Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business
Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business
Fred S. Steingold
April 2017, 15th Edition
The all-in-one business law book
Whether you’re just starting a small business, or your business is already up and running, legal questions crop up on an almost daily basis. Ignoring them can threaten your enterprise—but hiring a lawyer to help with routine issues can devastate the bottom line.
The Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business has helped more than a quarter million entrepreneurs and business owners master the basics, including how to:
- raise start-up money
- decide between adn LLC or other business structure
- save on business taxes
- get licenses and permits
- choose the right insurance
- negotiate contracts and leases
- avoid problems if you're buying a franchise
- hire and manage employees and independent contractors
- attract and keep customers (and get paid on time), and
- limit your liability and protect your personal assets.
The 15th edition is completely updated with the latest legal information and tax rules for small businesses. Whether you’re a sole proprietor or an LLC or corporation, or a one-person business operating out of your home, or a company with a large staff leasing space, this book will help you start and run a successful business.
“A nuts and bolts legal guidebook that answers questions that continually come up in running a small business in today’s competitive environment.”
-Business Life Magazine, Reviewing Steingold's Legal Guide To Starting & Running a Small Business
“One of the top six business books.” -INC.
- Checklist for Starting a Small Business
Table of Contents
Your Legal Companion for Starting and Running a Small Business
1. Which Legal Form Is Best for Your Business?
- Sole Proprietorships
- Limited Liability Companies
- Choosing Between a Corporation and an LLC
- Special Structures for Special Situations
- The Benefit Corporation
2. Structuring a Partnership Agreement
- Why You Need a Written Agreement
- An Overview of Your Partnership Agreement
- Changes in Your Partnership
3. Creating a Corporation
- The Structure of a Corporation
- Financing Your Corporation
- Compensating Yourself
- Do You Need a Lawyer to Incorporate?
- Overview of Incorporation Procedures
- Twelve Basic Steps to Incorporate
- After You Incorporate
- Safe Business Practices for Your Corporation
4. Creating a Limited Liability Company
- Number of Members Required
- Management of an LLC
- Financing an LLC
- Compensating Members
- Choosing a Name
- Paperwork for Setting Up an LLC
- After You Form Your LLC
- Safe Business Practices for Your LLC
5. Preparing for Ownership Changes With a Buyout Agreement
- Major Benefits of Adopting a Buyout Agreement
- Where to Put Your Buyout Provisions
- When to Create a Buyout Agreement
6. Naming Your Business and Products
- Business Names: An Overview
- Mandatory Name Procedures
- Trademarks and Service Marks
- Strong and Weak Trademarks
- Before the Trademark: Name Searches
- How to Use and Protect Your Trademark
7. Licenses and Permits
- Federal Registrations and Licenses
- State Requirements
- Regional Requirements
- Local Requirements
- How to Deal With Local Building and Zoning Officials
8. Tax Basics for the Small Business
- Employer Identification Number
- Becoming an S Corporation
- Business Taxes in General
- Business Deductions
- Tax Audits
9. Raising Money for Your Business
- Consider Writing a Business Plan
- Two Types of Outside Financing
- Thirteen Common Sources of Money
- Document All of the Money You Receive
10. Buying a Business
- Finding a Business to Buy
- What’s the Structure of the Business You Want to Buy?
- Gathering Information About a Business
- Valuing the Business
- Other Items to Investigate
- Letter of Intent to Purchase
- The Sales Agreement
- The Closing
- Selling a Business
11. Franchises: How Not to Get Burned
- What Is a Franchise?
- The Downsides of Franchise Ownership
- Investigating a Franchise
- The Franchise Disclosure Document
- The Franchise Agreement
- Resolving Disputes With Your Franchisor
12. Insuring Your Business
- Working With an Insurance Agent
- Property Coverage
- Liability Insurance
- Other Insurance to Consider
- Saving Money on Insurance
- Making a Claim
13. Negotiating a Favorable Lease
- Finding a Place
- Leases and Rental Agreements: An Overview
- Short-Term Leases (Month‑to‑Month Rentals)
- Written Long-Term Leases
- Shopping Center Leases
- How to Modify a Lease
- Landlord-Tenant Disputes
- Getting Out of a Lease
- When You Need Professional Help
14. Home-Based Business
- Zoning Laws
- Private Land Use Restrictions
- Deducting Expenses for the Business Use of Your Home
15. Employees and Independent Contractors
- Hiring Employees
- Job Descriptions
- Job Advertisements
- Job Applications
- Background Checks
- Immigration Law Requirements
- Personnel Practices
- Illegal Discrimination
- Wages and Hours
- Occupational Safety and Health
- Workers’ Compensation
- Termination of Employment
- Unemployment Compensation
- Independent Contractors
- Employers' Health Care Insurance Requirements Under Obamacare
16. The Importance of Excellent Customer Relations
- Developing Your Customer Satisfaction Policy
- Telling Customers About Your Policies
17. Legal Requirements for Dealing With Customers
- Retail Pricing and Return Practices
- Consumer Protection Statutes
- Dealing With Customers Online
18. Cash, Credit Cards, and Checks
- Credit and Debit Cards
19. Extending Credit and Getting Paid
- The Practical Side of Extending Credit
- Laws That Regulate Consumer Credit
- Becoming a Secured Creditor
- Collection Problems
- Collection Options
20. Put It in Writing: Small Business Contracts
- What Makes a Valid Contract
- Unfair or Illegal Contracts
- Misrepresentation, Duress, or Mistake
- Must a Contract Be in Writing?
- Writing Business‑to‑Business Contracts
- Signing Your Contracts
- Electronic Contracting
- Enforcing Contracts in Court
- What Can You Sue For?
