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How to Choose the Best Legal Structure for your Business

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Last revision: March 25th, 2019
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Category: Business Structure
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Deciding on a specific type of legal structure when you've just started your business journey can be complicated. It's hard to know exactly what the differences are, how the different structures can benefit you, and what any risks might be.

Luckily, it doesn't have to be so complicated! In fact, we've published this guide on everything you need to know about choosing the right legal structure for your business to help you along the way.

The most common business structures are sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies, and corporations. Here, you'll learn about each one in detail to help you choose the right fit for your business, as well as a non-profit, which you might consider for a new charitable business.

What type of structure you choose will make a big difference over the life of your business. It can have significant tax implications, as well as implications for your personal level of risk. It is not a decision that should be made lightly.

Below, we examine each common business structure in detail.

Sole Proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is the simplest type of business structure and the easiest to form and maintain. A sole proprietorship is basically a business that is you - and you are the business! For example, if you were a freelance writer on the internet and wanted to operate as a sole proprietorship, you wouldn't have to do anything at all to already be up and running, as long as you wanted to operate under your name.

In a sole proprietorship, no separate legal entity is created. If you'd like to operate under a special name, like a new business name or just a different name other than your own legal name, you would file what is called a "Doing Business As" (or DBA, as it is referred to) document with your state. All this document does is tell the state that you, as a legal person, are doing business under the name you've chosen for your business.

Because of the simplicity of the sole proprietorship, the way that your taxes are handled is also fairly simple. The taxes of the sole proprietorship would "pass through" to you, meaning you report any profit or loss on your own taxes and don't have to go through a separate process for the business.

One of the biggest drawbacks to a sole proprietorship is that you can be personally on the hook for any business liabilities - whether you make a big financial loss one year or whether your business gets sued. That's because in a sole proprietorship, there is no separation between you as a person and you as a business, so anything you own, in terms of assets, may be up-for-grabs by any kind of creditors or the public to whom you are facing liability.

Another big drawback is that you may have a hard time raising any money. In a sole proprietorship, you can't issue stock in the company so it could be hard to attract capital investors. You also may not have much success getting a bank loan, because banks generally don't favor lending to sole proprietorships.

How to form a sole proprietorship

To create a sole proprietorship, as mentioned above, you wouldn't have to file anything with your state other than a DBA, if you'd like. There can be fees associated with the DBA form, which vary per state. But keep in mind you might have separate documents to file, depending on your business. These could include special licenses or permits.

Why you might choose a sole proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is a good idea if you are a soloprenuer with a small business and you are planning to keep it that way. It's very easy to form (you either have to file no documents or just one DBA) and you can get focused on starting your business right away. It's also very cheap to get started.

Especially if your business may not be facing a high level of risk, a sole proprietorship might be for you. A sole proprietorship wouldn't be recommended if, let's say, you ran a business that dealt with large amounts of other people's money on a regular business, or as a health professional, or really any area where the risk of being liable for something serious is high.

Final overview

Sole proprietorship benefits:

1. It's cheap and easy to form.

2. Taxes are easy to keep track of.

3. You still have the option to have employees if you would like.

Sole proprietorship drawbacks:

1. There is a high level of personal risk for liabilities.

2. You may have difficulty raising funds.

Partnership

If a sole proprietorship is the simplest business structure for an individual looking to operate their own small business, a partnership might be considered that for two or more people.

In a partnership, the two or more "partners," as they are called, each generally have a say in how the company runs (depending on the structure of the partnership) and each own a piece of the company, including its profits and losses.

In a partnership, you can also have different types of partners - general partners and limited partners - or you can have just a general partnership with all the same types of partners. General partners are equally responsible for everything: all the profits, any potential losses, any liabilities that might come up, and general responsibility for the company, including the amount of work done. Limited partners are those that are basically only partners for a financial reason, in that they invest but have not much else to do with how the company runs. Overall, partnerships with limited partners are a little more rare, as people like to go into partnerships with equal weight.

Imagine a situation where two people decide to open a yoga studio together. Their structure of choice may be a partnership.

A joint venture, formed with a Joint Venture Agreement, is a type of general partnership that only lasts for one specific project or a limited amount of time.

