- Examine special types of business ownership, including S-corporations, limited-liability companies, cooperatives, and not-for-profit corporations.
In addition to the three commonly adopted forms of business organization—sole proprietorship, partnership, and regular corporations—some business owners select other forms of organization to meet their particular needs. We’ll look at several of these options:
- Limited-liability companies
- Not-for-profit corporations
Hybrids: S-Corporations and Limited-Liability Companies
To understand the value of S-corporations and limited-liability companies, we’ll begin by reviewing the major advantages and disadvantages of the three types of business ownership we’ve explored so far: sole proprietorship, partnership, and corporation. Identifying the attractive and unattractive features of these three types of business ownership will help us appreciate why S-corporations and limited-liability companies were created.
Attractive and Unattractive Features of Corporations
What feature of corporations do business owners find most attractive? The most attractive feature of a corporation is limited liability, which means that the shareholders (owners) cannot be held personally liable for the debts and obligations of the corporation. For example, if a corporation cannot pay its debts and goes bankrupt, the shareholders will not be required to pay the creditors with their own money. Shareholders cannot lose any more than the amount they have invested in the company.
What feature of corporations do business owners find least attractive? Most would agree that the least attractive feature of a corporation is “double taxation.” Double taxation occurs when the same earnings are taxed twice by the government. Let’s use a simple example to show how this happens. You’re the only shareholder in a very small corporation. This past year it earned $10,000. It had to pay the government $3,000 corporate tax on the $10,000 earned. The remaining $7,000 was paid to you by the corporation in the form of a dividend. When you filed your personal income tax form, you had to pay personal taxes on the $7,000 dividend. So the $7,000 was taxed twice: the corporation paid the taxes the first time and you (the shareholder) paid the taxes the second time.
Attractive and Unattractive Features of Sole Proprietorships and Partnerships
Now let’s turn to the other two types of business ownership: sole proprietorship and partnership. What feature of these forms of business organization do owners find most attractive? The most attractive feature is that there is no “double taxation” with proprietorships and partnerships. Proprietorships and partnerships do not pay taxes on profits at the business level. The only taxes paid are at the personal level—this occurs when proprietors and partners pay taxes on their share of their company’s income. Here are two examples (one for a sole proprietorship and one for a partnership). First, let’s say you’re a sole proprietor and your business earns $20,000 this year. The sole proprietorship pays no taxes at the “business” level. You pay taxes on the $20,000 earnings on your personal tax return. Second, let’s say you’re a partner in a three-partner firm (in which each partner receives one-third of the partnership income). The firm earns $90,000 this year. It pays no taxes at the partnership level. Each partner, including you, pays taxes on one-third of the earnings, or $30,000 each. Notice that in both cases, there is no “double taxation.” Taxes were paid on the company earnings only once—at the personal level. So the total tax burden is less with sole proprietorships and partnerships than it is with corporations.
What feature of sole proprietorships and partnerships do business owners find least attractive? And the answer is…unlimited liability. This feature holds a business owner personally liable for all debts of his or her company. If you’re a sole proprietorship and the debts of your business exceed its assets, creditors can seize your personal assets to cover the proprietorship’s outstanding business debt. For example, if your business is sued for $500,000 and it does not have enough money to cover its legal obligation, the injured party can seize your personal assets (cash, property, etc.) to cover the outstanding debt. Unlimited liability is even riskier in the case of a partnership. Each partner is personally liable not only for his or her own actions but also for the actions of all the partners. If, through mismanagement by one of your partners, the partnership is forced into bankruptcy, the creditors can go after you for all outstanding debts of the partnership.
How would you like a legal form of organization that provides the attractive features of the three common forms of organization (corporation, sole proprietorship and partnership) and avoids the unattractive features of these three organization forms? It sounds very appealing. This is what was accomplished with the creation of two hybrid forms of organization: S-corporation and limited-liability company. These hybrid organization forms provide business owners with limited liability (the attractive feature of corporations) and no “double taxation” (the attractive feature of sole proprietorships and partnerships). They avoid double taxation (the unattractive feature of corporations) and unlimited liability (the unattractive feature of sole proprietorships and partnerships). We’ll now look at these two hybrids in more detail.
