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As discussed in Section 16.4 "Classifications of Corporations", corporate status offers companies many protections. If the owners of a business decide to incorporate after weighing the pros and cons of incorporation, they need to take the steps explained in this section.
The ultimate goal of the incorporation process is issuance of a corporate charterThe basic document of incorporation filed in the appropriate public office, also referred to as articles of incorporation.. The term used for the document varies from state to state. Most states call the basic document filed in the appropriate public office the “articles of incorporation” or “certificate of incorporation,” but there are other variations. There is no legal significance to these differences in terminology.
Chartering is basically a state prerogative. Congress has chartered several enterprises, including national banks (under the National Banking Act), federal savings and loan associations, national farm loan associations, and the like, but virtually all business corporations are chartered at the state level.
Originally a legislative function, chartering is now an administrative function in every state. The secretary of state issues the final indorsement to the articles of incorporation, thus giving them legal effect.
The charter is a contract between the state and the corporation. Under the Contracts Clause of Article I of the Constitution, no state can pass any law “impairing the obligation of contracts.” In 1816, the question arose whether a state could revoke or amend a corporate charter once granted. The corporation in question was Dartmouth College. The New Hampshire legislature sought to turn the venerable private college, operating under an old royal charter, into a public institution by changing the membership of its board. The case wound up in the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the legislature’s attempt was unconstitutional, because to amend a charter is to impair a contract.Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819).
This decision pleased incorporators because it implied that once a corporation had been created, the state could never modify the powers it had been granted. But, in addition, the ruling seemed to favor monopolies. The theory was that by granting a charter to, say, a railroad corporation, the state was barred from creating any further railroad corporations. Why? Because, the lawyers argued, a competitor would cut into the first company’s business, reducing the value of the charter, hence impairing the contract. Justice Joseph Story, concurring in the Dartmouth case, had already suggested the way out for the states: “If the legislature mean to claim such an authority [to alter or amend the charter], it must be reserved in the grant. The charter of Dartmouth College contains no such reservation.…” The states quickly picked up on Justice Story’s suggestion and wrote into the charter explicit language giving legislatures the authority to modify corporations’ charters at their pleasure. So the potential immutability of corporate charters had little practical chance to develop.
Choosing the particular venue in which to incorporate is the first critical decision to be made after deciding to incorporate. Some corporations, though headquartered in the United States, choose to incorporate offshore to take advantage of lenient taxation laws. Advantages of an offshore corporation include not only lenient tax laws but also a great deal of privacy as well as certain legal protections. For example, the names of the officers and directors can be excluded from documents filed. In the United States, over half of the Fortune 500 companies hold Delaware charters for reasons related to Delaware’s having a lower tax structure, a favorable business climate, and a legal system—both its statutes and its courts—seen as being up to date, flexible, and often probusiness. Delaware’s success has led other states to compete, and the political realities have caused the Revised Model Business Corporation Act (RMBCA), which was intentionally drafted to balance the interests of all significant groups (management, shareholders, and the public), to be revised from time to time so that it is more permissive from the perspective of management.
Delaware remains the most popular state in which to incorporate for several reasons, including the following: (1) low incorporation fees; (2) only one person is needed to serve the incorporator of the corporation; the RMBC requires three incorporators; (3) no minimum capital requirement; (4) favorable tax climate, including no sales tax; (5) no taxation of shares held by nonresidents; and (5) no corporate income tax for companies doing business outside of Delaware. In addition, Delaware’s Court of Chancery, a court of equity, is renowned as a premier business court with a well-established body of corporate law, thereby affording a business a certain degree of predictability in judicial decision making.
Once the state of incorporation has been selected, it is time for promotersAn individual who takes the initial steps needed to form a corporation., the midwives of the enterprise, to go to work. Promoters are the individuals who take the steps necessary to form the corporation, and they often will receive stock in exchange for their efforts. They have four principal functions: (1) to seek out or discover business opportunities, (2) to raise capital by persuading investors to sign stock subscriptions, (3) to enter into contracts on behalf of the corporation to be formed, (4) and to prepare the articles of incorporation.
Promoters have acquired an unsavory reputation as fast talkers who cajole investors out of their money. Though some promoters fit this image, it is vastly overstated. Promotion is difficult work often carried out by the same individuals who will manage the business.
Promoters face two major legal problems. First, they face possible liability on contracts made on behalf of the business before it is incorporated. For example, suppose Bob is acting as promoter of the proposed BCT Bookstore, Inc. On September 15, he enters into a contract with Computogram Products to purchase computer equipment for the corporation to be formed. If the incorporation never takes place, or if the corporation is formed but the corporation refuses to accept the contract, Bob remains liable.
Now assume that the corporation is formed on October 15, and on October 18 it formally accepts all the contracts that Bob signed prior to October 15. Does Bob remain liable? In most states, he does. The ratification theory of agency law will not help in many states that adhere strictly to agency rules, because there was no principal (the corporation) in existence when the contract was made and hence the promoter must remain liable. To avoid this result, Bob should seek an express novation, although in some states, a novation will be implied. The intention of the parties should be stated as precisely as possible in the contract, as the promoters learned in RKO-Stanley Warner Theatres, Inc. v. Graziano, (see Section 16.7.3 "Corporate Promoter").
The promoters’ other major legal concern is the duty owed to the corporation. The law is clear that promoters owe a fiduciary duty. For example, a promoter who transfers real estate worth $250,000 to the corporation in exchange for $750,000 worth of stock would be liable for $500,000 for breach of fiduciary duty.
