float) with the IRS.

If you set up the LLC for ownership of your golf cart or fourth luxury SUV, deducting operating expenses may well be difficult to justify and unwise to attempt. There is, however, a different tax benefit that can be readily attained for any vehicle owned under an LLC.

Sales Tax Savings

The most easily attained tax advantage of starting an LLC for your golf cart, boat, or other vehicle is actually a benefit for the buyer when you sell the craft. Rather than simply selling the vehicle to another party, you sell them the LLC itself, with the vehicle included as a company asset—thus exempting the transaction from sales tax. Although this exemption ostensibly benefits only the purchaser, it pays dividends for the seller as well, in the form of a higher ceiling for the selling price of the vehicle.

To execute the tax-exempt sale of your vehicle, it is critical that the transaction be structured and understood as the sale of the business from the beginning. If an agreement for the purchase of the vehicle is reached separately, any subsequent attempt to “throw in” the LLC as part of the deal amounts to the purchaser buying a company with no assets. As noted in my article on valuing artwork for tax purposes, both federal and state tax agencies are quick to flag transactions that appear to have been completed solely to attain a tax benefit.

Properly Insuring the Asset

Finally, if you do choose to establish an LLC, make certain to insure your vehicle in the name of the LLC, not under a personal insurance policy. Otherwise, you will find yourself either uninsured, unprotected from liability, or both.