21. The Financially Troubled Business
- Thinking Ahead to Protect Your Personal Assets
- Managing the Financially Troubled Business
- Seeking an Objective Analysis
- Selling the Business
- Closing the Business
- Understanding Bankruptcy
22. Resolving Legal Disputes
- Negotiating a Settlement
- Understanding Mediation
- Going to Court
23. Representing Yourself in Small Claims Court
- Deciding Whether to Represent Yourself
- Learning the Rules
- Meeting the Jurisdictional Limits
- Before You File Your Lawsuit
- Figuring Out Whom to Sue
- Handling Your Small Claims Court Lawsuit
- Representing Yourself If You’re the Defendant
- Appealing Small Claims Decisions
- Collecting Your Judgment
24. Lawyers and Legal Research
- How to Find the Right Lawyer
- Fees and Bills
- Problems With Your Lawyer
- Do-It-Yourself Legal Research
- Checklist for Starting a Small Business
Which Legal Form Is Best for Your Business?
Sole Proprietorships........................................................................................ 6
Personal Liability........................................................................................ 7
Income Taxes............................................................................................. 7
Fringe Benefits........................................................................................... 8
Routine Business Expenses....................................................................... 9
Personal Liability........................................................................................ 9
Partners’ Rights and Responsibilities....................................................... 10
Income Taxes........................................................................................... 11
Fringe Benefits and Business Expenses.................................................. 12
Limited Personal Liability.......................................................................... 12
Income Taxes........................................................................................... 14
Attracting Investors................................................................................... 20
Limited Liability Companies.......................................................................... 22
Limited Personal Liability.......................................................................... 22
Number of Owners................................................................................... 22
Tax Flexibility............................................................................................ 22
Flexible Management Structure............................................................... 23
Flexible Distribution of Profits and Losses............................................... 24
Choosing Between a Corporation and an LLC............................................. 24
Special Structures for Special Situations...................................................... 26
Limited Partnerships................................................................................. 27
Choices for Professionals......................................................................... 28
The Benefit Corporation................................................................................ 31
Nonprofit Corporations............................................................................. 32
Cooperatives and Cooperative‑Type Organizations................................ 32
When you start a business, you must decide on a legal structure for it. Usually you’ll choose either a sole proprietorship, a partnership, a limited liability company (LLC), or a corporation. There’s no right or wrong choice that fits everyone. Your job is to understand how each legal structure works and then pick the one that best meets your needs.
The best choice isn’t always obvious. After reading this chapter, you may decide to seek some guidance from a lawyer or an accountant.
For many small businesses, the best initial choice is either a sole proprietorship or—if more than one owner is involved—a partnership. Either of these structures makes especially good sense in a business where personal liability isn’t a big worry—for example, a small service business in which you are unlikely to be sued and for which you won’t be borrowing much money. Sole proprietorships and partnerships are relatively simple and inexpensive to establish and maintain.
Forming an LLC or a corporation is more complicated and costly, but it’s worth it for some small businesses. The main feature of LLCs and corporations that is attractive to small businesses is the limit they provide on their owners’ personal liability for business debts and court judgments against the business. Another factor might be income taxes: You can set up an LLC or a corporation in a way that lets you enjoy more favorable tax rates. In certain circumstances, your business may be able to stash away earnings at a relatively low tax rate. In addition, an LLC or corporation may be able to provide a range of fringe benefits to employees (including the owners) and deduct the cost as a business expense.
Given the choice between creating an LLC or a corporation, many small business owners will be better off going the LLC route. For one thing, if your business will have several owners, the LLC can be more flexible than a corporation in the way you can parcel out profits and management duties. Also, setting up and maintaining an LLC can be a bit less complicated and expensive than a corporation. But there may be times a corporation will be more beneficial. For example, because a corporation—unlike other types of business entities—issues stock certificates to its owners, a corporation can be an ideal vehicle if you want to bring in outside investors or reward loyal employees with stock options.
Keep in mind that your initial choice of a business form doesn’t have to be permanent. You can start out as sole proprietorship or partnership and, later, if your business grows or the risks of personal liability increase, you can convert your business to an LLC or a corporation.
For some small business owners, a less common type of business structure may be appropriate. While most small businesses will find at least one good choice among the four basic business formats described above, a handful will have special situations in which a different format is required or at least desirable. For example, a pair of dentists looking to limit their personal liability may need to set up a professional corporation or a professional limited liability company. A group of real estate investors may find that a limited partnership is the best vehicle for them. These and other special types of business organizations are summarized at the end of this chapter.
See an Expert
You may need professional advice in choosing the best entity for your business. This chapter gives you a great deal of information to assist you in deciding how to best organize your business. Obviously, however, it’s impossible to cover every relevant nuance of tax and business law—especially if your business has several owners with different and complex tax situations. And for businesses owned by several people who have different personal tax situations, sorting out the effects of “pass-through” taxation (where partners and most LLC members are taxed on their personal tax returns for their share of business profits and losses) is no picnic, even for seasoned tax pros. The bottom line is that unless your business will start small and have a very simple ownership structure, before you make your final decision on a business entity, check with a tax adviser after learning about the basic attributes of each type of business structure (from this chapter and Chapters 2, 3, and 4).
