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Which kinds of business organization or business entity will limit my liability to business creditors?

Leading forms are corporations, limited liability companies (LLCs), limited partnerships, and limited liability partnerships (LLPs). General partnerships and sole proprietorships donít limit ownersí liability. Limited partnerships limit liability of some partners (limited partners) and not others (general partners).

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What is the "corporate double tax" and how can it be avoided?

The "corporate double tax" occurs where a business corporation (or an entity treated for tax purposes as a business corporation) pays a federal tax on its income, and then a tax is paid by its owners as they collect corporate profits. The tax on the corporation is called an "entity level tax" and an entity so taxed is called a "C corporation" (C corp).

The double tax can be avoided:

  • By electing to be an S corp. This doesnít change its nature under state business law, but in most cases eliminates federal tax at the corporate level.

  • By postponing profits distributions to corporate owners, the second tax (on the owners) can be postponed.

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Which types of business entity are best for tax purposes?

It depends, but the "passthrough" type of entity generally saves tax overall by eliminating tax at the entity level. Passthrough entity owners are taxed directly on their share of entity profits. Another passthrough advantage is that owners can take tax deductions for startup or operating losses, against their income from investments or other businesses.

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Which are the "passthrough" entities?

You have much control over whether the entity you choose is treated as a passthrough entity for federal tax purposes (see below), but the leading passthrough forms are general partnerships, limited partnerships, LLPs, LLCs, S corps, and sole proprietorships.

If your business is in the form of a partnership (any type) or limited liability company, you may choose whether your business is treated for tax purposes as a corporation or a partnership (or, if youíre the only one in the LLC, as a corporation or disregarded for tax purposes). Tax and business advisors call this choice the "check-the-box" system. If itís actually incorporated, or you choose to have it treated as a corporation, you may qualify to have it treated as a passthrough by electing S corp status.

Your choice under check-the-box is binding. That is, if you choose one entity (say, corporation) in one year and another (say, partnership) the next year, you must pay tax as if you sold last yearís entity and put the proceeds into this yearís.

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What entities will let me both limit my liability and avoid the double tax?

S corps (usually), and all the following types, assuming you donít choose to have them treated as corporations: LLCs; LLPs; and limited partnerships, for the limited partners. For sole owners, the choice is limited to S corps or, in states that allow single owners, LLCs.

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What's so great about limited liability companies (LLCs)?

LLCs combine limited liability with passthrough tax treatment. They can offer benefits unavailable from S corps, their nearest rival (for businesses other than professional practices). The key benefits:

  • A way to allocate certain tax benefits disproportionately among owners.

  • Opportunity for greater loss deductions.

  • Avoiding or reducing tax when a new owner joins the business or when distributions are made to owners in business liquidation.

Some state do, and some donít, allow LLCs with a single owner. Where allowed, the owner can choose under check-the-box rules to have the LLC disregarded for tax purposes (without losing LLC limited liability), and pay tax directly on LLC income.

S corps are a good alternative where single member LLCs arenít allowed. And they can also postpone tax, as compared to LLCs, where the business is to be bought out by a corporate giant.

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What special considerations are there if my business is a professional practice?

Limitation of liability, especially malpractice liability, is a major concern. No entity will protect you against liability for your own malpractice. But LLCs, Professional Limited Liability Companies (PLLCs), and LLPs, where available for professional practices, will protect you against liability for malpractice of co-owner professionals in the firm, and maybe (depending on state law) for other debts. Professional Corporations (PCs) may not protect against liability for a co-ownerís malpractice, depending on state law.

The tax rules governing those in LLCs, PLLCs, and LLPs are about the same, and somewhat more liberal than those for PCs.

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What are the federal tax consequences of changing your form of business organization?

This is a critical decision that should be studied carefully with professional guidance. But briefly stated:

  • Thereís no tax on a change from C corp to S corp or vice versa.

  • There is no tax on a change from LLC, partnership or sole proprietorship to a C or S corp.

  • There is no tax on a change from a proprietorship or partnership to LLC or vice versa.

  • There is a tax on a change from C or S corp to an LLC, partnership or sole proprietorship.

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Do state business entity rules follow federal tax rules?

Keep in mind the difference between state business law and state tax law. The tax status you choose for your entity under the federal check-the-box system doesnít make it that entity for state business law purposes. So, for example, choosing corporate tax treatment for a partnership wonít bring corporate limited liability.

There is a trend for states to treat the entity chosen under federal check-the-box as the entity recognized for state tax purposesóbut this is optional with the state.

State law may accept passthrough status for an entity (such as an S corp or an LLC) and still impose a tax of some kind on the entity.

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