Joint venture is a generic term for any type of business relationship between two parties for a limited time. A joint venture could be for a brand new business, or just one marketing promotion, or even just a project between two already-formed businesses. In a joint venture, the parties could decide to form a temporary partnership, with a Partnership Agreement, but they don't have to: they can also retain their fully separate legal identities and just operate with a Joint Venture Agreement.

Taxes in a partnership can pass through, just like in a sole proprietorship.

The formation of a partnership, however, can be very complicated. Many states have adopted something called the Uniform Partnership Act, which makes the written Partnership Agreement very important. Partners will need to figure out everything from how they'll run the day-to-day business to what happens if the business folds or if someone wants to leave.

The Uniform Partnership Act is similar to a model statute or model law, in that it was drafted to be applicable uniformly, but states each had to individually adopt it. The Uniform Partnership Act, or UPA, gives guidance on how business partnerships should be formed, governed, and dissolved.

How to form a partnership

As mentioned above, the basis of partnership formation is the written Partnership Agreement, which sets out all of the details of the business relationship between the parties. Unless you also want to file a DBA, you won't need to file any partnership documents with your state.

Keep in mind, however, that as above, you may need specific licenses or permits for your particular business model.

Why you might choose a partnership

A partnership is a good idea if you are running a small business with another individual or a few individuals. As with a sole proprietorship, it's very easy to form (you either have to file no documents with the state or just one DBA) and you can get focused on starting your business right away. It's also very cheap to get started, just like a sole proprietorship.

If you're not sure of the trustworthiness of your potential partners, however, a partnership may not be the way to go for you, as you could be exposing yourself to a high level of risk just because of the actions of your partners. Either way, however, you should always have a well-written Partnership Agreement in place.

Final overview

Partnership benefits:

1. It's relatively cheap to form.

2. Generally, unless you have a DBA, you won't need to file with the state.

3. Taxes pass through.

Partnership drawbacks:

1. The Partnership Agreement can be a complicated document.

2. It can be very risky if your partners are not trustworthy.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

A Limited Liability Company, or LLC for short, has largely become the preferred form of structure for many small- to medium-sized businesses, and even for a lot of solo business owners. The reason for this is because it has a lot of benefits of other types of business structures, without as much of the risk.

In an LLC, there is a lot of customization available for how the business is run. LLCs can be used for small business or large ones. You can form an LLC just for yourself or have an LLC with many different members. The main benefit of an LLC is that your personal assets are shielded from liability - hence the name, "limited liability" company.

Taxes still pass through in LLCs. If you are a single-member LLC, the taxation is similar to a sole proprietorship. In a multi-member LLC, you are taxed on just your portion of the profits.

LLCs can, therefore, be formed for almost any purpose - for a single freelance artist or a group of people looking to open a bakery together, for example. LLCs can even be formed for professionals, like a legal or medical practice.

Since all business structures are formed according to the state, and not federal, government, the requirements to file and run the business, especially for the more complicated structures, can vary.

Forming an LLC is more complicated than either a sole proprietorship or partnership, as it involves filing specific documents in a specific form with the state.

How to form an LLC

An LLC is generally filed with your state by drafting Articles of Organization, the creation document for the company. Before this, you'll also have to ensure that you have a business name that will work, by running a search on your proposed business name with your state's Secretary of State (usually this can be done easily on the Secretary of State website). An Operating Agreement is also a very good idea to have drafted (though it is not required), especially if you have more than one LLC member.

If you would like to operate under a special name for your LLC, you may also have to file a DBA.

Why you might choose an LLC

An LLC is a good idea when you want to have the maximum amount of liability protection for your business, either as a solo business owner or as part of a team and you don't want to build a corporation (more on that below). It's also a good idea if you still want the simplicity of taxation and the ability to organize your business as you like.

Whenever you file your LLC, make sure you keep all of the records separate to ensure your liability protection. Your organizational records, banking records, and, if applicable, personnel records all need to be records of the LLC specifically, not mixed in with your own personal records.

Final overview

LLC benefits:

1. You are protected from personal liability.

2. Taxes pass through.

LLC drawbacks:

1. It's a little more expensive and complicated to form than a sole proprietorship or partnership.

2. Your liability is subject to the separateness of all of your records.

Corporation

A corporation is generally the most complex legal structure, involving a lot of time and resources at its formation and then on through its life. A corporation is its own separate entity - often sometimes compared to a business version of a legal "person." In other words, the corporation is its own body separate and apart from you or any of the other owners, called "shareholders."