Ways to Organize Your Business
Type of Entity
Simple and inexpensive to create and operate
Owner reports profit or loss on his or her personal tax return
Owner personally liable for business debts
Simple and inexpensive to create and operate
Owners (partners) report their share of profit or loss on their personal tax returns
Owners (partners) personally liable for business debts
Limited partners have limited personal liability for business debts as long as they don’t participate in management
General partners can raise cash without involving outside investors in management of business
General partners personally liable for business debts
More expensive to create than general partnership
Suitable mainly for companies that invest in real estate
Owners have limited personal liability for business debts
Fringe benefits can be deducted as business expense
Corporate profit can be split among owners and corporation, resulting in lower overall tax rate
More expensive to create than partnership or sole proprietorship
Paperwork can seem burdensome to some owners
Separate taxable entity
Owners have limited personal liability for business debts
Owners report their share of corporate profit or loss on their personal tax returns
Owners can use corporate loss to offset income from other sources
More expensive to create than partnership or sole proprietorship
More paperwork than for a limited liability company, which offers similar advantages
Income must be allocated to owners according to their ownership interests
Fringe benefits limited for owners who own more than 2% of shares
Owners have no personal liability for malpractice of other owners
More expensive to create than partnership or sole proprietorship
Paperwork can seem burdensome to some owners
All owners must belong to the same profession
Corporation may not have to pay income taxes
Contributions to certain charitable corporations are tax-deductible
Fringe benefits can be deducted as business expense
Full tax advantages available only to groups organized for the following purposes: charitable, scientific, educational, literary, religious, testing for public safety, fostering national or international sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals
Property transferred to corporation stays there; if corporation ends, property must go to another nonprofit
Limited Liability Company
Owners have limited personal liability for business debts even if they participate in management
Profit and loss can be allocated differently than ownership interests
IRS rules allow LLCs to choose between being taxed as partnership or corporation
More expensive to create than partnership or sole proprietorship
A member’s entire share of LLC profits may be subject to self-employment tax
Professional Limited Liability Company
Same advantages as a regular limited liability company
Gives state-licensed professionals a way to enjoy those advantages
Same as for a regular limited liability company
Members must all belong to the same profession
Limited Liability Partnership
Mostly of interest to partners in old-line professions such as law, medicine, and accounting
Owners (partners) aren’t personally liable for the malpractice of other partners
Owners report their share of profit or loss on their personal tax returns
Unlike a limited liability company or a professional limited liability company, owners (partners) remain personally liable for many types of obligations owed to business creditors, lenders, and landlords
Not available in all states
Often limited to a short list of professions
The simplest form of business entity is the sole proprietorship. If you choose this legal structure, then legally speaking you and the business are the same. You can continue operating as a sole proprietor as long as you’re the only owner of the business.
Establishing a sole proprietorship is cheap and relatively uncomplicated. While you do not have to file articles of incorporation or organization (as you would with a corporation or an LLC), you may have to obtain a business license to do business under state laws or local ordinances. States differ on the amount of licensing required. In California, for example, almost all businesses need a business license, which is available to anyone for a small fee. In other states, business licenses are the exception rather than the rule. But most states do require a sales tax license or permit for all retail businesses. Dealing with these routine licensing requirements generally involves little time or expense. However, many specialized businesses—such as an asbestos removal service or a restaurant that serves liquor—require additional licenses, which may be harder to qualify for. (See Chapter 7 for more on this subject.)
In addition, if you’re going to conduct your business under a trade name such as Smith Furniture Store rather than John Smith, you’ll have to file an assumed name or fictitious name certificate at a local or state public office. This is so people who deal with your business will know who the real owner is. (See Chapter 6 for more on business names.)
From an income tax standpoint, a sole proprietorship and its owner are treated as a single entity. Business income and business losses are reported on your own federal tax return (Form 1040, Schedule C). If you have a business loss, you may be able to use it to offset income that you receive from other sources. (For more tax basics, see Chapter 8.)
Legal Forms for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred S. Steingold (Nolo), contains a checklist for starting a sole proprietorship.
A potential disadvantage of doing business as a sole proprietor is that you have unlimited personal liability on all business debts and court judgments related to your business.
Example 1: Lester is the sole proprietor of a small manufacturing business. Believing that his business’s prospects look good, he orders $50,000 worth of supplies and uses them up. Unfortunately, there’s a sudden drop in demand for his products, and Lester can’t sell the items he’s produced. When the company that sold Lester the supplies demands payment, he can’t pay the bill.
As sole proprietor, Lester is personally liable for this business obligation. This means that the creditor can sue him and go after not only Lester’s business assets, but his other property as well. This can include his house, his car, and his personal bank account.
Example 2: Shirley is the sole proprietor of a flower shop. One day Roger, one of Shirley’s employees, is delivering flowers using a truck owned by the business. Roger strikes and seriously injures a pedestrian. The injured pedestrian sues Roger, claiming that he drove carelessly and caused the accident. The lawsuit names Shirley as a codefendant. After a trial, the jury returns a large verdict against Roger—and Shirley as owner of the business. Shirley is personally liable to the injured pedestrian. This means the pedestrian can go after all of Shirley’s assets, business and personal.
One of the major reasons to form a corporation or an LLC is that, in theory at least, you’ll avoid most personal liability. (But see Chapter 12 for a discussion of how a good liability insurance policy may be enough to protect a sole proprietor from personal liability if someone is accidentally injured.)
As a sole proprietor, you and your business are one entity for income tax purposes. The profits of your business are taxed to you in the year that the business makes them, whether or not you remove the money from the business. This is called “flow-through” taxation, because the profits “flow through” to the owner. You report business profits on Schedule C of Form 1040.
If you form an LLC or a corporation, you have a choice of two different types of tax treatment.
Flow-Through Taxation. One choice is to have the IRS tax your LLC or corporation like a sole proprietorship or partnership. The owners report their share of LLC or corporate profits on their own tax returns, whether or not the money has been distributed to them.
Entity Taxation. The other choice is to make the business a separate entity for income tax purposes. If you form an LLC and make that choice, the LLC will pay its own taxes on the profits of the LLC. And as a member of the LLC, you won’t pay tax on the money earned by the LLC until you receive payments as compensation for services or as dividends. Similarly, if you form a corporation and choose this option, you as a shareholder won’t pay tax on the money earned by the corporation until you receive payments as compensation for services or as dividends. The corporation will pay its own taxes on the corporate profits.
