An LLC member, Mr. Smith, sells his member interest and terminates all connections with the LLC. The sale agreement ends Smith’s rights in the LLC. Smith moves on and doesn’t think much more about the LLC. Many months later, Smith receives a Schedule K-1 from the LLC. >
Schedule K-1 is the form an LLC uses to inform each member of the member’s share of income, losses, deductions, credits and so on. Like almost all LLCs, Smith’s former LLC is taxed as a partnership for federal income tax purposes, and the LLC’s income and losses for each tax year are allocated to its members. The members then each pay taxes on their share of the LLC’s income for that year, or use the losses to shelter other income. (The ability to use losses to shelter other income is subject to various limitations. See my prior post on passive income loss limitations, here.)
Smith is shocked to see that the K-1 shows a whopping allocation of income to him for the last year of his membership in the LLC. He realizes that that income will have to be reported on his own personal tax return and will substantially increase his tax bill, and he didn’t receive any cash distribution from the LLC to cover those extra taxes. Based on what he knows about the LLC’s operations and finances towards the end of his involvement with it, he doesn’t understand how or why so much income was allocated to him. What does he do?
Naturally Smith starts asking questions. He requests copies of the LLC’s financial records so his CPA can evaluate the correctness of the LLC’s allocations. The LLC, however, points out that Smith is no longer a member, so its operating agreement gives him no right to see the records. The LLC also notes that the state LLC Act only allows members, not former members, to access LLC records. In short, he is politely told to go roll his hoop.
The plaintiffs in Abdalla v. Qadorh-Zidan, 913 N.E.2d 280 (Ind. Ct. App. Sept. 10, 2009), were faced with this situation. The Qadorh-Zidans (Zidans) and the Abdallas had formed five LLCs to own and operate apartment properties. Later the Abdallas filed a lawsuit against the Zidans alleging breach of fiduciary duty and usurpation of corporate opportunities. That suit was resolved through a settlement that included a buyout – the Zidans sold their membership interests in the LLCs to the Abdallas in August 2006.
In the fall of 2007 the Zidans received tax returns and K-1 Schedules from the LLCs for the tax year ending on the date of the buyout. The Zidans alleged discrepancies in the K-1s and requested accounting information and records from the LLCs for the time period when they were members. The Abdallas refused, so the Zidans filed a complaint alleging breach of fiduciary duty and seeking declaratory relief to inspect the books and records of the LLCs for the period when they were members. The Zidans sought discovery of the requested information, which was stayed pending a summary judgment motion by the Abdallas. The trial court’s denial of the Abdallas’ motion was appealed.
The Abdallas contended that any fiduciary duties owed to the Zidans terminated when they ceased being members of the LLCs, because the Zidans no longer had any rights under the operating agreements and because their settlement agreement in the first lawsuit included a relinquishment of all of the Zidans’ rights as members. The Zidans maintained that fiduciary duties should remain intact with respect to the resolution of pre-separation business, and that therefore the fiduciary relationship covered the preparation of the tax return which was completed after the Zidans sold out.
The court held that the Abdallas owed a fiduciary duty to the Zidans regarding the preparation of tax returns for the period during which the Zidans were members of the LLCs. Abdalla, 913 N.E.2d at 286. As the court said, “To hold otherwise would give the Abdallas the freedom to allocate tax burdens to the Zidans and retain tax benefits for themselves without allowing the Zidans any recourse to verify or rectify this allocation.” Id.
The court reached a similar result on the question of whether the Zidans had a right of access to the LLCs’ books. Although the Indiana LLC Act only gives members the right to access an LLC’s records, Ind. Code § 23-18-4-8(b), the court held that the Zidans, as former members, had a right to access the records covering the time period while they were still members of the LLCs. Abdalla, 913 N.E.2d at 287.
Many state LLC Acts, like Indiana’s, do not address what inspection rights former LLC members have. For example, the LLC Acts of Washington, Oregon and Delaware are silent on inspection rights for former members. There’s no reason why state statutes can’t address this issue, though. The Illinois LLC Act, for example, provides that former members have a right of access for a proper purpose to LLC records pertaining to the period when they were members. 805 Ill. Comp. Stat. 180/10-15. The Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act and the Uniform Limited Partnership Act also have comparable provisions giving former members limited access rights.
When the Zidans resolved their first dispute with the Abdallas through a buyout of the Zidans’ interests in the LLCs, they apparently did not consider the inevitable entanglement resulting from the tax flow-through treatment of the LLCs. In an LLC buyout there will usually be a time lag from the buyout to the computation and allocation of the LLC’s profits and losses, and the distribution of the Schedule K-1s.
There’s a moral here. A member selling its interest in an LLC should consider adding provisions to the buyout agreement for later access to the LLC’s accounting records and for consultation with the LLC’s manager or CPA over the tax allocations and the preparation of tax returns, for the period when the seller was a member. The seller should also consider provisions for notice, access to records and consultation regarding any later amendment to the LLC’s previously filed tax returns, or any IRS contact with the LLC or tax audit for the period before the buyout. These provisions can help the former member avoid unpleasant tax-related surprises, and can give the former member the tools necessary to investigate unexpected tax allocations.