A corporation can take one of three main forms: the C corporation, the S corporation, or the lesser-known B corporation.

Most big companies in the United States, like Fortune 500 companies, are organized into a C corporation. It's the "traditional" corporate structure that people think of when they think of corporations. In a C corp, there are owners, called shareholders as noted above, who all put money into the business and receive shares, or stock, in return. The corporation gets taxed on its own - but so do any shareholder earnings, which means that with corporations, there is what's called "double taxation." All that means is that money into the corporation gets taxed as does money to the shareholders. In a C corp, there is almost no personal liability of the shareholders. Additionally, there is the possibility of the shareholders earning a lot of income if the corporation ever goes public.

The S corporation is a slightly different entity, similar to the C corp, but with the possibility of pass-through taxation. As discussed in the other business forms, what this means is that profits and losses can go straight to the owner or owners of the S corp, making it a good idea for small businesses. The S corp is a little more limited than the C corp in most states, however, as it can usually only be held by a certain limit of private individuals (for example, up to 25 owners that all have to be real people, rather than legal entities).

A B corporation is a lesser-known structure than the others and that's because it won't be applicable to most people. B Corps are designed for those that want to form essentially a C corporation but for some social good. The B stands for "benefit." A B Corp is very similar to a C Corp, except that sometimes the corporation receives certain tax breaks.

How to form a Corporation

Corporations are formed by filing a significant document covering the details of the corporation with the Secretary of State, called the Articles of Incorporation. Most corporations need to have a viable business name and go on to obtain a tax identification number from the Internal Revenue Service.

It's a good idea to also draft a document called the Corporate Bylaws, which set down the governing rules for the corporation.

Why you might choose a Corporation

You might decide to file a corporation if you are looking for a lot of growth potential for your business or if you knew you wanted to start bringing on shareholders right away. A corporation is a good idea if you plan to hire a lot of employees, as well.

It's probably not a good idea for very small business or individuals who don't plan to grow at a very high rate, as the expense of setting up and maintaining the structure, as well as the double taxation, would easily make it more cumbersome than its worth.

Final overview

Corporation benefits:

1. You are protected from personal liability.

2. Raising capital may be easier here than any other business form.

Corporation drawbacks:

1. It's more expensive and complicated to form than any other business form.

2. It's also complicated and expensive to maintain.

3. Double taxation may end up costing you more.

Non-profit

A non-profit is different than all of the other business structures - and the difference is in its name. Non-profits are created for a different reason than just generating profit; usually, the reason is some kind of social cause.

Non-profits are tax-exempt entities, and because of this, they need to have a specific purpose that is either charitable, religious, or educational.

How to form a Non-profit

Forming a non-profit requires Articles of Incorporation with the Secretary of State. You'll then need to file specifically to obtain tax-exempt status from both your state and the federal government.

If you plan to have multiple people in your non-profit, drafting Non-Profit Bylaws is a good idea.

Why you might choose a Non-profit

The option for a non-profit is really only there if you have a business that is for charitable, religious, or educational purposes. Once you decide that you do, then you must ensure you really aren't running a business for profit and that the primary purpose is for another reason. If those requirements are met, the non-profit is the best choice for you.

If you'd like to run a business for a social cause, but still want to have the main goal of earning a profit, a B corporation might be better suited to your needs. With a non-profit, one of the main activities will simply have to be fundraising to keep the business afloat. In a B corporation, however, you can do good and still turn a profit.

Final overview

Non-profit benefits:

1. Tax-exempt status can be obtained.

2. It's the best structure for any primarily charitable business.

Non-profit drawbacks:

1. You must meet the requirements to open a non-profit.

2. Your business can't be run primarily to earn a profit.


When deciding what type of structure might be best for you, ask yourself the following questions:

1. How much time and effort am I willing to put in to set up the business at the beginning?

2. How much time and effort am I willing to put in to maintain the business over time?

3. Is pass-through taxation important to me?

4. What will be personal liabilities be?

5. Am I interested in easily raising capital?


Once you've asked yourself these questions, with the knowledge obtained from this guide, you'll be in a great place to decide what the best structure is for your needs.

 

About the Author: Anjali Nowakowski is a Legal Templates Programmer at Wonder.Legal and is based in the U.S.A.

Templates and examples to download in Word and PDF formats

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