A shareholder is an individual or entity that holds shares representing an equity ownership interest in a corporation, often termed either common or preferred stock. A shareholder can also be referred to interchangeably as a stockholder.
As an equity holder, a shareholder is a part-owner of a corporation and participates in the increase or decrease in the company’s value.
The bylaws may provide different classes of stock with different economic (and other) rights, and holders of preferred stock receive priority and preferred distributions over holders of common stock.
One of the key features of share ownership is limited liability. A corporate shareholder is not liable for the debts and obligations of the corporation. Under certain circumstances, a court can look through a corporation and hold its shareholders responsible for certain debts and liabilities, most commonly in cases of fraud or other misconduct. Such an action, referred to as “piercing the corporate veil,” is not common, as it undermines the general principal of limited shareholder liability, a fundamental feature of the corporate form.
Many terms related to shareholders’ rights can be set forth in a corporation’s Certificate of Incorporation or bylaws.
Corporate shareholders’ rights often vary, depending on the size of the corporation. For example, shareholders’ rights in a private corporation with only a few key holders will differ greatly from rights afforded a shareholder in a large, publicly-traded company.
In close corporations, shareholders’ rights will be set forth with specificity in a shareholder’s agreement among the holders. In larger corporations with a larger number of shareholders, the Certificate of Incorporation and the bylaws are the primary governing documents.
Delaware law sets forth default rules and rights that will govern in the event that a corporation’s governing documents are silent on an issue and, importantly, spells out certain limited rights that cannot be waived in such documents.
One of the primary rights of common shareholders of a Delaware corporation is the right to their pro-rata share of any dividend issued by the Board of Directors to the common shareholders.
Another basic right of all owners of shares of common stock in Delaware corporations is that they may vote one vote per share on all matters that common shareholders are allowed to vote on.
Under Delaware law, a shareholder has a to right to vote on any amendment to the corporation’s governing documents, whether such class of shares is entitled to vote or not under the governing documents, for actions that would (i) increase or decrease the number of authorized shares of such class; (ii) increase or decrease the par value of shares of such class; or (iii) adversely alter or change the powers, preferences, or special rights of the shares of such class.
Another key, unassailable right is a shareholder’s right to inspect the books and records of a corporation. This often-litigated right permits a shareholder to inspect corporate books and records for any “proper purpose,” which has been interpreted to mean a purpose reasonably related to a person’s interest as a shareholder. For example, investigating suspected mismanagement would generally qualify as a proper purpose. A shareholder is permitted to review records that are “essential and sufficient” in order to achieve a proper purpose.
The number of authorized shares of each class of stock in a Delaware corporation is on file with the Delaware Division of Corporations; however, the names and addresses of the shareholders are not listed or recorded with the State government.
In fact, there is no public registry which lists shareholders of private Delaware corporations, and private Delaware corporations are not typically obligated to publically disclose their stock ownership records.
Corporations must hold a shareholder meeting at least once every thirteen months and must send a notice to all shareholders of the time and place of the meeting, inviting them to attend. Shareholders who have the time should make an effort to attend a corporation’s shareholder meetings so they can stay abreast of the corporation’s activities, challenges and growth. They may also attend by conference telephone and may vote by proxy without attending if they desire.
THE AUTHOR OF THIS BLOG ARTICLE IS NOT A LAWYER AND HARVARD BUSINESS SERVICES, INC. IS NOT A LAW FIRM. THE ARTICLE ABOVE IS NOT INTENDED AS LEGAL ADVICE AND SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN AS LEGAL ADVICE. THIS SHORT ARTICLE IS STRICTLY TO MENTION SOME ASPECTS OF DELAWARE’S CORPORATION LAWS AND/OR LAWS RELATING TO OTHER FORMS OF ENTITIES WHICH YOU MAY NOT BE FAMILIAR WITH. WE RECOMMEND THAT YOU CONSULT WITH A LAWYER BEFORE FORMULATING A STRATEGY WHICH WILL BE SUITABLE FOR YOUR SPECIFIC CASE.