The IRS Alter Ego Doctrine and Piercing the Corporate Veil

I have previously written about the benefits of forming an LLC for golf cart and other asset/vehicle ownership as an asset protection strategy to insulate your accumulated personal wealth. A properly established LLC or corporation exists as a separate entity from its members or owners for both legal and tax purposes. The resulting asset protection is known as the “corporate veil.” Yet many business owners fail to realize until it is too late that the corporate veil is not impenetrable, and in fact becomes dangerously thin when business practices are sloppy.

What Does It Mean to “Pierce the Corporate Veil?”

When the IRS, a creditor, or the plaintiff in a lawsuit succeeds in convincing legal authorities that your personal and business assets are not truly separate, the corporate veil has been “pierced,” and the ensuing loss of asset protection can be devastating. Importantly, this loss of protection is bidirectional: those coming after your business could sink their claws into your personal assets, while personal creditors could bankrupt your business to collect the money you owe them.

What Is the Alter Ego Doctrine?

In psychology, an alter ego is defined as a secondary personality that a person exhibits either by choice or due to a disorder. For a familiar reference, think Clark Kent and Superman or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Similarly, in the business world, the Alter Ego Doctrine refers to cases in which IRS agents successfully establish that a business and its owner, or multiple businesses owned by the same individual, are one and the same. An alter ego ruling obliterates the corporate veil, putting both your personal and business assets at risk.

Can I Protect Myself and My Businesses Against an Alter Ego Ruling?

Fortunately, there are measures that all corporation owners and LLC members can take to protect themselves from the Alter Ego Doctrine. The underlying principles are separation of assets, separation of objectives, and adherence to corporate procedures.

Separation of Assets and the Dangers of Commingling

The term commingling refers to any blurring of lines separating assets, whether it be lines separating personal assets from business assets or lines separating the assets of one business from the assets of another. Examples include receiving interest-free personal loans from the company, using company assets for personal purposes without reimbursing the company, using personal resources to pay company expenses without appropriate legal arrangements in place, and using one company’s assets to pay the expenses of another. If you are unsure whether a transaction would constitute commingling, take no chances. If IRS agents are looking to invoke the Alter Ego Doctrine against you, commingling assets hands them the evidence they need on a silver platter.

To ensure both the appearance and the reality of proper separation of assets, all of your businesses must be appropriately capitalized. To anyone seeking an alter ego ruling against you, under-capitalization of a business is like a suspect’s scent on a sweatshirt to a bloodhound. The resources to run a legitimate business must come from somewhere, they reason, and the most likely explanation for a capital discrepancy is commingling.

Separation of Objectives: Business Decisions Should Clearly Benefit That Business

In addition to seeing to it that the assets of each of your companies remain separate from each other and from your personal assets, pay careful attention to the purposes for which company assets are used. Every expenditure, from an equipment upgrade to a business trip, should clearly serve the purposes of that specific business entity.

The principle of separation of objectives is based on the “arm’s length” standard applied in tax and legal proceedings, which stipulates that two different businesses, or a business and an individual, will necessarily have different aims. Suppose you own one LLC that manages apartment buildings and another LLC that performs ice arena maintenance. If your apartment management company purchases a Zamboni, then it is clearly acting in the interest of another business, not its own.

The Importance of Record Keeping and Following Standard Business Practices

Functioning companies hold meetings. They keep detailed minutes and complete business records, not just of expenses and revenue but also of all substantive decisions. For a corporation, following these and many other standard business practices is a legal requirement. The rules governing LLCs allow more leeway regarding how the entity conducts its business, but any LLC is free to adopt the stricter corporate procedures.

No matter the structure of your company, following standard business practices either as required by law or to the greatest extent possible by choice significantly thickens and reinforces your corporate veil. Conversely, careless record keeping and a lack of evidence of meetings and decision-making procedures greatly increase the odds that you will one day face an alter ego investigation.

Conclusion: Assume You and Your Businesses Will Be Scrutinized

Clark Kent and Dr. Jekyll might be able to fool the gullible public with a simple costume change, but IRS agents are highly skilled at spotting alter egos in disguise. The only way to securely protect your assets is to make certain that your businesses legitimately function as separate entities from you and from each other.