Later in this chapter, I’ll explain the mechanics of choosing between these two methods. For now, just be aware that this tax flexibility of LLCs and corporations offers some tax advantages over a sole proprietorship if you’re able to leave some income in the business as “retained earnings.” For example, suppose you want to build up a reserve to buy new equipment, or your small label-manufacturing company accumulates valuable inventory as it expands. In either case, you might want to leave $50,000 of profits or assets in the business at the end of the year. If you operated as a sole proprietor, those “retained” profits would be taxed on your personal income tax return at your marginal tax rate. But with an LLC or corporation that’s taxed as a separate entity, the tax rate will almost certainly be lower.
If you operate your business as a sole proprietorship, tax-sheltered retirement programs are available. A Keogh plan, for example, allows a sole proprietor to salt away a substantial amount of income free of current taxes. So does a one-person 401(k). You can’t really do any better by setting up an LLC or a corporation.
When it comes to medical expenses for you and your family, however, there can be a tax advantage to setting up a corporation or an LLC. As a sole proprietor, you can take a tax deduction for the entire amount of your health insurance premiums, but you can deduct only part of your medical expenses not covered by insurance. The situation is different if you form a corporation or LLC and choose to have the corporation or LLC taxed as a separate entity. Your corporation or LLC could hire you as an employee and—if you’re the only employee—the business could set up a medical reimbursement plan that pays for your health insurance premiums and 100% of other health costs incurred by you, your spouse, and your dependents. However, if you prefer to be a sole proprietor and you’re married, you can reach a similar result by hiring your spouse as an employee. See “Hiring Your Spouse Can Have Tax Benefits,” below, for details.
Hiring Your Spouse Can Have Tax Benefits
If you choose to do business as a sole proprietor, there’s a way you can deduct more of your family’s medical expenses. First, hire your spouse at a reasonable wage. Then, set up a written health benefit plan covering your employees and their families. Your business can then deduct 100% of the medical expenses it pays for you, your spouse, and your dependents. (Caution: Don’t do this if you plan to hire additional employees. It only works if your spouse is your sole employee.)
But balance whether such a plan can save you enough money to justify the effort. There may be some expense for setting up the plan and handling the associated paperwork. And remember that your business will be obligated for payroll taxes on your spouse’s earnings. (See Chapter 8 for information on payroll taxes.) But this isn’t all bad, since your spouse will become eligible for Social Security benefits in his or her own right, which can be of some value—especially if he or she hasn’t already worked long enough to qualify.
If you’re audited, the IRS will look closely to make sure your spouse is really an employee and performing needed services for the business.
To learn about how a person qualifies for Social Security benefits, see Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).
Also, check out Nolo’s Social Security Center at
www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/social-security for useful articles on the subject.
Routine Business Expenses
As a sole proprietor, you can deduct day-to-day business expenses the same way an LLC, corporation, or partnership can. Whether it’s car expenses, meals, travel, or entertainment, the same rules apply to all of these types of business entities.
You’ll need to keep accurate books for your business that are clearly separate from your records of personal expenditures. The IRS has strict rules for tax-deductible business expenses (covered in Chapter 8), and you need to be able to document those expenses if challenged. One good approach is to keep separate checkbooks for your business and personal expenses—and pay for all of your business expenses out of the business checking account.
It’s simple to keep track of business income and expenses if you keep them separate from the start—and murder if you don’t.
If two or more people are going to own and operate your business, you must choose between establishing a partnership, a corporation, or an LLC. This section looks at the general partnership, which is the type of partnership that most small businesses will be considering. The limited partnership is described toward the end of this chapter.
The best way to form a partnership is to draw up and sign a partnership agreement (discussed fully in Chapter 2). Legally, you can have a partnership without a written agreement, in which case you’d be governed entirely by either the Uniform Partnership Act or the Revised Uniform Partnership Act (explained in Chapter 2).
Beyond a written agreement, the paperwork for setting up a partnership is minimal—about on a par with a sole proprietorship. You may have to file a partnership certificate with a public office to register your partnership name, and you may have to obtain a business license or two. The income tax paperwork for a partnership is marginally more complex than that for a sole proprietorship.
Law From the Real World
First Things First
Ellen, Mary, and Barbara—all superb cooks—planned to open a catering business. They would hold on to their day jobs until they could determine whether the new business could support all three of them.
At a planning meeting to discuss the equipment they would need for a commercial kitchen, Ellen said she wanted the business to be run as professionally as possible. To her, that meant promptly incorporating or forming an LLC. The discussion about equipment was put off while the three women tried to decide how to organize the legal structure of their business. After several frustrating hours, they agreed to continue the discussion later and to do some research about the organizational options in the meantime.
Before the next meeting, Ellen conferred with a small business adviser, who suggested that the women refocus their energy on the kitchen equipment they needed and getting their business operating, keeping its legal structure as simple as possible. One good way to do this, she suggested, was to form a partnership, using a written partnership agreement. Each partner would contribute $10,000 to buy equipment and contribute roughly equal amounts of labor. Profits would be divided equally.
Later, if the business succeeded and grew, it might make sense to incorporate or form an LLC and consider other issues, like a health plan, pensions, and other benefits. But for now, real professionalism meant getting on with the job—not consuming time and dollars forming an unneeded corporate or LLC entity.
As a partner in a general partnership, you face personal liability similar to that of the owner of a sole proprietorship. Your personal assets are at risk in addition to all assets of the partnership. In other words, you have unlimited personal liability on all business debts and court judgments related to your business.
In a partnership, any partner can take actions that legally bind the partnership entity. That means, for example, that if one partner signs a contract on behalf of the partnership, it will be fully enforceable against the partnership and each individual partner, even if the other partners weren’t consulted in advance and didn’t approve the contract. Also, the partnership is liable, as is each individual partner, for injuries caused by any partner while on partnership business.
