Piercing the corporate veil or lifting the corporate veil is a legal decision to treat the rights or duties of a corporation as the rights or liabilities of its shareholders. Usually a corporation is treated as a separate legal person, which is solely responsible for the debts it incurs and the sole beneficiary of the credit it is owed. Common law countries usually uphold this principle of separate personhood, but in exceptional situations may "pierce" or "lift" the corporate veil.
A simple example would be where a businessman has left his job as a director and has signed a contract to not compete with the company he has just left for a period of time. If he set up a company which competed with his former company, technically it would be the company and not the person competing. But it is likely a court would say that the new company was just a "sham", a "fraud" or some other phrase, and would still allow the old company to sue the man for breach of contract. A court would look beyond the legal fiction to the reality of the situation.
Despite the terminology used which makes it appear as though a shareholder's limited liability emanates from the view that a corporation is a separate legal entity, the reality is that the entity status of corporations has almost nothing to do with shareholder limited liability. For example, English law conferred entity status on corporations long before shareholders were afforded limited liability. Similarly, the Revised Uniform Partnership Act (RUPA) confers entity status on partnerships, but also provides that partners are individually liable for all partnership obligations. Thus, this shareholder limited liability emanates mainly from statute.
Basis for limited liability
Corporations exist in part to shield the personal assets of shareholders from personal liability for the debts or actions of a corporation. Unlike a general partnership or sole proprietorship in which the owner could be held responsible for all the debts of the company, a corporation traditionally limited the personal liability of the shareholders. The limits of this protection have narrowed in recent years. Shareholders are increasingly personally liable.
Piercing the corporate veil typically is most effective with smaller privately held business entities (close corporations) in which the corporation has a small number of shareholders, limited assets, and recognition of separateness of the corporation from its shareholders would promote fraud or an inequitable result.
There is no record of a successful piercing of the corporate veil for a publicly traded corporation because of the large number of shareholders and the extensive mandatory filings entailed in qualifying for listing on an exchange.
German corporate law developed a number of theories in the early 1920s for lifting the corporate veil on the basis of "domination" by a parent company over a subsidiary. Today, shareholders can be held liable in the case of an interference destroying the corporation. The corporation is entitled to a minimum of equitable funds. If these are taken away by the shareholder the corporation may claim compensation, even in an insolvency proceeding.