One of the first steps of starting a new business is choosing and setting up a business structure. Depending on your goals, and several other factors, choosing the right business structure could save you thousands in taxes. In the following article from JD Supra, the business law experts at Fenwick & West LLP explain the different possible business structures for new businesses.
No single factor is controlling in determining the form of business organization to select, but if the business is expected to expand rapidly, a corporation will usually be the best alternative because of the availability of employee incentive stock plans; ease of accommodating outside investment and greater long-term liquidity alternatives for shareholders. A corporation also minimizes potential personal liability if statutory formalities are followed. The characteristics of a corporation are described below, followed by an overview of other traditional forms of business organizations. Each of the following factors is described for comparison purposes: statutory formalities of creation, tax consequences, extent of personal liability of owners, ease of additional investment, liquidity, control and legal costs.
A corporation is created by filing articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State in the state of incorporation. Corporate status is maintained by compliance with statutory formalities. A corporation is owned by its shareholders, governed by its Board of Directors who are elected by the shareholders and managed by its officers who are elected by the Board. A shareholder’s involvement in managing a corporation is usually limited to voting on extraordinary matters. In both California and Delaware, a corporation may have only one shareholder and one director. A president/CEO, chief financial officer/treasurer and secretary are the officer positions generally filled in a startup and, in fact, are required under California law. All officer positions may be filled by one person.
The reasons for using a Delaware corporation at startup are the ease of filings with the Delaware Secretary of State in financings and other transactions, a slight prestige factor in being a Delaware corporation and avoiding substantial reincorporation expenses later, since many corporations which go public reincorporate in Delaware at the time of the IPO.
Corporate law benefits are of the most value to public companies. However, if the corporation’s primary operations and at least 50% of its shareholders are located in California, many provisions of California corporate law may be applicable to a private Delaware corporation and such a company would pay franchise taxes in both California and Delaware. These considerations may result in such a business choosing to incorporate in California instead of Delaware. Another reason for keeping it simple and using a California corporation is the current non-existent IPO market which makes an acquisition a more likely exit for a start-up.
There is more flexibility under Delaware law as to the required number of Board members. When a California corporation has two shareholders, there must be at least two Board members. When there are three or more shareholders, there must be at least three persons on the Board. Under Delaware law, there may be one director without regard for the number of stockholders. Most Boards stay lean and mean in number as long as possible to facilitate decision-making. Since the Board is the governing body of the corporation, when there are multiple board members, a party owning the majority of the shares can still be outvoted on the Board on important matters such as sales of additional stock and the election of officers. Removing a director involves certain risks even when a founder has the votes to do so. Thus, a founder’s careful selection of an initial Board is essential. You want board members whose judgment you trust (even if they disagree with you) and who can provide you with input you won’t get from the management team.
A corporation is a separate entity for tax purposes. Income taxed at the corporate level is taxed again at the shareholder level if any distribution is made in the form of a dividend. The S Corporation election described below limits taxation to the shareholder level but subjects all earnings to taxation whether or not distributed. The current maximum federal corporate tax rate is 35%. The California corporate income tax rate is 8.84% and the Delaware corporate income tax rate is 8.7% but Delaware income tax does not apply if no business is done in Delaware and only the statutory office is there. There is also a Delaware franchise tax on authorized capital which can be minimized at the outset but increases as the corporation has
If the business fails, the losses of the initial investment of up to $1 million in the aggregate (at purchase price value) of common and preferred stock (so-called “Section 1244 stock”) may be used under certain circumstances by shareholders to offset a corresponding amount of ordinary income in their federal income tax returns. An individual may deduct, as an ordinary loss, a loss on Section 1244 stock of up to $50,000 in any one year ($100,000 on a joint return).
If statutory formalities are followed, individual shareholders have personal liability only to the extent of their investment, i.e., what they paid for their shares. If the corporation is not properly organized and maintained, a court may “pierce the corporate veil” and impose liability on the shareholders. Both California and Delaware law permit corporations to limit the liability of their directors to shareholders under certain circumstances. The company can raise additional capital by the sale and issuance of more shares of stock, typically preferred stock when an angel or venture capitalist is investing. Though rare, the power of a court to look through the corporation for liability underscores the importance of following proper legal procedures in setting up and operating your business.
Filing fees, other costs and legal fees through the initial organizational stage usually total about $3,500 to $5,000, with a Delaware corporation being at the high end of the range.
The simplest form of business is the “sole proprietorship,” when an individual operates a business on his own. The individual and the business are identical. No statutory filings are required if the sole proprietor uses his own name. If a different business name is used in California, a “fictitious business name” statement identifying the proprietor must be filed with the county clerk of the county where the principal place of business is located and published in the local legal newspaper. A sole proprietor has unlimited personal liability to creditors of his business and business income is taxed as his personal income. Because of the nature of this form of business, borrowing is the usual method of raising capital. The legal cost of forming a sole proprietorship is minimal.