In 1970, Karen and Mike Tocci, avid go-kart racing fans, bought a parcel of land in New Hampshire so their son, Rob, and his son’s friends could drag race in a safe environment. The Tocci’s continued interest in racing resulted in their starting a family-run business called Shannon Dragway. Over time, the business expanded to include a speedway track and a go-kart track and was renamed New Hampshire Motorsports Complex. In selecting their organization form, the Tocci’s wanted to accomplish two main goals: (1) limit their personal liability; and (2) avoid having their earnings taxed twice, first at the corporate level and again at the personal level. An S-corporation form of business achieved these goals. They found they were able to meet the following S-corporation eligibility criteria:
- The company has no more than 100 shareholders
- All shareholders are individuals, estates, or certain nonprofits or trusts
- All shareholders are U.S. citizens and permanent residents of the U.S.
- The business is not a bank or insurance company
- All shareholders concur with the decision to form an S-corporation
Deciding to operate as an S-corporation presented the Tocci’s with some disadvantages: They had no flexibility in the way profits were divided among the owners. In an S-corporation, profits must be allocated based on percentage ownership. So if an owner/shareholder holds 25 percent of the stock in the S-corporation, 25 percent of the company profits are allocated to this shareholder regardless of the amount of effort he or she exerts in running the business. Additionally, the owners had to follow a number of formal procedures, such as electing a board of directors and holding annual meetings. Finally, they were subjected to heavy recordkeeping requirements. Despite these disadvantages, the Tocci’s concluded that on balance the S-corporation was the best form of organization for their business.
In 1977, Wyoming was the first state to allow businesses to operate as limited-liability companies. Twenty years later, in 1997, Hawaii was the last state to give its approval to the new organization form. Since then, the limited-liability company has increased in popularity. Its rapid growth was fueled in part by changes in state statutes that permit a limited-liability company to have just one member. The trend to LLCs can be witnessed by reading company names on the side of trucks or on storefronts in your city. It is common to see names such as Jim Evans Tree Care, LLC, and For-Cats-Only Veterinary Clinic, LLC. But LLCs are not limited to small businesses. Companies such as Crayola, Domino’s Pizza, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, and iSold It (which helps people sell their unwanted belongings on eBay) are operating under the limited-liability form of organization.
In many ways, a limited-liability company looks a lot like an S-corporation. Its owners (called members rather than shareholders) are not personally liable for debts of the company, and its earnings are taxed only once, at the personal level (thereby eliminating double taxation). But there are important differences between the two forms of organizations. For example, an LLC:
- Has fewer ownership restrictions. It can have as many members as it wants—it is not restricted to a maximum of 100 shareholders.
- Its members don’t have to be U.S. residents or citizens.
- Profits do not have to be allocated to owners based on percentage ownership. Members can distribute profits in any way they want.
- Is easier to operate because it doesn’t have as many rules and restrictions as does an S-corporation. It doesn’t have to elect a board of directors, hold annual meetings, or contend with a heavy recordkeeping burden.
As the approach used to allocate profits is very important (item 3 described previously), let’s spend a few minutes going over an example of how the profit allocation process works. Let’s say that you and a business partner started a small pet grooming business at the beginning of the year. Your business partner (who has more money than you do) contributed $40,000 to start-up the business and you contributed $10,000 (so your partner’s percentage ownership in the business is 80 percent and yours is 20 percent). But your business partner has another job and so you did 90 percent of the work during the past year. Profit for the first year was $100,000. If your company was set up as a S-corporation, you would be required to allocate profits based on percentage ownership. Under this allocation scheme $80,000 of the profits would be allocated to your business partner and only $20,000 would be allocated to you. This hardly seems fair. Under the limited-liability form of organization you and your partner can decide what is a “fair” allocation of profits and split the profits accordingly. Perhaps you will decide that you should get 70 percent of the profits (or $70,000) and your business partner should get 30 percent (or $30,000).
Now, let’s look at the fourth item—ease of operation. It is true that S-corporations have to deal with more red tape and paperwork and abide by more rules (such as holding annual meetings) than do limited-liability companies. Plus they are more complex to set up. But this does not mean that setting up and operating a limited-liability company is a breeze and should be taken lightly. One essential task that should be carefully attended to is the preparation of an operating agreement. This document, which is completed when the company is formed (and can be revised later), is essential to the success of the business. It describes the rights and responsibilities of the LLC members and spells out how profits or losses will be allocated.
We have touted the benefits of limited liability protection for an LLC (as well as for regular corporations and S-corporations). We now need to point out some circumstances under which an LLC member (or shareholder in a corporation) might be held personally liable for the debts of his or her company. A business owner can be held personally liable if he or she:
- Personally guarantees a business debt or bank loan which the company fails to pay
- Fails to pay employment taxes to the government that were withheld from workers’ wages
- Engages in fraudulent or illegal behavior that harms the company or someone else
- Does not treat the company as a separate legal entity, for example, uses company assets for personal uses
As personal loan guarantees are the most common circumstance under which an LLC member is held personally liability for the debts of his or her company, let’s explore this topic some more by asking (and answering) two questions:
- What is a loan guarantee? It is a legal agreement made between an individual and a bank that says, “If my company does not repay this loan, I will.” It is the same thing as co-signing a loan.
