Starting and Running a Business/Legal forms of a Business
Legal forms of a business, and the advantages and disadvantages of each form[edit | edit source]
Most legal jurisdictions specify the forms that a business can take, and a body of commercial law has developed for each type. Some common types include partnerships, corporations (also called limited liability companies), and sole proprietorships.
The major factors affecting how a business is organized are usually:
- The size and scope of the business, and its anticipated management and ownership : A smaller business is more flexible, larger businesses or those with wider ownership or more formal structures, will usually tend to be organized as partnerships or (more commonly) corporations. In addition a business which wishes to raise money on a stock market or to be owned by a wide range of people will often be required to adopt a specific legal form to do so.
- The sector and country : private profit making businesses are different from government owned bodies. In some countries, certain businesses are legally obliged to be organized certain ways.
- Limited liability : corporations, and limited liability partnerships, protect their owners from business failure, and are treated as separate entities, whereas an unincorporated business or person working on their own is usually not so protected.
- Tax advantages : Different structures are treated differently in tax law, and may have advantages for this reason.
- Disclosure and compliance requirements : different business structures may be required to make more or less information public (or reported to relevant authorities), and may be bound to comply with different rules and regulations.
Many businesses are operated through a separate entity such as a corporation, limited partnership or limited liability company. Most legal jurisdictions allow people to organize such an entity by filing certain charter documents with the relevant Secretary of State or equivalent and complying with certain other ongoing obligations. The relationships and legal rights of shareholders, limited partners, or members, as the case may be, are governed partly by the charter documents and partly by the law of the jurisdiction where the entity is organized. Generally speaking, shareholders in a corporation, limited partners in a limited partnership, and members in a limited liability company are shielded from personal liability for the debts and obligations of the entity, which is legally treated as a separate "person." This means that unless there is misconduct, the owner's own possessions are strongly protected in law, if the business does not succeed.
Where two or more individuals own a business together but have failed to organize a more specialized form of vehicle, they will be treated as a simple (USA: general) partnership. The terms of a partnership will be partly governed by a partnership agreement if one is created, and partly by the law of the jurisdiction where the partnership is located. No paperwork or filing is necessary to create a partnership, and without an agreement, the relationships and legal rights of the partners will be entirely governed by the law of the jurisdiction where the partnership is located.
A single person who owns and runs a business is commonly known as a sole proprietor, whether he or she owns it directly or through a formally organized entity.
A few relevant factors to consider in deciding how to operate a business include:
- General partners in a partnership (other than a limited liability partnership), plus anyone who personally owns and operates a business without creating a separate legal entity, are personally liable for the debts and obligations of the business.
- Generally, corporations are required to pay tax just like "real" people. In some tax systems, this can give rise to so-called double taxation, because first the corporation pays tax on the profit, and then when the corporation distributes its profits to its owners, individuals have to include dividends in their income when they complete their personal tax returns, at which point a second layer of income tax is imposed.
- In most countries, there are laws which treat small corporations differently than large ones. They may be exempt from certain legal filing requirements or labor laws, have simplified procedures in specialized areas, and have simplified, advantageous, or slightly different tax treatment.
- In order to "go public" (sometimes called IPO) -- which basically means to allow a part of the business to be owned by a wider range of investors or the public in general -- you must organize a separate entity, which is usually required to comply with a tighter set of laws and procedures. Most public entities are corporations that have sold shares, but increasingly there are also public LLCs that sell units (sometimes also called shares), and other more exotic entities as well (for example, REITs in the USA, Unit Trusts in the UK). However, you cannot take a general partnership "public."