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Small Business | SMALL-BUSINESS REPORT

LLCs provide key financial benefits

The owners receive tax and liability advantages. Such registrations have risen, but the format is not for everyone.

July 25, 2007|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

To be an LLC or not to be an LLC? That is the question for a growing number of small businesses.

Whether to adopt the relatively new limited liability company format or to set up under the more traditional form of a corporation, partnership or sole proprietorship is a key decision for a small-business owner.

"An LLC is an important option for small businesses," said Jonas M. Grant, a business attorney based in Burbank. Interest in the format is high, he said.

The benefits of an LLC seem almost too good to be true.

The owners, or members, have the personal liability protection that shareholders of a corporation do, with far less paperwork and fewer regulations.

That means -- barring illegal, unethical or irresponsible activity -- their personal assets are not on the line when it comes to covering the company's business debts or legal claims against it.

At the same time, the owners avoid the double taxation on profit to which shareholders in a regular corporation face.

Limited liability companies pass profits to the members, who pay taxes at their individual income rates, as in a legal partnership. In California, where this type of company has been legal since 1994, there are 409,619 limited liability companies, according to the secretary of state's office.

The number of companies registered under this format has jumped each year since 2000, when the state finally allowed limited liability companies to be set up by single-person businesses. More than 73,000 LLCs registered with the state last year, compared with about 31,000 in 2000, the secretary of state's office said.

That growth doesn't surprise LLC expert Anthony "Tony" Mancuso, a Berkeley attorney who wrote the new edition of "Nolo's Quick LLC: All You Need to Know About Limited Liability Companies" (Nolo, 2007). "It was obvious to me that LLCs would become the next big thing in business entities because of the combination of benefits," said Mancuso, who has written several books on limited liability companies and other corporate structures for Nolo, a self-help legal publishing house based in Berkeley.

The newest version of his "Quick LLC" book lays out the basic features of limited liability companies, explains important exceptions to owners' limited liability and compares the LLC with other business formats.

He also discusses converting an existing business to an LLC, as well as tax and management issues. And he devotes a chapter to the paperwork involved in setting up a limited liability company. There is also a sample operating agreement and a checklist to help you determine whether forming an LLC makes sense for your business.

Considerations include whether your type of business is one in which business debts and claims could threaten your personal assets. Another consideration is whether you have assets, such as equity in a house, that could be at risk without the protection of an LLC.

"Anyone a little bit nervous about the adequacy of their insurance coverage" could be a good candidate, Mancuso said.

Existing sole proprietorships or general partnerships and anyone thinking of forming an S corporation, an entity that generally pays no taxes, he writes, could benefit.

Those who aren't good candidates include existing regular corporations, also known as C corporations. And in California, some professionals such as lawyers and architects may not form an LLC.

If you want to raise money from venture capitalists or by selling stock, an LLC probably is not the business form you need.

Mancuso makes it clear that despite the potential benefits of an LLC, they have to be weighed against the cost, especially in California. Although it costs just $70 and takes a one-page form to set up a limited liability company in California, ongoing annual fees and taxes could cost more than 10 times that amount. There is a minimum annual tax of $800, payable to the state Franchise Tax Board.

And once gross receipts hit $250,000, additional annual fees kick in, which range from $900 to $11,790.

There have been several challenges to the constitutionality of the state's LLC fees, but the issue is still working its way through the courts.

Although Wyoming, in 1977, was the first state to authorize limited liability companies, it wasn't until 1997 when helpful new Internal Revenue Service rules kicked in that the format began to gather steam among business owners

Limited personal liability protection does not apply if you personally guarantee a business debt or bank loan for the company. Then your personal assets are on the line. That will probably happen more often when a company is young and has not yet established its credit history.

And as is the case with all other business entities, an owner can be held personally responsible for financial losses caused by their negligent or careless actions, Mancuso said.

Mancuso recommends three steps to safeguard the protection against personal liability offered by an LLC.

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