- Why would an LLC member give a bank a personal guarantee? Because it is often the only way a business can get a loan. Bankers understand the concept of limited liability. They know that if the company goes out of business (and the loan is not guaranteed), the bank is stuck with an unpaid loan because the LLC members are not personally liability for the debts of the company. Consequently, banks are reluctant to give loans to companies (particularly those just starting up) unless the loans are guaranteed by an owner.
A final note about hybrid forms of organization. In this section, we have looked at two organization forms that offer business owners limited liability and tax benefits. There are others not covered here such as Professional Limited-Liability Companies (PLLCs), which are set up by doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so on who provide professional services. And it is evident that the variations of organization forms available to businesses will continue to expand in the future.
A cooperative (also known as a co-op) is a business owned and controlled by those who use its services. Individuals and firms who belong to the cooperative join together to market products, purchase supplies, and provide services for its members. If run correctly, cooperatives increase profits for its producer-members and lower costs for its consumer-members. Cooperatives are common in the agricultural community. For example, some 750 cranberry and grapefruit member growers market their cranberry sauce, fruit juices, and dried cranberries through the Ocean Spray Cooperative (Ocean Spray History, 2008). More than three hundred thousand farmers obtain products they need for production—feed, seed, fertilizer, farm supplies, fuel—through the Southern States Cooperative (Corporate information, 2008). Co-ops also exist outside agriculture. For example, REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated), which sells quality outdoor gear, is the largest consumer cooperative in the United States with more than three million active members. The company shares its financial success each year with its members, who get a refund each year based on their eligible purchases (2006 REI Stewardship Report, 2008).
A not-for-profit corporation (sometimes called a nonprofit) is an organization formed to serve some public purpose rather than for financial gain. As long as the organization’s activity is for charitable, religious, educational, scientific, or literary purposes, it should be exempt from paying income taxes. Additionally, individuals and other organizations that contribute to the not-for-profit corporation can take a tax deduction for those contributions. The types of groups that normally apply for nonprofit status vary widely and include churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship; museums; schools; and conservation groups.
There are more than 1.5 million not-for-profit organizations in the United States (Urban Institute, 2011). Some are extremely well funded, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has an endowment of approximately $38 billion and has given away $25.36 billion since its inception (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2011). Others are nationally recognized, such as United Way, Goodwill Industries, Habitat for Humanity, and the Red Cross. Yet the vast majority is neither rich nor famous, but nevertheless makes significant contributions to society.
- The S-corporation gives small business owners limited liability protection, but taxes company profits only once, when they are paid out as dividends. It can’t have more than one hundred stockholders.
- A limited-liability company (LLC) is similar to an S-corporation: its members are not personally liable for company debts and its earnings are taxed only once, when they’re paid out as dividends. But it has fewer rules and restrictions than does an S-corporation. For example, an LLC can have any number of members.
- A cooperative is a business owned and controlled by those who use its services. Individuals and firms who belong to the cooperative join together to market products, purchase supplies, and provide services for its members.
- A not-for-profit corporation is an organization formed to serve some public purpose rather than for financial gain. It enjoys favorable tax treatment.
Create a table comparing a regular corporation, an S-corporation, and a limited-liability company on these dimensions: limited-liability protection, double taxation, restrictions on number of stockholders or members, rules, and restrictions. If you and several of your friends owned an ice skating rink, which form of ownership would you select? Why? Which form of ownership would you select for Google?
2006 REI Stewardship Report, http://www.rei.com/aboutrei/csr/2006/coop.html (accessed June 19, 2008).
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Foundation Fact Sheet,” The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, June 30, 2011, http://www.gatesfoundation.org/about/Pages/foundation-fact-sheet.aspx (accessed August 27, 2011).
Corporate information, Southern States Cooperative, http://www.southernstates.com/sscinfo/about (accessed June 19, 2008).
Ocean Spray History (company Web site, about us, history), http://www.oceanspray.com/about/cranberry_history.aspx (accessed June 19, 2008).
Urban Institute, “Number of Nonprofit Organizations in the United States, 1999–2009,” Urban Institute, National Center for Charitable Statistics, http://nccsdataweb.urban.org/PubApps/profile1.php?state=US (accessed August 27, 2011).