For purposes of this discussion there are 3 types of business entities we are going to explore: Sole Proprietorship, Partnership/LLC and Corporation. Before you start a business it is important that you understand the differences so that you select the best option for you and your business.
A sole proprietorship is the business or an individual who has decided not to carry his business as a separate legal entity, such as a corporation, partnership or limited liability company. This kind of business is not a separate entity. Any time a person regularly provides services for a fee, sells things at a flea market, or engages in any business activity whose primary purpose is to make a profit, that person is a sole proprietor. If they carry on business activity to make profit or income, the IRS requires that you file a separate Schedule C “Profit or Loss From a Business” with your annual individual income tax return. Schedule C summarizes your income and expenses from your sole proprietorship business.
As the sold proprietor of a business, you have unlimited liability, meaning that if your business can’t pay all it liabilities, the creditors to whom your business owes money can come after your personal assets. Many part-time entrepreneurs may not know this, but it is an enormous financial risk. If they are sued or cannot pay their bills, they are personally liable for the business’s liabilities.
A sole proprietorship has no other owners to prepare financial statements for, but the proprietor should still prepare these statements to know how his business is doing. Banks usually require financial statements from sole proprietors who apply for loans. A partnership needs to maintain a separate capital or ownership account for each partners. The total profit of the firm is allocated into these capital accounts, as spelled out in the partnership agreement. Although sole proprietors don’t have separate invested capital from retained earnings like corporations do, they still need to keep these two separate accounts for owners’ equity – not only to track the business, but for the benefit of any future buyers of the business.
Partnerships or Limited Liability Companies (LLC)
Some business owners choose to create partnerships or limited liability companies instead of a corporation. A partnership can also be called a firm, and refers to an association of a group of individuals working together in a business or professional practice.
While corporations have rigid rules about how they are structured, partnerships and limited liability companies allow the division of management authority, profit sharing and ownership rights among the owners to be very flexible.
Partnerships fall into two categories. General partners are subject to unlimited liability. If a business can’t pay its debts, its creditors can demand payment from the general partners’ personal assets. General partners have the authority and responsibility to manage the business. They’re analogous to the president and other officers of a corporation.
Limited partners escape the unlimited liability that the general partners have. They are not responsible as individuals, for the liabilities of the partnership. These are junior partners who have ownership rights to the profits of the business, but they don’t generally participate in the high-level management of the business. A partnership must have one or more general partners.
A limited liability company (LLC) is becoming more prevalent among smaller businesses. An LLC is like a corporation regarding limited liability and it’s like a partnership regarding the flexibility of dividing profit among the owners. Its advantage over other types of ownership is its flexibility in how profit and management authority are determined. This can have a downside. The owners must enter into very detailed agreements about how the profits and management responsibilities are divided. It can get very complicated and generally requires the services of a lawyer to draw up the agreement.
A partnership or LLC agreement specifies how profits will be divided among the owners. While stockholders of a corporation receive a share of profit that’s directly related to how many shares they own, a partnership or LLC does not have to divide profit according to how much each partner invested. Invested capital is only of the factors that are used in allocating and distributing profits.
Most businesses start out as a small company, owned by one person or by a partnership. The most common type of business when there are multiple owners is a corporation. The law sees a corporation as real, live person. Like an adult, a corporation is treated as a distinct and independent individual who has rights and responsibilities. A corporation’s “birth certificate” is the legal form that is filed with the Secretary of State of the state in which the corporation is created, or incorporated. It must have a legal name, just like a person.
A corporation is separate from its owners. It’s responsible for its own debts. The bank can’t come after the stockholders if a corporation goes bankrupt.
A corporation issues ownership share to persons who invest money in the business. These ownership shares are documented by stock certificates, which state the name of the owner and how many shares are owned. the corporation has to keep a register, or list, of how many shares everyone owns. Owners of a corporation are called stockholders because they own shares of stock issued by the corporation. One share of stock is one unit of ownership; how much one share is worth depends on the total number of shares that the business issues. the more shares a business issues, the smaller the percentage of total owners’ equity each share represents.
Stock shares come in different classes of stock. Preferred stockholders are promised a certain amount of cash dividends each year. Common stockholders have the most risk. If a corporation ends up in financial trouble, it’s required to pay off its liabilities first. If any money is left over, then that money goes first to the preferred stockholders. If anything is left over after that, then that money is distributed to the common stockholders.
Now that you have a better understanding of the different types of business entities, their benefits, and their liabilities you can better determine the best option for you and your business.
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