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Monday, August 20, 2012

Setting Up and Operating Your Own Business

Are you thinking of starting a business, or do you operate a small business now? The legal structure of your firm and the care you take in setting it up can make a difference in your success down the road.

There are several forms of business organization, and each may have advantages and disadvantages, depending on your personal and/or family situation.  The legal structure will determine how your profits are taxed, and who is liable for business debts.

Sole Proprietorship  -  usually a business owned and operated by one person. You simply begin offering your products or services (obtaining any licenses or permits that might be required) and you are in business. You are personally liable for all of your business debts, and you pay personal income taxes on all income you receive from the business.

Partnership  -  an association of two or more people to run a business as co-owners. There is usually a partnership agreement (very important) which covers all of the aspects of the business operation and finances. The partners are personally liable for all debts of the business, and again, pay personal income taxes on all income.

Corporation  -  one or more individuals draw up Articles of Incorporation, identify a board of directors and issue shares of stock. In California, a corporation must be approved and certified by the Secretary of State. If the corporation does business in more than one state, it must comply with corporation laws in the other states, may have to pay taxes in those states, and must also comply with Federal Interstate Commerce and Securities regulations. In most instances, shareholders are not personally liable for corporation debts or lawsuits. The corporation pays taxes on its income. Shareholders pay taxes on the dividends they receive from the company.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)  -  one or more individuals draw up Articles of Organization and file them with the Secretary of State. An LLC combines some of the advantages of a corporation (limited liability for company debts or lawsuits) and of a partnership (flexible organization, no separate taxes on the business entity). Owners of an LLC are called members. Not all businesses are permitted to operate as an LLC. In California, banking, trust, insurance businesses, and professionals such as doctors, accountants, attorneys and licensed healthcare workers are prohibited from using the LLC structure.

Regardless of the type of business entity you choose, you must meet all federal, state, county and local regulations for operating a business. If you are a sole proprietorship or partnership, you will need a fictitious business name permit if you operate the business under anything other than your own name(s). Counties and cities often require business licenses, vendor permits, safety inspections and other things before you may legally do business there. If you set up a corporation, you must apply for a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the Internal Revenue Service, since it will be taxed as a separate entity from the shareholders.

In partnerships and LLCs, it is crucial to have a business plan and an operating agreement. The agreement sets out rules for splitting up profits, how major business decisions will be made and the process for handling the departure and addition of partners or members. It helps prevent misunderstandings among the owners over finances and management. It shows that the business owners were careful and thoughtful about the security and details of business operation.

For sole proprietorships, partnerships and LLCs, a business plan or formal operating procedures should identify all the elements that will be needed to keep the business healthy if an owner should become incapacitated or pass away. The plan will detail who should succeed the owner or manager, and how the business will stay profitable if a key person is no longer around. It should also provide a process for buying out partners or members who want to leave the business.


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