Example 1: Ted, a partner in Argon Associates, signs a contract on behalf of the partnership that obligates the partnership to pay $50,000 for certain goods and services. Esther and Helen, the other partners, think Ted made a terrible deal. Nevertheless, Argon Associates is bound by Ted’s contract even though Esther and Helen didn’t sign it.
Example 2: Juan is a partner in Universal Contractors. Elroy, one of his partners, causes an accident while using a partnership vehicle. Juan and all the other partners will be financially liable to people injured in the accident if the car isn’t covered by adequate insurance. The same would be true if Elroy used his own car while on partnership business.
In both of these situations, the personal assets (home, car, and bank accounts) of each partner will be at stake, in addition to partnership assets. But remember that a partnership can protect against many risks by carrying adequate liability insurance.
Partners’ Rights and Responsibilities
Each partner is entitled to full information—financial and otherwise—about the affairs of the partnership. Also, the partners have a “fiduciary” relationship to one another. This means that each partner owes the others the highest legal duty of good faith, loyalty, and fairness in everything having to do with the partnership.
Example: Wheels & Deals, a partnership, is in the business of selling used cars. No partner is free to open a competing used-car business without the consent of the other partners. This would be an obvious conflict of interest and, as such, would violate the fiduciary duty the partners legally owe to one another.
Unless agreed otherwise, a person can’t become a new partner without the consent of all the other partners. However, in larger partnerships, it’s common for partners to provide in the partnership agreement that new partners can be admitted with the consent of a certain percentage of the existing partners—75%, for example.
State laws regulating partnerships dictate what occurs if one partner leaves your partnership and you don’t have a partnership agreement that provides for what happens. In about half the states, the partnership is automatically dissolved when a partner withdraws or dies; the business is then liquidated. In such a state, it’s an excellent idea to put a provision in your partnership agreement that allows the business to continue without interruption, despite the technical dissolution of the partnership. A partnership agreement, for instance, may contain a provision that calls for a buyout if one of the partners dies or wants to leave the partnership, avoiding a forced liquidation of the business. (Traditionally, these have been known as “buy-sell” agreements, but now we generally refer to them as “buyout agreements.”)
Example: Tom, Dick, and Mary are equal partners. They agree in writing that if one of them dies, the other two will buy the deceased partner’s interest in the partnership for $50,000 so that the business will continue. (Be aware that often a partnership agreement doesn’t fix a precise amount as the buyout price but uses a more complicated formula based on such data as yearly sales, profits, or book value.) To fund this arrangement, the partnership buys life insurance covering each partner in an amount large enough to cover the buyout. If Tom dies first, under the terms of the agreement, his wife and children will receive $50,000 from the partnership to compensate them for the value of Tom’s ownership interest in the business. Technically, the remaining partners would operate as a new partnership, but the important point is that the business would keep functioning.
Other states—generally those that have adopted the revised version of the Uniform Partnership Act—follow a slightly different rule. In those states, if your partnership was created to last for a fixed length of time or was created for a specific project, and a partner leaves before the fixed time expires or the project is done, the partnership isn’t automatically dissolved. Instead, the remaining partners have the opportunity to continue the existing partnership rather than having to form a new one. But even if your state follows this more flexible approach, you’ll still want to use buyout provisions to specify how the departing partner—or the family of a partner who’s died—gets compensated for his or her partnership interest.
More on buyouts. Chapter 5 discusses buyout provisions in greater detail.
Law From the Real World
Going With Your Gut
Several years ago, John took over his dad’s rug cleaning business as a sole proprietor. He didn’t expect the business to ever grow beyond its status as a small local facility with six employees and $400,000 in annual sales. But grow it did—first to ten, then to 25 employees, operating in four suburban cities and taking in $3.5 million a year.
About this time, John and his wife bought a nice house, put a few dollars in the bank, and finished paying off the promissory note to his dad for the purchase of the business. Things were going so well that John began to worry about what would happen to his personal assets if the business were sued for big bucks. He reviewed his insurance coverage and sensibly increased some of it. He reviewed his operations and improved several systems, including the one for storing, handling, and disposing of toxics. Still, he felt vaguely disquieted.
Finally, even though he couldn’t identify any other risks likely to result in a successful lawsuit against his company, John decided to incorporate, to limit his personal liability for the business’s debts. He tried to explain his gut feelings of worry to his father, but felt he wasn’t quite making sense. The older man interrupted and said, “I think you’re trying to say that things have been going so well lately that something is bound to mess up soon. And if they do, you want as much of a legal shield between your personal assets and those of the business as possible.”
“Precisely,” John said. “But I’ve already protected myself against all obvious risks, so I can’t logically justify a decision to incorporate.”
His father replied, “John, business decisions are like any other—if your gut tells you to be a little extra careful, go with it. Running a small business means being ready to trust your own intuition.”
In terms of income and losses, the tax picture for a partnership is basically the same as that of a sole proprietorship. A partnership doesn’t pay income taxes. It must, however, file an informational return that tells the government how much money the partnership earned or lost during the tax year and how much profit (or loss) belongs to each partner. Each partner uses Schedule E of Form 1040 to report the business profits (or losses) allocated to him or her and then pays income tax on this share, whether or not this income was actually distributed during the tax year. If the partnership loses money, each partner can deduct his or her share of losses for that year from income earned from other sources (subject to some fairly complicated tax basis rules—see “Investment Partnerships,” below).
Special Tax Status Available for a Husband-and-Wife Business
Ordinarily, if you and your spouse jointly own an unincorporated business, your business is classified as a partnership for federal tax purposes. This means you need to file an annual partnership tax return—IRS Form 1065—as well as IRS Form 1040. But a better option may be available. You may elect to be classified as a “qualified joint venture”—and avoid having to file an additional tax return—if you meet all of the following requirements:
You and your spouse co-own the business.
You and your spouse are the only owners of the business, and you file a joint tax return.
You both materially participate in running the business—joint ownership of business property isn’t enough.
