The LLC has become one of the most popular legal structures for shielding an owner’s personal assets from business liability risks. An LLC owned by a single person, or “member”, is considered a desirable “disregarded entity” by the IRS, which allows the LLC owner to skip filing a partnership return and instead report his LLC income directly on his personal income tax return.
In North Carolina, the personal ownership interest in an LLC, or membership, is classified as an item of personal property. Unfortunately, that classification leads to this not-commonly-known fact: when the individual owner of a single-member LLC dies, the LLC’s necessary ownership transfer to the decedent’s heirs must pass through probate.
While the LLC is passing through probate, its revenue stream flows to the decedent’s estate, not to the heirs. The LLC membership may thus be tied up in probate for months, or even a year or more. This can interrupt a family’s finances. For example, if a retired husband and wife were living on the monthly income from 10 rental properties held in the husband’s single-member LLC, the wife’s access to cash flow from the LLC may be disrupted if the husband dies and his LLC membership passes into probate.
In North Carolina, the best way to keep a single-member LLC’s ownership interest out of probate is to employ a revocable trust. The revocable living trust keeps assets held by the trust out of probate because the trust is a separate entity which transcends the trust grantor’s death.
When a grantor’s revocable trust becomes owner of the grantor’s single-member LLC, the LLC Articles of Organization and Operating Agreement are set up so that the trust owns the single membership in the LLC. Because the IRS considers a revocable trust a grantor trust, income from the single-member LLC owned by a grantor’s revocable trust is still reported on the grantor’s individual tax return, maintaining desirable pass-through taxation.
Distribution terms added to the grantor’s revocable trust direct how ownership of the LLC will be transferred to the grantor’s beneficiaries following the grantor’s death. Because trust distribution following the grantor’s death takes place privately outside of probate, the ownership transfer from the grantor’s trust to the beneficiary(ies) can take place almost immediately, keeping the LLC’s cash flow intact and uninterrupted to a needy beneficiary(ies).