I just read a report by the Small Business Administation that includes a wealth of statistics and other information about small businesses in the United States. As useful as the report is, it contains a mistake that, although commonly made, one would not expect from the SBA. The last item in the report asks the question, "What legal form are small businesses?" That's a good question, but the SBA didn't answer it. Instead, it answered another question, "What is the tax status of small business?" Even though the two questions are related, they are nonetheless distinct, and answering the second question does not answer the first.
Legal Form of a Business or Nonprofit
As we've discussed before, businesses are commonly organized according to one of a handful of legal forms: sole proprietorships, general partnerships, corporations, and limitied liability companies. There are a few others used less frequently, including limited partnerships, limited liability partnerships, and professional corporations. Tax exempt organizations are commonly organized as nonprofit corporations, but they can also be organized as unincorporated associations, charitable trusts, and sometimes limited liability companies.
The legal form of a business or tax exempt organization is primarily related to two fundamental attributes: who controls the organization, and who is liable for the organization's obligations. For example, if a business is structured as a general partnership, the partners collectively control the business and the partners are individually liable for the obligations of the partnership. In contrast, if a business is structured as a corporation, it is probably controlled by a board of directors, elected by the shareholders and acting through the officers. Unless something goes wrong, neither the shareholders, the directors, nor the officers are liable for the corporaton's obligations.
Although selecting the legal form of an organization determines the attributes of control and liability, it does not determine how much income tax the organization must pay. There are four common possibilities of tax status for businesses and nonprofit organizations, categorized by the applicable subchapter of Chapter 1 of Subtitle A of Title 26 of the United States Code (also known as the Internal Revenue Code): Subchapter C (the default provisions for corporations), Subchapter S (which is an alternative to Subchapter C that can be elected by small business corporations that meet the eligibility criteria), Subchapter K (for partnerships), and Subchapter F (for tax exempt organizations). Finally, some types of legal forms that have a single owner, such as sole proprietorships, are diregarded for income tax purposes, with their income reported on the owner's income tax return. Those businesses or nonprofit organizations are known as, appropriately enough, "disregarded entities."
Each of these tax categories can apply to more than one type of legal form of organization, and with two exceptions (sole proprietorships and general partnerships), each legal form has more than one possibility for the tax category, as shown in the chargt below. Even nonprofit corporations have more than one possibility; while most nonprofit corporations are organized with the intent of qualifying for Subchapter F (exempt organizations), if a nonprofit corporation fails to meet the criteria for tax exemption, it will be subject to taxation under Subchapter C.
Now you won't make the same mistake that the SBA made.