You both elect for your business not to be treated as a partnership.
Your business isn’t held in the name of a partnership or LLC.
Being classified as a qualified joint venture also helps ensure that each of you gets proper Social Security credit.
To get these benefits, you and your spouse should each file a Schedule C with your joint Form 1040. In your separate Schedule C forms, you’ll list your respective shares of profit or loss based on your ownership interests in the business. Most husband-and-wife businesses are owned 50-50.
You’ll find more information on qualified joint ventures at the IRS website at www.irs.gov. Look for the pages titled Husband and Wife Business and Election for Husband and Wife Unincorporated Businesses.
A partner can deduct his or her share of the partnership’s losses from income earned through other sources only if that partner actively participates in the business of the partnership. If, instead, a partner is a passive investor (as is often the case in partnerships designed to invest in real estate) or receives income from passive sources (such as royalties, rents, or dividends), any loss from the partnership business is treated as a passive loss for that partner. That means that for federal income tax purposes the loss can be deducted only from other passive income—not from ordinary income.
Fringe Benefits and Business Expenses
When it comes to fringe benefits (such as retirement plans and medical coverage) and business expenses, the IRS treats partnerships like sole proprietorships. The discussion about “Fringe Benefits” and “Routine Business Expenses” for sole proprietorships, above, applies to partnerships as well.
Put it in writing. If you go the partnership route, I strongly recommend that the partners sign a written partnership agreement, even though an oral partnership agreement is legal. The human memory is far too fallible to rely on for the details of important business decisions. Chapter 2 contains basic information on how to write a partnership agreement.
If you’re concerned about limiting your personal liability for business debts, you’ll want to consider organizing your business as either an LLC or a corporation. (Of course, you may have other reasons in addition to limited liability for considering these two business structures.) Because the corporation has a longer legal history, I’ll deal with it first, but the LLC—covered next—may well be preferable for your particular business, despite its relative newness.
This book deals primarily with the small, privately owned corporation. I’ll assume that all of the corporate stock is owned by one person or a few people, and that all shareholders are actively involved in the management of the business—with the possible exception of friends and relatives who have provided seed money in exchange for stock. Because there are many complexities involved in selling stock to the public, I don’t discuss public corporations.
The most important feature of a corporation is that, legally, it’s a separate entity from the individuals who own or operate it. You may own all the stock of your corporation, and you may be its only employee, but—if you follow sensible organizational and operating procedures—you and your corporation are separate legal entities.
All states have adopted legislation that permits a corporation to be formed by a single incorporator. All states permit a corporate board that has a single director, although the ability to set up a one-person board may depend on the number of shareholders. (See Chapter 3 for more details.) In addition, many states have streamlined the procedures for operating a small corporation, to permit decisions to be made quickly and without needless formalities. For example, in most states, shareholders and directors can take action by unanimous written consent rather than by holding formal meetings, and directors’ meetings can be held by telephone.
Limited Personal Liability
One of the main advantages of incorporating is that, in most circumstances, it limits your personal liability. If a court judgment is entered against the corporation, you stand to lose only the money that you’ve invested. Generally, as long as you’ve acted in your corporate capacity (as an employee, officer, or director) and without the intent to defraud creditors, your home, personal bank accounts, and other valuable property can’t be touched by a creditor who has won a lawsuit against the corporation.
Example: Andrea is the sole shareholder, director, and officer of Market Basket Corporation, which runs a food store. Ronald, a Market Basket employee, drops a case of canned food on a customer’s foot. The customer sues and wins a judgment against the business. Only corporate assets are available to pay the damages. Andrea is not personally liable.
Liability for your own acts. If Andrea herself had dropped the case of cans, the fact that she is a shareholder, officer, and director of the corporation wouldn’t protect her from personal liability. She would still be personally liable for the wrongs (called torts, in legal lingo) that she commits.
So much for theory. In practice, incorporating may not actually give you broad legal protection. In the real world, banks and some major corporate creditors often require the personal guarantee of individuals within the corporation. So the limited liability gained from incorporating isn’t always as valuable a legal shield as it first seems.
Example: Market Basket Corporation borrows $75,000 from a bank. Andrea signs the promissory note as president of the corporation, but the bank also requires her to guarantee the note personally. The corporation runs into financial difficulties and can’t repay the debt. The bank sues and wins a judgment against the business for the unpaid principal plus interest. In collecting on the judgment, the bank can go after Andrea’s assets as well as the corporation’s property. Incorporation offers no advantage over a sole proprietorship when an owner personally guarantees a loan.
As mentioned above, liability insurance can protect against many of the risks of doing business. Because of this, many businesses can structure themselves as sole proprietorships or partnerships without worrying about unlimited personal liability. But if you operate a high-risk business—child care center, chemical supply house, asbestos removal service, or college town bar—and you can’t get (or can’t afford) liability insurance for some risks that you’re concerned about, incorporation may be the wisest choice.
Example: Loren is afraid that a clerk at his After Hours beverage store might inadvertently sell liquor to an underaged customer or one who has had too much to drink. If that customer got drunk and hurt someone in a car accident, there might be a lawsuit against the business.
Loren contacts his insurance agent to arrange for coverage, but learns that his liquor store can afford only $50,000 worth of liability insurance. Loren buys the $50,000 worth of insurance, but also forms a corporation—After Hours, Inc.—to run the business. Now if an injured person wins a large verdict, at least Loren won’t be personally liable for the portion not covered by his insurance.
The lesson of these examples is clear: Before you decide to incorporate your business primarily to limit your personal liability, analyze what your exposure will be if you simply do business as a sole proprietor (or a partner in a partnership).
The limited liability feature of corporations can be valuable, protecting you from personal liability for:
debts that you haven’t personally guaranteed, including most routine bills for supplies and small items of equipment, and
injuries suffered by people who are injured by business activities not covered adequately by insurance.
