What Is an LLC Operating Agreement?

what is an llc operating agreementThe Delaware legislature created the limited liability company (LLC) in such a way as to allow the LLC's members the freedom to contract with one another upon whatever terms they deem are best suited to their company.

In a corporation, for example, Delaware law requires certain terms to be included in the corporation’s constituent document and mandates certain provisions related to corporate governance are followed; it also limits (to some extent) the ability of the parties involved to modify certain terms relating to voting or fiduciary obligations.

In an LLC, however, the members are free to organize the LLC in any manner they choose, with near-total freedom to define the relationship among the members as well as the terms governing the operation, oversight and maintenance of the LLC.

The fundamental terms of an LLC’s ownership, operation and management are set forth in its LLC Operating Agreement.

So, what is an LLC Operating Agreement?

An Operating Agreement can be a written document or merely an oral understanding. A written agreement, however, is typically used because it memorializes the understanding and agreements between the members which, in the event of a future dispute or misunderstanding (or the unfortunate possibility of litigation), is invaluable protection for all parties involved.

Although each LLC Operating Agreement is different, it should generally set forth certain fundamental terms.

7 key items commonly addressed in an LLC Operating Agreement: 

  1. Classes of Interests
    For various business, legal or tax reasons, LLCs may issue classes of LLC interests. Different classes may have differing rights with regard to any aspect of an LLC’s business or operations, including economic rights, voting rights and rights to distributions from the company.
  2. Economic Rights & Distributions
    The Operating Agreement may set forth how economic profits and losses are allocated among the members and how and when distributions will be made. The amount and timing of distributions can be set at management's discretion, required at established times or triggered by certain events.  LLC Operating Agreements sometimes include both required and discretionary distributions.
  3. Management
    The Operating Agreement may set forth how the LLC is managed. An LLC can be managed by one or more members; by a board of persons (composed of members and/or non-members); or by one or more appointed managers. Generally, management is responsible for strategic decisions and the day-to-day running of the business, subject to any predefined limitations.

    Management-related provisions commonly found in an LLC Operating Agreement include:
    • Appointment of the initial members of management.
    • Procedures or triggers for removing or replacing management.
    • The powers of management (frequently a broad list of permitted actions)
    • Limitations on management’s authority, such as a requirement that members representing a certain percentage of interests (individually or in the aggregate) pre-approve certain actions.
  4. Fiduciary Duties
    Parties in an LLC Operating Agreement can waive or otherwise modify the traditional fiduciary duties of care and loyalty that may otherwise be imposed by default, as opposed to in a corporation. The practical effect of fiduciary duties is the subject of a significant body of case law, and language in an LLC Operating Agreement can be a primary determinant of the outcome of litigation among members of the LLC.
  5. Raising Additional Capital & Admitting Additional Members
    An LLC may require additional working capital in the future. The procedures for raising supplemental funds (either from existing members or by accepting new investors) are generally spelled out in the Operating Agreement.
  6. Transfer of Interest or Withdrawal from LLC
    An LLC Operating Agreement often describes when, and under what conditions, a member may transfer his/her interest in the LLC, including for estate planning purposes. Similarly, the Operating Agreement may set forth the process and permitted circumstances under which a member may withdraw from the LLC prior to its cancellation; however, such a withdrawal, if permitted, is frequently subject to significant conditions and limitations.

    Often, a permitted transfer or withdrawal will trigger a right of first refusal, permitting the other members to acquire the interest at issue on such terms as are set forth in the Operating Agreement. 
  7. Cancellation
    An LLC Operating Agreement often states the events or votes which will trigger the winding up and cancellation of the LLC, and typically details how any LLC assets will be distributed after the discharge of all its liabilities.

In addition, make sure your Operating Agreement is clear on these fundamental matters:

  • The ownership percentage of each member
  • The impact of the death or disability of a member
  • Indemnification rights (if any) in the event the LLC (or a member) is sued in connection with the LLC's business

In Delaware, your LLC Operating Agreement is an internal document.

There are numerous benefits to a Delaware LLC. One of the most popular aspects is that the state of Delaware does not require a Delaware LLC's Operating Agreement to be filed or made public, as some other states do; thus your Delaware LLC's Operating Agreement remains completely private among you and your fellow LLC members.

A Delaware LLC is typically formed by filing a Certificate of Formation with the state, which includes only the name of the LLC and the office of the Registered Agent, which allows all the members of your LLC to remain private. 

Next: Free Operating Agreement Templates


*Disclaimer*: Harvard Business Services, Inc. is neither a law firm nor an accounting firm and, even in cases where the author is an attorney, or a tax professional, nothing in this article constitutes legal or tax advice. This article provides general commentary on, and analysis of, the subject addressed. We strongly advise that you consult an attorney or tax professional to receive legal or tax guidance tailored to your specific circumstances. Any action taken or not taken based on this article is at your own risk. If an article cites or provides a link to third-party sources or websites, Harvard Business Services, Inc. is not responsible for and makes no representations regarding such source’s content or accuracy. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Business Services, Inc.

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There are 6 comments left for What Is an LLC Operating Agreement?

Stephen Bertsch said: Monday, March 27, 2017

Thanks as this blog was very educational and helpful!

HBS Staff replied: Monday, March 27, 2017

So glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for letting us know.

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