Entity Formation Basics: The Limited Liability Company

Strategic business planning should involve thoughtful consideration of what form of business entity to use – whether a C corporation, S corporation, limited liability company, partnership, non-profit, or some other type of business entity.

This post is about one of the most popular entities for closely-held businesses – the limited liability company or “LLC”.

In 1977, Wyoming passed legislation allowing for an entirely new type of company called a “limited liability company” to very little notice or fanfare.  Today however, over two-thirds of all new companies formed are LLCs!

An LLC is a hybrid business entity having certain characteristics of corporations and certain characteristics of partnerships (or sole proprietorships, if there is only one owner).  An owner of an LLC is called a “member” and LLCs can have just one member or hundreds of members.

Like a corporation, LLCs offer limited liability to the company’s owners and have certain rules and requirements for management and maintenance set forth under state law.  Like a partnership, how an LLC is governed and how its owners get paid for their participation and/or investment depends on the bargained-for contract between the owners, i.e., the Operating Agreement.

Have a Good Operating Agreement!

Because LLCs are “creatures of contract,” there is a great deal of flexibility in how you can organize and run an LLC, but failing to set forth this information in a well-written Operating Agreement (your contract with the LLC and all your fellow members) is a recipe for disaster.  While a single member LLC’s operating agreement can be fairly simple and straightforward, multiple-member LLCs usually have more complex operating agreements to handle many things, including management responsibilities, the allocation of profits and losses, capital accounts, vesting provisions, dispute resolution, etc.

Even if you go into business with your very best friend and each of you is in perfect agreement at the onset, human nature is such that there will inevitably be a disagreement at some point down the road, especially if your business becomes very valuable.  If you do not have a comprehensive Operating Agreement to reference, you (or your lawyers) will be forced to cobble together scraps of evidence that reflected your prior decisions or understandings about the LLC.  A neutral third party, such as a judge or arbitrator, might not interpret this piecemeal information the way you hoped, and the process can be very expensive.

LLCs and the IRS

In the eyes of the IRS, an LLC is not a separate taxable entity like a corporation is.  This means there is no separate “limited liability company” tax return form or code section for LLCs.  Instead, the IRS refers to LLCs as “pass-through entities,” which simply means that the tax liabilities of the company “pass through” to the LLC’s members’ personal income tax.

If you are the only member of your LLC, the IRS will automatically classify your company as a sole proprietorship (and you will report the activity of your LLC on a Schedule C submitted with your Form 1040 income tax return).  If you have several members in your LLC, the IRS will treat it as a partnership (and you will file the Form 1065, U.S. Return of Partnership Income) and each member should receive a Schedule K-1, Partner’s Share of Income, Deductions, Credits, etc., every year.

Some LLCs choose to be taxed as corporations.  To do this, you must file Form 8832, Entity Classification Election.

Why would an LLC make this choice?  The most common reason is if your business wants to keep a substantial amount of its profits as “retained earnings”.  Retained earnings for a corporation are generally taxed at a lower rate than they would be when “passed through” to a personal Form 1040 tax return.

Once you elect corporate taxation for your LLC, however, you can’t switch back to pass-through taxation for five years, and if you do switch back, there could be negative tax consequences.  In other words, you should treat the decision to elect corporate taxation for your LLC very seriously, and with guidance from legal and tax experts and a solid understanding of how cash is going to be needed to operate your business.

Corporation or LLC?

The reason LLCs have surpassed corporations as far as choice of entity for closely-held businesses is because they are more flexible and generally easier to manage and maintain than a corporation.

If you are wondering if an LLC is right for you, however, be advised that anyone starting a new business should consult with his or her legal and tax advisors before making the big “choice of entity” decision.  There are many subjective considerations and factors which will weigh in favor or against any particular choice.

For example, if you are planning to seek venture capital or go public, forming a C corporation rather than an LLC is the better choice.  Venture capital firms don’t care for the unpredictable and unique management of LLCs, and prefer the familiar structure and management of a conventional corporation.

Morever, VCs generally cannot invest in an LLC.  If you set yourself up as an LLC, and then seek VC funding, you will have to spend a lot of money changing from an LLC to a C corporation, if your particular state’s law even allows this.  Further, the LLC ownership structure simply isn’t a good fit for a publicly-traded company.

If you’re considering starting a business or revisiting a current one, contact us today. 

Posted in Small Business 101

Recent Posts