Also, for a business with more than one owner, incorporating can offer a great deal of protection from the misdeeds or bad judgment of your co-owners. In contrast, in a partnership, as noted above, each partner is personally liable for the business-related activities of the other partners.
Example: Ted, Mona, and Maureen are partners in Mercury Enterprises. Mona writes a nasty letter about Harold, a former employee, which causes Harold to lose the chance of a good new job. Harold sues for defamation and wins a $60,000 judgment against the partnership. Ted and Maureen are each personally liable to pay the judgment even though Mona wrote the letter.
If Mercury Enterprises had been a corporation, Mona and the corporation would have been liable for the judgment, but Ted and Maureen would not. Ted and Maureen would lose money if the assets of the corporation were seized to pay the judgment, but their own personal assets would be safe.
Payroll taxes. Limited liability doesn’t protect you if you fail to deposit taxes withheld from employees’ wages—especially if you have anything to do with making decisions about what bills the corporation pays first. Also, because unpaid withheld taxes aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy, you want to pay these before you pay other debts (most of which can be wiped out in bankruptcy) in case your business goes downhill.
Federal taxation of corporations is a very complicated topic. Here I deal only with basic concepts.
The federal tax laws distinguish between two types of corporations. A “C corporation” is treated as a tax-paying entity separate from its investors and it must pay corporate federal income tax. By contrast, a corporation that chooses “S corporation” status doesn’t pay federal income tax; instead, income taxes are paid by the corporation’s owners.
Electing to do business as an S corporation lets you have the limited liability of a corporate shareholder but pay income taxes on the same basis as a sole proprietor or a partner. Among other things, this means that as long as you actively participate in the business of the S corporation, business losses can be used as an offset against your other income—reducing, maybe even eliminating, your tax burden. The corporation itself doesn’t pay taxes, but files an informational tax return telling what each shareholder’s portion of the corporate income is.
Example: Paul decides to start an environmental cleanup business. Because insurance isn’t available to cover all of the risks of this business, he forms a corporation called Ecology Action, Inc. This limits Paul’s personal liability if there’s a lawsuit against the corporation for an act not covered by insurance.
Paul is also concerned about taxes. He expects his company to lose money during its first few years; he’d like to claim those losses on his personal tax return to offset income he’ll be receiving from consulting and teaching work. He registers with the IRS as an S corporation. Unless he changes that tax status later, his corporation won’t pay any federal income tax. Paul will report the corporation’s income loss on his own Form 1040 and will be able to use it as an offset against income from other sources.
For many years, if you wanted to limit the personal liability of all owners of your business and have the income and losses reported only on the owners’ income tax returns, you would have no choice but to create an S corporation. Today, you can accomplish the same goal by creating an LLC. Because an LLC offers its owners the significant advantage of greater flexibility in allocating profits and losses, it’s generally better to structure your business as an LLC than as an S corporation. (But see “Choosing Between a Corporation and an LLC,” below, for a discussion of when it might be better to create an S corporation.)
Should Your Corporation Elect S Corporation Status?
For federal tax purposes, it’s often best for a start-up company to elect to be an S corporation rather than a C corporation. To make sure an S corporation is best for you, speak to a knowledgeable accountant or other tax adviser. Also keep in mind that an LLC may be an even better choice than either type of corporation.
Starting as an S corporation rather than a C corporation may be wise for several reasons:
Because income from an S corporation is taxed at only one level rather than two, your total tax bill will likely be less. (But be aware that the two-tier tax structure for C corporations can sometimes be an advantage. See the discussion below on how a C corporation can achieve tax savings through income splitting.)
Your business may have an operating loss the first year. With an S corporation, you generally can pass that loss on to your personal income tax return, using it to offset income that you (and your spouse, if you’re married) may have from other sources. Of course, if you’re expecting a profit rather than a loss—because, for example, you’re converting a profitable sole proprietorship or partnership to a corporation—this pass-through for losses won’t be an advantage to you.
Interest you incur to buy S corporation stock is potentially deductible as an investment interest expense.
When you sell the assets of your S corporation, you may be taxed less on your gain than if you operated the business as a C corporation (because of the dual taxation structure of corporations).
Your decision to elect to be an S corporation isn’t permanent. If you later find there are tax advantages to being a C corporation, you can easily drop your S corporation status, but timing is important.
See an Expert
Limits on deductions. You can deduct S corporation losses on your personal return only to the extent of the money you put into the corporation (to buy stock) and any money you personally loaned to the corporation. Also, if you don’t work actively in the S corporation, there are potential problems with claiming losses, because they might be considered losses from passive activities. For the most part, you can use losses from passive activities only to offset income from passive activities. See your tax adviser for technical details.
Shareholders pay income tax on their share of the corporation’s profits regardless of whether they actually receive the money or not. If the corporation suffers a loss, shareholders can claim their share of that loss.
Example: Assume the same facts as in the previous example, except that there are two other shareholders in Ecology Action, Inc. Paul owns 50% of the stock, and Ellen and Ted each own 25%. Paul would report 50% of the corporation’s profit or loss on his personal tax return, and Ellen and Ted would each report 25% on theirs.
Most states follow the federal pattern in taxing S corporations: They don’t impose a corporate tax, choosing instead to tax the shareholders for corporate profits. About half a dozen states, however, do tax an S corporation the same as a C corporation. The tax division of your state treasury department can tell you how S corporations are taxed in your state.
To be treated as an S corporation, all shareholders must sign and file IRS Form 2553, Election by a Small Business Corporation. For more information on this and other requirements for electing S corporation status, see Chapter 8.
Under federal income tax laws, a C corporation is a separate entity from its shareholders. This means that the corporation pays taxes on any income that’s left after business expenses have been paid.
