It is not uncommon for lenders to take a security interest in a business owner’s ownership interest in the corporation, LLC, limited partnership or other entity as collateral for a loan to the business. For the most part, the transactions are documented through a standard pledge or assignment (the “assignment agreement”) of the stock or other evidence of ownership. While such an approach may be acceptable when the interests of a corporation are pledged, when the collateral is an interest in an LLC, savvy lenders will make sure that they use an enhanced form of assignment agreement and perhaps obtain the consents (and necessary waivers) from the other LLC members.
An enhanced form of assignment agreement is called for because an LLC has one distinct advantage over other entity forms. Under Maryland law, a judgment against an LLC member can only be enforced by imposing a charging order against the member’s interest. This is a court order requiring the LLC to pay the creditor the debtor member’s share of LLC distributions. In this respect, a charging order is akin to a wage garnishment, except it is against the member’s distributions rather than against wages. The lender who simply obtains an assignment of a membership interest in an LLC gets no right to attach the member’s LLC interest or be admitted as a voting member. The lender cannot, therefore, participate in company management, force a sale of company assets or distribution of profits, or inspect company books.
In contrast, shares of a corporation’s stock are freely transferable absent contrary provisions in a shareholder agreement. Consequently, a lender with a security interest can typically exercise all of the associated rights of a stockholder. Upon obtaining the shares, the lender acquires the right to inspect corporate books and records and to vote on the election and removal of directors. If the shares represent a controlling interest, the lender could actually replace all the directors and officers and take over control of the corporation. Depending on the circumstances, the lender may also have the right to seek involuntary dissolution or place the corporation in receivership.
To optimize the collateral value of an LLC membership interest, lenders will want to be sure that they, as assignees, can be admitted, automatically, as full voting members of the company once they obtain ownership of the membership interest (a complex process in and of itself). Lenders will also want to scrutinize the LLC operating agreement to see if it contains provisions that either permit the company to acquire a member’s interest for a discounted value in the event of the member’s personal bankruptcy or that limit profit distributions either by making them discretionary rather than mandatory, or by restricting distributions to insolvent members. Finally, the operating agreement should be reviewed so that the lender understands any restrictions that may be placed upon the rights of an assignee who assumes a member’s interest. If such provisions are included in the operating agreement, they should be addressed in the assignment agreement as part of the negotiations over the assignment of the LLC membership interest so as to preserve the creditor’s rights and the value of charging orders.
Savvy lenders know that the LLC is the optimal form of entity for insulating company assets from owners’ personal creditors. Hence, they are the lenders that will carefully review the LLC organizational documents and only take LLC interests as collateral using an enhanced form of assignment agreement.