A very important consideration for someone who is starting a business is the choice of entity. Wilson Ratledge has experienced attorneys that will help counsel you with regard to which entity is the right choice for your business.
Corporations (C corps and S Corps), partnerships (general and limited), LLCs, and sole proprietorships differ significantly in many areas, including formation, ownership, taxation, governance, asset preservation, and liability protection. Below is a brief discussion of each type, but by and large, the most common choices are S Corps and LLCs.
Sole Proprietorships arise without any formality when one person begins to conduct business. This simplicity comes at a great cost: the sole proprietor is personally liable for the debts of the business and his or her personal assets are exposed to creditors when the business is insolvent.
Comprehensive insurance coverage for the business and the individual are very important, but not a reliable asset preservation plan for the sole proprietor. The business’s tax items are reported on the Schedule C of the sole proprietor’s individual income tax return.
General Partnerships also arise without any formality when two or more persons (or entities) conduct business jointly. Again, the simplicity comes at the cost of the general partners being personally liable to business’s creditors just like the sole proprietor and regardless of whether that partner actually participated in the act(s) or omission(s) giving rise to the liability. Again, comprehensive insurance coverage is very important, but not a reliable asset protection plan.
Also, the partners are free to allocate risk, management duties and many other aspects of the business between them via a partnership agreement; therefore, one is strongly advisable in nearly every instance.
Partnerships (and S Corps for that matter) are “flow through” entities for tax purposes, meaning that taxable income and other tax items of the entity are passed through to the owners and taxed only at the owner (partner, member or shareholder) level. Partnerships are taxed under Subchapter K of the Internal Revenue Code.
Limited Partnerships are formed by filing a Certificate of Limited Partnership with the Secretary of State. Limited Partnerships consist of limited partners and at least one general partner.
Liability is limited for the limited partner(s), but not for the general partner(s); however, limited partners can become personally liability if they actively participate in management of the business. The tax treatment, and the need for a partnership agreement and liability mitigation for the general partner(s), are the same as for general partnerships.
Limited Liability Partnerships
Limited Liability Partnerships (“LLPs”) are formed by filing an Application for Registration with the Secretary of State. LLPs can provide limited tort liability for all partners, allowing partners to actively participate in management without completely losing limited liability.
Professionals should keep in mind that state regulations may prevent any limited liability for malpractice. In most states, an LLP will shield partners against liability for the malpractice of other partners, however, this is not the case in every state.
The tax treatment for LLPs is the same as for general partnerships, and the need for comprehensive insurance coverage, particularly professional malpractice or errors and omissions, cannot be overstated.
Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
An LLC is formed by filing Articles of Organization with the Secretary of State and may have one or an unlimited number of members (subject to certain securities restrictions). Unlike corporations, they are not bound by corporate formalities such as holding regular ownership and management meetings.
However, in contrast to corporations, they do not operate under a well-defined regime of uniformity and legal precedent. An operating agreement is entered into by members of the LLC. LLCs offer limited liability to all members, and do not require the formalities of corporations. They also offer considerable flexibility with respect to control and management. Different LLCs will be taxed differently according to certain criteria:
Single-member LLCs: If the LLC has only one owner (owners of LLCs are referred to as “members”), it will be treated by default as a sole proprietorship for tax purposes. The “single member LLC” can choose (or “elect”) to be treated as a corporation (by default a C corp, discussed above), and further elect to be treated as an S corp (discussed below), for tax purposes.
Multi-Member LLCs: If the LLC has more than one member, the LLC will be treated by default as a partnership for tax purposes. The multi-member LLC, like the single-member LLC, can elect to be taxed as a C corp or S corp.
Corporations, whether C corporations or S corporations, are formed by filing articles of incorporation with the secretary of state. The owners are called shareholders, and are issued shares of stock. The shareholders elect a board of directors, which in turn elects officers to carry out the day to day business of the corporation. When only a single owner or small number of owners create a corporation, the same individual or individuals can serve as shareholders, directors, and officers. Various formalities must be attended to in order to properly create and maintain the corporation.
Both C corporations and S corporations provide limited liability to shareholders. Shareholders agreements can be used to govern transfers of ownership and deadlocks. C corps have well-defined structural accountability, with governance responsibilities held separate and apart from the owners. Management is accountable to the board of directors and therefore has the ability to transact business without stockholder participation in each decision.
However, corporations are required to pay attention to formalities that legislatures and courts have determined to be significant (e.g., meetings of boards of directors and maintenance of corporate bylaws,corporate minute books, stock ledger books, separate bank accounts, etc.). A C corp will report and pay tax on its income at the entity level. When the corporation goes on to pay dividends to its shareholders, the shareholders will report those dividends as income, and pay income tax on those dividends.
This is the infamous “double tax” that many wish to avoid by forming an S Corp or LLC. You should, however, consider your individual case before deciding to avoid the double-tax on principal alone. The C Corp structure can be advantageous where a company intends to retain its earnings and grow its business rather than pay dividends, because the C corp flat rate structure may result in a lower rate of tax than if the income were to “pass through” to its shareholders as it does in other tax structures.
Also, if the corporation will initially generate tax losses, again, you should seek appropriate advice to determine if those losses are going to be more advantageous being retained with the corporation to offset future income, or if individual owners will be able to benefit more from the losses in a pass through entity. C corporations may offer several tax advantages, however, with respect to deductibility of retirement contributions, group insurance premiums, and other benefits.
S Corporations (S Corps)
As mentioned above, S Corps are “flow through” entities, like partnerships. Unlike partnerships, however, S corps must allocate tax items (mainly profits and losses) to the shareholders in direct proportion to their ownership percentages.
An advantage over the partnership for tax purposes is that shareholders who also work for the corporation can receive compensation (which must meet or exceed a level considered “reasonable’ for the services rendered) through a salary, whereas a partner in a partnership cannot.
This allows a shareholder to benefit from the business’s additional profits via a distribution that is not subject to self-employment taxes. In contrast, all of a partner’s income from the partnership is subject to self-employment taxes. Taxable losses at the entity level may be used to offset other taxable income of the shareholders, but only to the extent of the shareholders’ tax basis in their shares. As noted above, a shareholder will receive basis for loans to the entity only if the loan is made to the shareholder and shareholder in turn loans the funds to the entity.
A shareholder does not receive basis for loans to the entity guaranteed by the shareholder. S corporations are subject to several restrictions including on the number of shareholders, other corporations cannot serve as shareholders, foreign citizens cannot be shareholders, and only one class of stock may be issued. If these restrictions do not interfere with business plans, an S corporation is often a good starting point for a start-up business.
Unlike C Corps and LLCs, S corps are limited in the number of shareholders they may have, and who can be a shareholder. Generally speaking, shareholders must be non-foreign individuals (US citizens or residents), or a qualified trust, estates, or exempt organization. Ownership transferability is flexible and similar to that of C corps.
Which Should You Choose?
Wilson Ratledge assists clients in making one of the most important decisions upon formation of their business – the choice of entity. There are many considerations to evaluate before making this choice, such as self-employment tax costs, benefits, liability, and creditor protection are also among the chief concerns in determining choice of entity.
Contact one of our experienced North Carolina startup attorneys today at 919-787-7711 or via our contact form below.