As you saw earlier in this chapter, a sole proprietorship doesn’t pay federal income tax as a separate entity; the owner simply reports the business’s income or loss on Schedule C of Form 1040 and adds it to (or, in the case of a loss, subtracts it from) the owner’s other income. Similarly, a partnership doesn’t pay federal income tax; rather, the partnership annually files a form with the IRS to report each partner’s share of yearly profit or loss from the partnership business. Each partner then adds his or her share of partnership income to other income reported on his or her personal tax return (the familiar Form 1040) or deducts his or her share of loss. And an S corporation is treated as a sole proprietorship or partnership for federal income tax purposes, depending on the number of owners.
A C corporation is different. It reports its profits on Form 1120 and pays corporate tax on that income. In addition, if the profits are distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends, the shareholders pay tax on the dividends they receive (creating the much-feared “double taxation” scenario).
In practice, however, a C corporation may not have to pay any corporate income tax even though it is a separate taxable entity. Here’s how: In most incorporated small businesses, the owners are also employees. They receive salaries and bonuses as compensation for the services they perform for the corporation. The corporation then deducts this “reasonable” compensation as a business expense. In many small corporations, compensation to owner-employees eats up all the potential corporate profits, so there’s no taxable income left for the corporation to pay taxes on.
Example: Jody forms a one-person catering corporation, Jody Enterprises Ltd. She owns all the stock and is the main person running the business. The corporation hires her as an employee with the title of president. The corporation pays her a salary plus bonuses that consume all of the corporation’s profits. Jody’s salary and bonuses are tax deductible to the corporation as a corporate business expense. There are no corporate profits to tax. Jody simply pays tax on the income that she receives from the corporation, the same as any other corporate employee.
Tax Savings Through Income Splitting
As an alternative to paying out all the corporate profits in the form of salaries and bonuses, you may want to leave some corporate income in the corporation to finance the growth of your business. You can often save tax dollars this way because, for the first $50,000 of taxable corporate income, the tax rate and actual taxes paid will generally be lower than what you’d pay as an individual.
You can see how the federal government taxes corporate income in the chart below. Note that the corporate tax rate reaches a high of 39% for taxable income between $100,000 and $335,000, and then drops down once taxable income exceeds $335,000.
Corporate Tax Rate 2015
Taxable income over
Here’s an example of how, with proper planning, a small incorporated business can split income between the corporation and its owners, retaining money in the corporation for expenses and lowering the corporation’s tax liability to an amount that’s actually less than what would have to be paid by the principals of the same business if it were not incorporated.
Example 1: Sally and Randolph run their own incorporated lumber supply company, S & R Wood, Inc. One year their sales increase to $1.2 million. After the close of the third quarter, Sally and Randolph learn that S & R Wood is likely to make $110,000 net profit (net taxable corporate income) for the year. They decide to reward themselves and other key employees with moderate raises in pay, give a small year-end bonus to other workers, and buy some needed equipment.
This reduces the company’s net taxable income to $40,000—an amount that Sally and Randolph feel is prudent to retain in the corporation for expansion or in case next year’s operations are less profitable. Taxes on these retained earnings are paid at the lowest corporate rate, 15%. If Sally and Randy had wanted to take home more money instead of leaving it in the business, they could have increased their salaries and paid individual income taxes at a rate of at least 10% but more probably 25% or 28% or higher, depending on their tax brackets.
Watch out for a double tax trap. C corporation shareholders (like Sally and Randy) can also consider taking some income in the form of dividends rather than salary. Doing so, however, will often increase the tax burden because both the corporation and the shareholder will have to pay income tax on the distributed funds. Still, in some situations, taking some dividends in place of salary may make sense—for example, if the corporation is in the 15% bracket and the shareholder is in the 28% (or higher) bracket. In that case, the money saved on income and Social Security taxes will more than offset the fact that the corporation can’t deduct the dividend payment for tax purposes. But this gets complicated. Let a tax pro help you figure it out. Also, be aware that paying dividends won’t make sense if you have a personal service corporation (see “Personal Service Corporations,” below). Such corporations pay a flat 35%.
Example 2: Now assume S & R Wood is not incorporated but instead is operated as a partnership. Now the entire net profits of the business ($110,000 minus the bonuses to workers and deductible expenditures for equipment) are taxed to Sally and Randolph. The result is that the $40,000 (which was retained by the corporation in the above example) is taxed at their individual rate of 25%, 28%, or higher rather than the 15% corporate rate.
The tax rates specified in the above examples are for 2015. While these tax rates may change, the strategy of saving taxes through income splitting is likely to remain valid.
For a more detailed explanation of how income-splitting can be an advantage to owners of small corporations, see How to Form Your Own California Corporation or Incorporate Your Business: A Legal Guide to Forming a Corporation in Your State, both by Anthony Mancuso (Nolo).
The main point to remember is that once your business becomes profitable, doing business as a C corporation allows a degree of flexibility in planning and controlling your federal income taxes that is unavailable to partnerships and sole proprietorships. To determine whether or not favorable corporate tax rates are a compelling reason for your business to incorporate, you’ll need to study IRS regulations or go through an analysis with your accountant or other tax adviser.
Tax savings may be a largely theoretical advantage for the person just starting out. If your business is like many start-ups, your main concern will be generating enough income from the business to pay yourself a reasonable wage. Retaining profits in the business will come later. In this situation, the tax advantages of incorporating are illusory.
Example: In its first year of operation, Maria’s store, The Bookworm, has a profit of $25,000. As the sole proprietor, Maria withdraws the entire $25,000 as her personal salary, which places her in the 15% tax bracket after she subtracts her deductions and personal exemption. It doesn’t make sense for Maria to incorporate to take advantage of income-splitting techniques—even if she could get by on say, $20,000 a year, if she left the remaining $5,000 in the corporation, it would be taxed at the 15% corporate tax rate, so her total tax bill would be the same.