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Limited Liability Company

A limited liability company (LLC) is a hybrid type of legal structure that provides the limited liability features of a corporation and the tax efficiencies and operational flexibility of a partnership.

The "owners" of an LLC are referred to as "members." Depending on the state, the members can consist of a single individual (one owner), two or more individuals, corporations or other LLCs.

Unlike shareholders in a corporation, LLCs are not taxed as a separate business entity. Instead, all profits and losses are "passed through" the business to each member of the LLC. LLC members report profits and losses on their personal federal tax returns, just like the owners of a partnership would.

Forming an LLC

While each state has slight variations to forming an LLC, they all adhere to some general principles:

  • Choose a Business Name. There are 3 rules that your LLC name needs to follow: (1) it must be different from an existing LLC in your state, (2) it must indicate that it's an LLC (such as "LLC" or Limited Company") and (3) it must not include words restricted by your state (such as "bank" and "insurance"). Your business name is automatically registered with your state when you register your business, so you do not have to go through a separate process. Read more here about choosing a business name.
  • File the Articles of Organization. The "articles of organization" is a simple document that legitimizes your LLC and includes information like your business name, address, and the names of its members. For most states, you file with the Secretary of State. However, other states may require that you file with a different office such as the State Corporation Commission, Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, or the Division of Corporations & Commercial Code.
  • Create an Operating Agreement. Most states do not require operating agreements. However, an operating agreement is highly recommended for multi-member LLCs because it structures your LLC's finances and organization, and provides rules and regulations for smooth operation. The operating agreement usually includes percentage of interests, allocation of profits and losses, member's rights and responsibilities and other provisions.
  • Obtain Licenses and Permits. Once your business is registered, you must obtain business licenses and permits. Regulations vary by industry, state and locality. Refer to the Business License and Permit guide to find a listing of federal, state and local permits, licenses and registrations you'll need to run a business.
  • Announce Your Business. Some states, including Arizona and New York, require the extra step of publishing a statement in your local newspaper about your LLC formation. Check with your state's business filing office for requirements in your area.

LLC Tax Obligations

In the eyes of the federal government, an LLC is not a separate tax entity, so the business itself is not taxed. Instead, all federal income taxes are passed on to the LLC's members and are paid through their personal income tax. While the federal government does not tax income on an LLC, some states do, so check with your state's income tax agency.

Since an LLC is not recognized as a business entity for taxation purposes, all LLCs must file as a corporation, partnership, or sole proprietorship tax return. Certain LLCs are automatically classified and taxed as a corporation by federal tax law.

Learn more about your tax obligations as an LLC.

Advantages of an LLC

  • Limited Liability. Members are protected from personal liability for business decisions or actions of the LLC. This means that if the LLC incurs debt or is sued, members' personal assets are usually exempt. This is like the liability protections afforded to shareholders of a corporation. Keep in mind that limited liability means "limited" liability - members are not necessarily shielded from wrongful acts, including those of their employees.
  • Less Recordkeeping. An LLC's operational ease is one of its greatest advantages. Compared to an S-Corporation, there is less registration paperwork and their start-up costs are lower.
  • Sharing of Profits. There are fewer restrictions on profit sharing within an LLC, as members distribute profits as they see fit. Members might contribute different proportions of capital and sweat equity. Consequently, it's up to the members themselves to decide who has earned what percentage of the profits or losses.

Disadvantages of an LLC

  • Limited Life. In many states, when a member leaves an LLC, the business is dissolved and the members must fulfill all remaining legal and business obligations to close the business. The remaining members can decide if they want to start a new LLC or part ways. However, you can include provisions in your operating agreement to prolong the life of the LLC if a member decides to leave the business.
  • Self-Employment Taxes. Members of an LLC are considered self-employed and must pay the self-employment tax contributions towards Medicare and Social Security. The entire net income of the LLC is subject to this tax.

Combining the Benefits of an LLC with an S Corporation

There is always the possibility of requesting S corporation status for your LLC. An attorney can advise you on the pros and cons. You'll have to make a special election with the IRS to have the LLC taxed as an S corporation using Form 2553. You must file prior to the first two months and fifteen days of the beginning of the tax year in which the election is to take effect.

The LLC remains a limited liability company from a legal standpoint, but for tax purposes it can be treated as an S corporation. Be sure to contact the state's income tax agency where you plan to file your election form. Ask about the tax requirements and if they recognize elections of other entities (such as the S corporation).