Thursday, September 3, 2009

Choosing a Business Entity: Common Legal Entities

In my last post, I talked about the benefits of forming a separate legal entity for your business. Once you’ve decided to set up a separate entity, you’ll need to figure out which type of entity makes the most sense. While not exhaustive, the following are some of the most common forms of business entities. Each type varies in terms of its ease in creation and maintenance and the tax consequences to the owners.

The corporation has, until recently, been the most traditional form of business entity. A corporation is owned by one or more stockholders who are issued shares of stock in return for their investment. Although in small businesses and family-run corporations, the stockholders may have a role in running the business, their role as stockholders is strictly economic. Absent extreme circumstances, such as fraud, a stockholder of a corporation is not personally liable for the acts or obligations of the corporation.

The corporation is managed by a Board of Directors, which is elected annually by the stockholders. The Board appoints the corporation’s officers, including a President, Treasurer and Secretary, who are responsible for the day-to-day business affairs of the corporation.

A corporation is taxed as a separate entity, meaning that it files its own tax return and pays taxes without regard to the tax status of the individual shareholders. However, if the corporation distributes a portion of its after-tax income to its shareholders in the form of dividends, each shareholder will pay a separate tax on the dividend received. This “double taxation” can be avoided if the corporation makes an election under subchapter S of the Internal Revenue Code. It is critical to consult with a tax professional for the rules and requirements relating to corporate taxation.

Corporations must comply with many formalities (which, to the detriment of many shareholders, are often overlooked), including annual meetings of the stockholders, election of directors, keeping of minutes and a stock transfer ledger, all of which are typically set forth in the corporation’s bylaws. Some of the corporate formalities may be dispensed with if the corporation is set up as a “close corporation” pursuant to the provisions of Title 4 of the Maryland Corporations and Associations Act.

Limited Liability Company:
In recent years, an increasingly-popular alternative to the corporation is the limited liability company (“LLC”). An LLC is an unincorporated business organization with at least one “member.” Members may be individuals, corporations, partnerships, or other LLCs. LLCs have gained favor, especially among small businesses, because they offer the limited liability of a corporation but with fewer record keeping requirements and other formalities and, like a corporation, can be managed by non-member employees.

An LLC offers the same liability protection for its members as a corporation does for its stockholders. This means that, absent fraud, self-dealing and the like, a member is not responsible for the debts, liabilities and obligations of the LLC.

An LLC can consist of only one member. However, where there are multiple members, it is critical for the members to enter into an “Operating Agreement” which sets forth the relative rights and obligations of the members regarding contributions, distributions, allocations of profits and management of the business.

LLCs are also favored because they offer the streamlined “pass-through” tax benefits of a partnership. This means that the entity is not taxed separately but rather passes through its income, deductions, credits, as well as other items, to its members. Your tax advisor can provide you with more information on the tax implications of operating as an LLC.

Limited Partnership:
A limited partnership is a partnership which includes one or more general partners, who are responsible for the management of the business, and limited partners, who have an economic interest in the partnership, but take no part in the management of the business. Limited partnerships are most commonly used in real estate ventures (although, in recent years, LLC’s are becoming favored alternative entities). Limited partnerships must comply strictly with the provisions of the Maryland Limited Partnership Act, Md. Code Sec. 10-101, et seq.

General partners are personally liable for the obligations of the partnership. Limited partners, like corporate shareholders, are not liable for partnership obligations beyond their financial contributions. Unlike shareholders, however, except in unique circumstances, limited partners may not participate in the management of the partnership’s business –- another reason why LLC’s are becoming favored alternatives. There is no legal prohibition on the role of members in the management of the LLC’s business –- even if those members are merely passive investors.

Limited partnerships are treated the same as partnerships for tax purposes.

Again, this list is not exhaustive. There are other entities, such as professional corporations, limited liability partnerships and others, that may be more suitable for your business activities. A business attorney, working together with your tax advisor, can help you decide which form is most appropriate for your business.

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