Small business owner illustrating the idea of "Difference between LLC, Sole Proprietorship, DBA, and Corporation"
Maria Arnedo
By: marnedo
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What’s the Difference Between DBA, Sole Proprietorship, LLC, and Corporation?

Before you start your own business, you have to decide, by law, the legal formation you want for your business. This is also called “business structure” and “legal structure”. Sole Proprietorship vs DBA, LLC, and Corporation. Which one will be the best fit for your business?

Each business structure has different features, pros, and cons. And picking the right structure for your business will allow you to manage three important elements: liability, taxes, and complexity. The good news is you don’t need to be a lawyer to make a decision on your legal formation. It can take more or less time, and cost more or less money depending on the structure of your choice.

Have in mind that each of the legal formations we will explain in this article take very different approaches to taxation.

What is a DBA?

By default, unless you file otherwise, your business will be structured as a sole proprietorship, which means that there is one owner. This is the simplest business structure to form. But have in mind this is not the same as DBA.

What is a DBA exactly? DBA is an acronym for, “Doing Business As” and refers to the difference between the legal name of the business and the name by which it operates day-to-day, the name by which customers and associates may know the company (the DBA). Some states do require businesses to register the DBA name before they can begin using it, such as California and Florida.

A DBA is not a legal structure (the legal structure is the sole proprietorship), but rather a way to allow a sole proprietorship to have a business name without having to file an LLC or Corporation. While simple and inexpensive, it comes with the same risk as being a sole proprietorship or general partnership.

Camino BONUS: Sole Proprietorship vs DBA – FAQs

  • Is DBA and sole proprietorship the same? Technically speaking, no. A sole proprietorship is a legal structure (like LLC or Corporation), and a DBA is not. A DBA is a legal requirement to be able to operate your business with a trade name or a pseudonym different from your registered, legal name.
  • Do I need to file a DBA for a sole proprietorship? While a sole proprietor is required by law to use his legal name to conduct business, the use of a DBA, however, is optional. If a sole proprietor does want to use a DBA, he must obtain permission from local authorities first.
  • How many DBAs can a sole proprietorship have? A sole proprietorship can have more than one DBA and can have DBAs in more than one state, as long as the names are properly registered before use. However, have in mind the associated filing costs for each DBA.

Now, let’s review in detail each of the legal formations you can choose for your business: Sole Proprietorship, Corporation, and LLC.

What is a Sole Proprietorship?

Again, a DBA is a title assigned to sole proprietorships. Sole proprietorships have only one owner and they are the simplest way by which to operate a business. If you are self-employed, or, as previously mentioned, not yet determined a business structure, then this is your default.

The Pros

The biggest advantage to operating a sole proprietorship is that it is very simple to form and maintain. And, since there isn’t a delineation between the business and the owner, it means that any income earned by the business is earned by the owner, so no separate taxes need to be filed. One would simply need to keep track of monies earned and file Schedule C with the personal tax returns.

The Cons

A sole proprietorship means there is not any separation between the business owner and the business. What does this mean, exactly? Essentially, it means that if someone sues your business or if your small business defaults on any loans, your personal assets (home, cars, personal bank accounts), can be on the hook. This is why the Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) and the C Corporation (or, simply Corporation) are popular business structures, as they limit the personal liability of the owner.

Before we continue with the other legal formations, you may want to learn the difference between sole proprietorship and partnership, and if it is time for you to convert your sole proprietorship to another type of legal formation. And if you are ready to apply for your DBA and you want to do it the easiest way, learn here how to set up a DBA using LegalZoom.

What is a Corporation?

A corporation is considered a separate entity from its owners, therefore, the owners will not be held responsible for any financial hardships or lawsuits filed against the business. This protection is often called a “corporate shield”, as it shields the owners’ assets.

The Pros

It may be seen as though from a taxation standpoint, a C Corporation is not the way to go, and in many cases, that may be true. However, one thing to consider, especially if you are intent on growing your business significantly and therefore investing profits back into the company, is that a C Corporation only pays taxes on those profits that are distributed to their shareholders.

Meanwhile, members or owners of an LLC, an S Corporation (both of which will be addressed shortly), and a sole proprietorship pay taxes on any profits, whether they are deposited into personal bank accounts or invested back into the business. Also, remember the corporate shiel mentioned above. You won’t be held responsible if your business falls into legal trouble.

