Section 501(C)(3) Organizations, Single Member Limited Liability Companies, and Fiduciary Duties
52 ABA Real Property, Trust and Estate Journal (2017)
43 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2017 Last revised: 20 Jan 2018
Date Written: April 5, 2017
Tax-exempt organizations, including section 501(c)(3) organizations and their philanthrocapitalists, use single member limited liability companies (SMLLCs) for a variety of purposes. Exempt section 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations (which, for convenience, I will refer to as charities) that have a number of facilities, be they schools, hospitals, or real estate investments, may form a separate SMLLC for each of them, primarily to protect other assets from liability. Charities may wish to place activities with a high risk of tort liability, such as an overnight summer camp, in its own SMLCC. SMLLCs may be used to isolate unrelated business activities from related activities. They may be used to isolate risky investments from more conservative ones. Philanthrocapitalists may structure donations through SMLLCs. They may use them to control aspects of the tax exempt entity’s activities, as according to press reports, the Koch Brothers may do with some of their noncharitable tax-exempt entities.
A SMLLC leads a schizophrenic existence. An entity under state law, it is disregarded for most purposes under federal tax law. Furthermore, the leading theoretical approaches to LLCs and to nonprofit organizations stand in sharp contrast to each other regarding reliance on contract. These very different sets of applicable laws and theory allow for regulatory arbitrage, which involves takes advantage of inconsistencies between the applicable rules.
The potential for regulatory arbitrage is especially acute in connection with governance issues that arise when charities employ SMLLCs. On one hand, the extent to which an entity’s governing body has responsibility to manage an entity, including a SMLLC, and what fiduciary duties members of the governing body of the SMLCC owe to the entity, are assigned to state law, and some state laws permit LLCs to reduce or eliminate fiduciary duties of care and loyalty. In contrast, state law does not permit elimination of fiduciaries duties for charities. Moreover, charities are subject to federal tax as well as state entity law. Under federal tax rules, charities must serve a public purpose, and federal tax laws themselves apply requirements regarding self-dealing. In addition, the IRS has shown particular interest in the governance of tax-exempt organizations more generally.
This paper examines possible tensions between governance and fiduciary duties of the charity and of its SMLCC. It concludes that waiver of fiduciary duties is not appropriate for SMLLCs of charities, even if such waiver is permitted under state law. In the case of SMLLCs of charities, moreover, the issues related to fiduciary duties have important consequences for the tax law. The paper thus argues that, as it has in analogous situations, the IRS should issue guidance ensuring that the governing body of a section 501(c)(3) has control of all aspects of its activities, including those conducted by any SMLLC. This guidance should be explicit as to what control of a SMLCC entails. While the recommendation made is a specific one, it underscores the importance of adhering to the special rules to which nonprofit tax-exempt charities are subject in order for these entities to fulfill their particular role they have been assigned in our society.
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