(drawn from different sources)
The law allows a homeowners association to be either incorporated or unincorporated. An incorporated association has a legal identity that is separate from that of its members, just as Microsoft has a legal identity that is separate from its shareholders. Unlike Microsoft, which is a for profit corporation, an incorporated homeowners association is a non-profit mutual benefit corporation which means that its powers are limited to those normally associated with a homeowners association, and it is exempt from certain governmental fees and taxes.
Traditionally, homeowners associations have been incorporated to protect owners from responsibility for association debts, losses and liabilities. California law extends most of these protections to owners of unincorporated associations provided the associations have proper insurance. Under current law, the advantages of incorporation are some (very limited) additional protection from owner liability, ease of opening association accounts with certain banks and vendors, and qualification of the units or lots for mortgage loans from lenders that require an incorporated association. Balanced against these advantages are the costs of forming the corporation, the burden of annually filing a form with the Secretary of State, and additional procedural formalities such as having officers and directors, and conducting formal meetings. States other than California will have their own laws which could differ greatly.
An unincorporated association can be incorporated by its owners at any time. The process of incorporation involves amending the governing documents, preparing Articles of Incorporation, and filing with the Secretary of State.
Must the HOA have directors?
Incorporated associations are legally required to have directors. Unincorporated associations need not have directors.
Must the HOA have officers?
Incorporated associations are legally required to have at least (i) a chairman of the board or president, (ii) a secretary, and (iii) a chief financial office or treasurer, but, unless prohibited by the governing documents, one person may hold all of these offices. Unincorporated associations need not have officers.
IRS and tax liability?
If an association has lost its tax exempt status through a lapse in its non-profit status, the IRS can certainly begin looking at the money an HOA has raised from dues paying residents. Sun City Anthem in Las Vegas, even though legally incorporated as a non-profit, was hit with millions of dollars worth of fines and back taxes because it failed to declare money from its country club restaurant as income. It’s almost a sure bet that someone will be looking at the books of any HOA that loses its non-profit status.
Does an HOA technically need to be incorporated?
If the CC&Rs lay out the existence of the HOA, and each homeowner’s deed requires the homeowner to adhere to the CC&Rs, then it’s possible to have a defacto association that operates without the benefit of the corporate structure or protections.
Without being a corporation, what you’re left with is one big partnership. That means each homeowner is individually liable for anything the HOA does. If an employee, for example, sues the HOA for back pay or sexual harassment or discrimination, then every homeowner is equally liable as if they had been the employer. That’s because, just like in any business partnership, they are. That’s the nature of partnerships. Everybody is responsible for every other partner’s actions.
It may be that founding CC&R documents require the HOA to be incorporated. If so, ultimately, the homeowners can sue the officers to make them incorporate. In the end, it’s all up to the lawyers.