When two or more individuals or entities operate a business together and share the profits, the enterprise is a “partnership.” Partnerships are either general partnerships or limited partnerships (described below). Although partners should have written partnership agreements which define each party’s rights and obligations, the law considers a venture of this type as a partnership whether or not there is a written agreement. No governmental filings are required for a general partnership. A partnership not documented by a written agreement is governed entirely by the versions of Uniform Partnership Act in effect in California and Delaware.
In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, each partner has an equal voting position in the management and control of the business. Each partner generally has unlimited liability for the debts of the partnership and is legally responsible for other partners’ acts on behalf of the business, whether or not a partner knows about such acts.
The partnership is a conduit for tax purposes: profits (even if not distributed) and losses flow through to the partners as specified in the partnership agreement. There is no federal tax at the entity level. Some partnerships contemplate raising additional capital, but accommodating future investment is not as easy as in a corporation. The legal cost of establishing a partnership is minimal if no formal written agreement is prepared but not having a written agreement may cause disputes over the economic benefits, intellectual property and assets of the partnership. The cost of preparing such an agreement begins at about $2,000 and depends on the number of partners, sophistication of the deal and other factors.
This is a partnership consisting of one or more general partners and one or more limited partners which is established in accordance with the California and Delaware versions of the Uniform Limited Partnership Act. Like the corporation, this entity has no legal existence until such filing occurs. The limited partnership is useful when investors contribute money or property to the partnership but are not actively involved in its business. The parties who actively run the business are the “general partners,” and the passive investors are the “limited partners.” So long as the limited partnership is established and maintained according to statutory requirements, and a limited partner does not take part in the management of the business, a limited partner is liable only to the extent of his investment. Like a general partnership, however, the general partners are personally responsible for partnership obligations and for each other’s acts on behalf of the partnership.
For tax purposes, both general partners and limited partners are generally treated alike. Income, gains and losses of the partnership “flow through” to them and affect their individual income taxes. A properly drafted limited partnership agreement apportions profits, losses and other tax benefits as the parties desire among the general partners and the limited partners, or even among various subclasses of partners subject to certain requirements imposed by U.S. tax law, i.e., the Internal Revenue Code (the “IRC”).
Limited Liability Company
This form of business organization is available in Delaware and California as well as many other states. It is essentially a corporation which is taxed like a partnership but without many of the S Corporation restrictions identified below. An LLC has fewer statutory formalities than a corporation and is often used for a several person consulting firm or other small business. An LLC does not provide the full range of exit strategies or liquidity options as does a corporation. It is not possible to grant stock option incentives to LLC employees in the same manner as a corporation. Further, an acquisition of an LLC generally may not be done on a tax-free basis and the expenses of formation are higher than for forming a corporation.
A corporation may be an “S corporation” and not subject to federal corporate tax if its shareholders unanimously elect S status for the corporation on a timely basis. “S corporation” is a tax law label; it is not a special type of corporation under state corporate law. Like a partnership, an S corporation is merely a conduit for profits and losses. Income is passed through to the shareholders and is generally taxed only once. Corporate level tax can apply in some circumstances to an S corporation that previously had been a “C” corporation for income tax purposes. Losses are also passed through to offset each shareholder’s income to the extent of his basis in his stock and any loans by the shareholder to the S corporation.
The undistributed earnings retained in the corporation as working capital are taxed to a shareholder.
A corporation must meet certain conditions in order to be an S corporation, including the following: (1) it must be a U.S. corporation, (2) it must have no more than 100 shareholders, (3) each shareholder must be an individual, certain trusts, certain charitable organizations, employee stock ownership plans or pension plans, (4) no shareholder may be a nonresident alien, and (5) it can have only one class of stock outstanding (as opposed to merely being authorized). As a result, S corporation status will be terminated when a corporation sells preferred stock or sells stock to a venture capital partnership, corporation or to an off-shore investor.
California and Delaware recognizes the S corporation for state tax purposes, which may result in additional tax savings. California, however, imposes a corporate level tax of 1.5% on the S corporation’s income and nonresident shareholders must pay California tax on their share of the corporation’s California income. In addition, only C corporations and noncorporate investors are eligible for the Qualified Small Business Corporation capital gains tax break. The benefit of this tax break is that if the stock is held for at least 5 years, 50% of any gain on the sale or exchange of stock may be excluded from gross income. This benefit may not be as important because of the reduction in the capital gains tax rate.
Published on:Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Written by:Fenwick & West LLP