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Reverse Piercing and the Myth of Limited Liability – Beware of the Alter Ego!

A novel situation has presented itself in recent court decisions. In 2004, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of granting a new type of remedy, “reverse piercing.” Piercing the corporate veil is a fancy way of saying that the shareholders of an entity are personally liable for the debts and liabilities of that entity. This means that if the entity does not have enough money to pay all debts and liabilities, creditors came attack a shareholder’s personal holdings.

Reverse piercing is different. In a reverse piercing situation, an entity is held liable for the debts and liabilities of its shareholders. This is an amazing theory because the whole point of a limited liability entity is to protect the personal assets of its shareholders and vice versa. In other words, the shareholders and the business are two completely separate entities. However, many of the factors used by the court to determine whether an entity should be pierced are used in determining whether a reverse piercing should take place.

The main inquiry is whether the individual shareholder is the alter ego of the entity. In other words, are the two distinguishable (in a legal sense)? In the New York case, the defendants were sued by two creditors. The defendants contracted to buy a house and formed a corporation for the purpose of buying the house. The defendants, and not the defendant’s corporation, paid the property taxes and mortgage principle and interest on the house. The defendants then deducted the payment of these taxes and mortgage interest from their, and not the corporation’s, tax return. The court concluded that the defendants bought the house in a way to avoid the creditors’ claims, and the defendants utterly controlled and completely dominated the corporation. As such, the court held that the defendants were the alter ego of the corporation, and the house purchased by the corporation (and therefore the property of the corporation) was subject to the creditors’ claims.

Let this be a lesson to all you aspiring entrepreneurs! If you have a corporation, or any legal limited liability entity, make sure that you keep the entities affairs separate from your personal affairs. If you do commingle these affairs, you may be subject to personal liability or, under a reverse piercing theory, your entity may be liable for your personal debts and liabilities.

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