One of the promoter’s jobs is to obtain preincorporation stock subscriptionsOffers by would-be investors to purchase stock in a corporation that is not as yet formed. to line up offers by would-be investors to purchase stock in the corporation to be formed. These stock subscriptions are agreements to purchase, at a specified price, a certain number of shares of stock of a corporation, which is to be formed at some point in the future. The contract, however, actually comes into existence after formation, once the corporation itself accepts the offer to subscribe. Alice agrees with Bob to invest $10,000 in the BCT Bookstore, Inc. for one thousand shares. The agreement is treated as an offer to purchase. The offer is deemed accepted at the moment the bookstore is incorporated.
The major problem for the corporation is an attempt by subscribers to revoke their offers. A basic rule of contract law is that offers are revocable before acceptance. Under RMBCA, Section 6.20, however, a subscription for shares is irrevocable for six months unless the subscription agreement itself provides otherwise or unless all the subscribers consent to revocation. In many states that have not adopted the model act, the contract rule applies and the offer is always revocable. Other states use various common-law devices to prevent revocation. For example, the subscription by one investor is held as consideration for the subscription of another, so that a binding contract has been formed.
Once the business details are settled, the promoters, now known as incorporators, must sign and deliver the articles of incorporation to the secretary of state. The articles of incorporation typically include the following: the corporate name; the address of the corporation’s initial registered office; the period of the corporation’s duration (usually perpetual); the company’s purposes; the total number of shares, the classes into which they are divided, and the par value of each; the limitations and rights of each class of shareholders; the authority of the directors to establish preferred or special classes of stock; provisions for preemptive rights; provisions for the regulation of the internal affairs of the corporation, including any provision restricting the transfer of shares; the number of directors constituting the initial board of directors and the names and addresses of initial members; and the name and address of each incorporator. Although compliance with these requirements is largely a matter of filling in the blanks, two points deserve mention.
First, the choice of a name is often critical to the business. Under RMBCA, Section 4.01, the name must include one of the following words (or abbreviations): corporation, company, incorporated, or limited (Corp., Co., Inc., or Ltd.). The name is not allowed to deceive the public about the corporation’s purposes, nor may it be the same as that of any other company incorporated or authorized to do business in the state.
These legal requirements are obvious; the business requirements are much harder. If the name is not descriptive of the business or does not anticipate changes in the business, it may have to be changed, and the change can be expensive. For example, when Standard Oil Company of New Jersey changed its name to Exxon in 1972, the estimated cost was over $100 million. (And even with this expenditure, some shareholders grumbled that the new name sounded like a laxative.)
The second point to bear in mind about the articles of incorporation is that drafting the clause stating corporate purposes requires special care, because the corporation will be limited to the purposes set forth. In one famous case, the charter of Cornell University placed a limit on the amount of contributions it could receive from any one benefactor. When Jennie McGraw died in 1881, leaving to Cornell the carillon that still plays on the Ithaca, New York, campus to this day, she also bequeathed to the university her residuary estate valued at more than $1 million. This sum was greater than the ceiling placed in Cornell’s charter. After lengthy litigation, the university lost in the US Supreme Court, and the money went to her family.Cornell University v. Fiske, 136 U.S. 152 (1890). The dilemma is how to draft a clause general enough to allow the corporation to expand, yet specific enough to prevent it from engaging in undesirable activities.
Some states require the purpose clauses to be specific, but the usual approach is to permit a broad statement of purposes. Section 3.01 of the RMBCA goes one step further in providing that a corporation automatically “has the purpose of engaging in any lawful business” unless the articles specify a more limited purpose. Once completed, the articles of incorporation are delivered to the secretary of state for filing. The existence of a corporation begins once the articles have been filed.
The first order of business, once the certificate of incorporation is issued, is a meeting of the board of directors named in the articles of incorporation. They must adopt bylaws, elect officers, and transact any other business that may come before the meeting (RMBCA, Section 2.05). Other business would include accepting (ratifying) promoters’ contracts, calling for the payment of stock subscriptions, and adopting bank resolution forms, giving authority to various officers to sign checks drawn on the corporation.
Section 10.20 of the RMBCA vests in the directors the power to alter, amend, or repeal the bylaws adopted at the initial meeting, subject to repeal or change by the shareholders. The articles of incorporation may reserve the power to modify or repeal exclusively to the shareholders. The bylaws may contain any provisions that do not conflict with the articles of incorporation or the law of the state.
Typical provisions in the bylaws include fixing the place and time at which annual stockholders’ meetings will be held, fixing a quorum, setting the method of voting, establishing the method of choosing directors, creating committees of directors, setting down the method by which board meetings may be called and the voting procedures to be followed, determining the offices to be filled by the directors and the powers with which each officer shall be vested, fixing the method of declaring dividends, establishing a fiscal year, setting out rules governing issuance and transfer of stock, and establishing the method of amending the bylaws.
Section 2.07 of the RMBCA provides that the directors may adopt bylaws that will operate during an emergency. An emergency is a situation in which “a quorum of the corporation’s directors cannot readily be assembled because of some catastrophic event.”
Articles of incorporation represent a corporate charter—that is, a contract between the corporation and the state. Filing these articles, or “chartering,” is accomplished at the state level. The secretary of state’s final approval gives these articles legal effect. A state cannot change a charter unless it reserves the right when granting the charter.
In selecting a state in which to incorporate, a corporation looks for a favorable corporate climate. Delaware remains the state of choice for incorporation, particularly for publicly held companies. Most closely held companies choose to incorporate in their home states.
Following the state selection, the promoter commences his or her functions, which include entering into contracts on behalf of the corporation to be formed (for which he or she can be held liable) and preparing the articles of incorporation.
The articles of incorporation must include the corporation’s name and its corporate purpose, which can be broad. Finally, once the certificate of incorporation is issued, the corporation’s board of directors must hold an organizational meeting.