Business Ownership Structures
When forming a business, its legal structure is one of the owner’s most important practical decisions. Each type of structure has its own benefits and considerations that are affected by the business' size, the number of owners and employees, the industry, and other variables. Each state passes its own business formation laws, and not all states allow for every type of business structure. This means that the requirements for forming a particular type of business vary from state to state.
A sole proprietorship is the simplest kind of business. Most sole proprietorships are small businesses that have one employee — the owner. Forming a sole proprietorship is usually easy. In fact, in many states it requires no special action. Doing freelance or independent work under your own name is usually enough to form a sole proprietorship.
Two major benefits of structuring your business as a sole proprietorship are simplicity of formation and taxes. Since there usually are no formal steps required to form a sole proprietorship, there is no cost involved. Also, owners of sole proprietorships count the business’ income on their personal income tax returns. One drawback is that sole proprietorships do not offer any legal protection to their owners.
When two or more people start a business together, they can form a partnership. There are several types of partnerships, including general partnerships, limited partnerships, and limited liability partnerships. In addition, joint ventures have some aspects of partnerships. The amount of money contributed, control exerted over the business, and legal liability vary depending on which type of partnership is formed.
To form a partnership, most states require partners to register the business with the secretary of state. It is also important for the partners to formalize their relationship in a partnership agreement, which is a contract that addresses the major aspects of the business, including how it will be run, how profits are split, and what to do in the case of dissolution.
There are generally two types of corporations: C corporations and S corporations. Larger businesses with multiple employees are often structured as C corporations, whereas many smaller businesses choose to organize as S corporations. The primary difference between an S and C corporation is how taxes are paid. C corporations are taxed as independent entities. The income of an S corporation “passes through” to the individual tax returns of its owners. An LLC may choose to treat itself as an S corporation for tax purposes.
The basic definition of a nonprofit organization is a business that does not pass on excess revenue to owners, shareholders, or other investors. Instead, a nonprofit uses this money to further its mission, which includes paying the salary of its owners and other employees.
Many nonprofit organizations choose to incorporate to obtain federal and state tax exemptions, grants, and other benefits. One of the most common types of nonprofit organizations is a 501(c)(3), named after a section of the IRS code, but there are other types.
Franchises are not a traditional business structure like the ones described above. A franchise is a business that licenses the name, logo, trade secrets, or other aspects of an existing business. For example, most fast food restaurants are franchises. In many cases, a person starting a franchise forms an LLC, partnership, or S corporation, and that company becomes the entity that pays the larger company for the right to use the name.
Discover answers to frequently asked questions about business operations and formation.