Monday, October 25, 2010

Focus on Corporate Law: Personal Debts of Members of Commercial Companies

Many companies have a joint ownership structure. Indeed, many types of commercial companies – for example, limited liability companies or joint stock companies – are required by law to have multiple shareholders. However, joint ownership can make matters complicated when an individual shareholder of the company, whose assets include his interest in the company, is pursued by a creditor for personal debts (let us call this creditor the “personal creditor”).

The personal creditor will wish to access any of the shareholder’s assets that it can in order to claim payment of the member’s debts. However, if the personal creditor were able to withdraw the shareholder’s share of a company’s capital, this reduction in the company’s capital could adversely affect the company and its remaining shareholders. Likewise, if the creditor were able to accede to the shareholder’s interest in the company and become a shareholder in the company without the consent of the company’s remaining shareholders, this could adversely affect those other shareholders. Particularly in a privately held company (as opposed to a publicly traded joint-stock company), many shareholders are active in the company’s affairs – voting on key decisions; serving on the board and committees; even participating in day-to-day management – and are very selective about who they want to work with as fellow shareholders.

Fortunately, the Commercial Companies Law does prescribe rules for dealing with these types of issues. The statute provides that:

  • A personal creditor may not claim the shareholder’s share in the company’s capital as payment of the shareholder’s debt; however, upon dissolution of the company, the personal creditor may claim as payment the shareholder’s share of the company’s assets remaining after settlement of the company’s liabilities.
  • When the shareholder’s interest is in a company other than a joint stock company, a personal creditor may claim payment of the shareholder’s debt out of the shareholder’s share in the company’s profits.
  • When the shareholder’s interest is in a joint stock company, a personal creditor may claim payment only out of the shareholder’s share of the declared dividends; however, the personal creditor may also – subject to the company’s articles of association and applicable law – require the public sale of the shareholder’s shares and claim payment of the debt from the proceeds of this share sale.
In addition to these statutory requirements, companies can impose additional requirements – e.g., via the company’s commercial contract or a shareholders’ agreement – to govern such matters as shareholder composition and capital withdraw.