In general, the answer to the title question is yes, your trust can own your business after you die. However, there are a number of considerations that may impact the answer to this and the following questions. One consideration is the type of business interest you own. Is your business a limited liability company (LLC), a partnership, a corporation, or a sole proprietorship? Another consideration is how your business is managed. Is your business managed as an LLC, a partnership, or a corporation?
How Does the Trust Get Ownership of the Business?
- LLC: If your business is an LLC, a trust can receive ownership of your business interest when you execute an assignment of interest. If you are the LLC's sole member, then after you have executed the transfer document assigning your interest to the trust, the trust will own 100% of your business. If your LLC has other members, your trust will own only the percentage of the business that you own. For example, if you have a 25% ownership interest in an LLC, your trust will own 25%. It is important to review the LLC's operating agreement to see what restrictions, if any, there are on transferring your interest. Also, some operating agreements will require the other members' consent prior to any transfer. If your LLC issues membership certificates, you should submit your assignment document to the LLC and have new membership certificates issued in the trust's name.
- Partnership: As with an LLC, a partnership interest is transferred to a trust by an assignment of interest. Again, it is important to review any partnership agreement to determine if there are restrictions or other conditions, such as consent requirements, to a transfer.
- Corporation: If your business is a corporation, you should contact the corporation to determine what documentation will be needed to transfer your stock to your trust. For closely held corporations without specific documentation requirements, you can transfer your stock to your trust by executing an assignment of stock. You should submit this document to the corporation so that new stock certificates can be issued showing that the trust owns the stock. As with other types of business interests, you should check the corporate governing document, if any, to determine if there are restrictions or other conditions on making a transfer to your trust.
- Sole Proprietor: If you own your business as a sole proprietor, you have not created any separate legal business entity that needs to be transferred. To transfer ownership of your business's assets to your trust, you will simply transfer ownership in the same way as you would any other assets that are in your personal name.
How Is the Business Managed?
How the business is managed after it has been transferred to the trust is very fact specific and will depend on several factors, such as what kind of business has been transferred and how that business was managed prior to the transfer.
- LLC: After a business interest has been transferred to a trust, the trustee will own the interest. If the interest is a single-member LLC where the member runs the business and is also the trustee, the trustee would continue to run the business's day-to-day affairs, just like prior to the transfer. After the member's death, the successor trustee would manage the business unless the trust and operating agreements have specified otherwise or the trustee has delegated their business management duties to another person. If, however, the business interest is a manager-managed multi-member LLC where the member has not participated in day-to-day management decisions and such decisions have been delegated to a manager, the LLC would continue to be managed by the manager both prior to and after the member's death.
- Partnership: In a partnership where the partner participated in day-to-day management and has now transferred their ownership portion to a trust of which they are the trustee, the trustee will continue to manage the business as before the transfer. As with an LLC, after the partner's death, the successor trustee will step in to manage the business unless the trust and partnership agreements specify otherwise or the trustee has delegated their management duties to another person. If the partnership has delegated these duties to its officers or employees, then depending on what the trust and partnership agreements direct, the trustee will most likely continue to allow the other officers/employees to manage the business, both prior to and after the partner's death.
- Corporation: After transferring the corporate stock to the trust, the trustee, as the owner, will be entitled to vote that stock according to the terms and conditions of the corporation's governing documents. Normally, a transfer of stock to a trust will not change the corporation's management.
What Do the Beneficiaries Receive?
The trust's terms will determine what the beneficiaries are entitled to receive. The trust is entitled to receive income or profit distributions to owners or stockholders. Whether that income is distributed to the beneficiaries, and on what terms, will depend on the trust agreement's terms.
Special Note About S Corporations
If your business is taxed as an S corporation (and you do not have to actually be a corporation to be taxed as an S corporation), there are special rules about who can own an S corporation. It is important to seek the advice of a qualified legal or tax professional prior to transferring ownership of your S corporation business interest to a trust and after the death of the grantor/trustmaker.
Although your trust can own your business after you die, you must consider many factors when transferring your business ownership interest to your trust. Therefore, it is important to consult a qualified professional who can ensure that you have considered all the factors and help you properly complete the transfer.