The Cons

This business structure is often seen as overly administrative for the average small business. The reason being that this entity requires a formal structure of shareholders, directors, officers, and employees. Each corporation is required to appoint at least one person to serve on the board and the officers are required to oversee the day-to-day operations of the business. This is generally only a good option for a small business that has been around for a while and is preparing to go public or grow significantly.

For tax purposes, a Corporation files its own taxes, separate from those of the owner. As such, if you are the owner of a corporation, you will need to file both your personal taxes and taxes for your small business. In turn, this can result in, “double taxation”, which means that the business pays taxes on any profits and the owner pays taxes on those profits after they have been distributed to them.

What is an S Corporation?

If you opt to be legally formed as a Corporation, there are to types: a C Corporation (explained above) and an S Corporation. To sidestep this double tax burden, some small business owners will form an S Corporation. This means that the business does not file its own taxes, but rather profits are passed through and filed on the individual taxes of the shareholders.

If any of the shareholders are employees of the company, then the business must pay a fair wage to those employees, aside from their profit shares, and payroll taxes on the aforementioned wages.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that not all C Corporations will qualify for S Corporation status. For example, an S Corporation cannot have more than 100 shareholders and they must all reside in the United States.

What is an LLC?

An LLC is essentially a hybrid of a C Corporation and a sole proprietorship.

The Pros

There is a reason as to why this is generally the most popular business structure among small businesses. Much like a corporation, it protects the personal assets of the owner, without requiring the same level of administrative oversight or paperwork to file. Additionally, you have more flexibility with an LLC as to how you are taxed: you can choose to either be taxed as a C Corporation, where the business files taxes separately, or as an S Corporation, where the profits are passed through to the owner, who then reports them on their personal taxes.

Every state has its own laws regarding the formation of an LLC, however, unlike requirements for establishing a DBA, no state requires a business to form an LLC. Rather, it is completely voluntary and is a choice made by the business owner regarding whether or not it’s a solid decision for them.

The Cons

If you (and, if applicable business partners) own an LLC, then you are not considered employees, but members. As such, you do not have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes on your profits. However, if you actively work in the business and earn a salary, then you will need to pay self-employment taxes on that income. However, with a corporation, only salaries are subject to taxation, profit sharing is not.

If your small business employs paid staff and you are committed to offering competitive benefits, then this is another area in which you will want to carefully weigh the differences between an LLC and a Corporation. There are some benefits such as retirement plans that are only available to corporations, while an LLC will be expected to pay taxes on certain benefits, such as health and life insurance.

Camino BONUS: LLC vs Sole Proprietorship -FAQs

  • Which is better, an LLC or sole proprietorship? It depends on the degree of liability you are willing to take. In an LLC, the member’s liability is limited, depending on the amount of their investment in the LLC. Therefore, the members (or the owner) are not personally liable for the debts of the company, while a sole proprietor would be liable for them.
  • Is a single-member LLC the same as a sole proprietorship? No, technically speaking they are not the same. In a sole proprietorship, the company and the owner are one and the same in terms of taxes and legal matters, while a single-member LLC provides a divide between the Company and the owners in both tax and legal matters (the business and the owner are considered separate entities).
  • Can you have an LLC and be a sole proprietor? Yes, that would be considered a single-member LLC (but NOT a sole proprietorship). The main feature of a single-member LLC is that the owner can choose to be taxed as a sole proprietorship or as a corporation.
  • What are the benefits of having an LLC? The main benefit is that an LLC limits liability for the members, therefore offering more protection than a sole proprietorship. The second main benefit is pass-through taxation: the business profits are distributed to the members, who report them in their personal taxes.

Business Structures at a Glance

Still confused? Get Assistance!

Just as every small business is different, so will the best option for said businesses. And, yes, as your company grows and changes, you can change the business structure. Consulting a respected, trustworthy tax attorney or business advisor is a good first step in determining which business structure will be the best option for you.

Once you’ve decided which legal structure and name you’ll choose for your business, the next step is to create a brand for your company. Here you can learn how to do that.

If you’re still struggling to understand the difference between Sole Proprietorship vs DBA, LLC, and Corporation, Camino Financial is more than happy to assist you in setting up your business. Simply call us at (800) 852-0655 and we’ll get you set up right away.

In the meantime, we invite you to read What Are the Most Common Types of Business?

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