[This is the fourth post in a seven-part series discussing the characteristics of limited liability companies and comparing them to the characteristics of corporations, general partnerships, and sole proprietorships. Here's the entire list.
Part 1. Background on sole proprietorships.
Part 2. Background on partnerships.
Part 3. Background on corporations.
Part 4. LLCs are distinct legal entities, separate from their owners.
Part 5. A limited liability company's owners are not liable for the LLC's obligations.
Part 6. Options for an LLC's management structure.
Part 7. Options for an LLC's tax treatment.]
To set the background for a discussion of the basics of limited liability companies, we've discussed sole proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations. As we'll see, a limited liability company shares some characteristics with corporations and other characteristics with sole proprietorships (if the LLC has one owner, called a member) or partnerships (if the LLC has more than one member).
The first thing to recognize about a limited liability company is that it is a separate legal entity, apart from its owners. How does that compare to the other structures? First, a sole proprietorship is NOT a separate legal entity apart from its owner. If you're running a business as a sole proprietorship, you really ARE the business, and the business is you.
At the other end of the spectrum, a corporation is a distinct legal entity, completely separate from its shareholders. For example a corporation can sue and be sued in its own name, It can enter into contracts in its own name. And it can go into bankruptcy without dragging its owners with it.
In the middle of the spectrum is a partnership. Without getting into all the details, I'll just say that for some purposes a partnership has the characteristics of a separate legal entity, and for other purposes a partnership is treated more like the aggregate of all the partners.
So in this sense, a limited liability company is just like a corporation. It is a separate legal entity, apart from its members. It can sue and be sued; it can enter into contracts; and it can go into bankruptcy, all apart from its members. And all that is true even if the LLC has only a single member.
Next we'll discuss another way that a limited liability company is like a corporation -- the liability shield.