Determining the type of legal structure for a new business can be daunting for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Corporations and limited liability companies ("LLCs") are preferred business structures because, unlike sole proprietorships and partnerships, both offer liability protection. This means that the owner of a company cannot be held personally responsible for the company's debts. The personal assets of an owner are shielded from company liabilities.
In researching the various business structures, one inevitably comes across the S-corporation. S-corps and LLCs are similar in that they are both "pass-through" entities for tax purposes; the income of these companies are passed through to their owners and reported on the owners' personal income tax returns, thereby eliminating the double taxation incurred by owners of a standard corporation, or C-corporation. (With a C corporation, the net business income is subject to corporate income tax, and the monies remaining after the corporate income tax are taxed a second time when they are distributed as dividends to its owners who must then pay personal income tax.)
So what is the difference between an S corporation and an LLC? And which structure is right for you?
The answer depends on your own unique situation. If operational ease and flexibility are important to you, an LLC is a good choice. If you are looking to save on employment tax and your situation warrants it, an S corporation could work for you.
Business Ownership & Operation
There are restrictions on who can be owners (called "shareholders") of an S-corporation. An S-corporation can have no more than 75 shareholders. None of the shareholders can be nonresident aliens. And shareholders cannot be other corporations or LLCs.
A S-corp. must follow the same formalities and record keeping procedures as a C-corp. The directors or officers of an S-corp. manage the company. And the S-corp has no flexibility in how profits are split up amongst its owners. The profits must be distributed according to the ratio of stock ownership, even if the owners may otherwise feel it is more equitable to distribute the profits differently.
LLCs offer greater flexibility in ownership and ease of operation. There are no restrictions on the ownership of an LLC. An LLC is simpler to operate because it is not subject to the formalities by which S-corps must abide. An LLC can be member-managed, meaning that the owners run the company; or it can be manager-managed, with responsibility delegated to managers who may or may not be owners in the LLC.
And the owners of an LLC can distribute profits in the manner they see fit.
Employment Tax: Savings vs. Paperwork
A major factor that differentiates a S-corporation from an LLC is the employment tax that is paid on earnings. The owner of an LLC is considered to be self-employed and, as such, must pay a "self-employment tax" of 15.3% which goes toward social security and Medicare. The entire net income of the business is subject to self-employment tax.
In a S-corporation, only the salary paid to the employee-owner is subject to employment tax. The remaining income that is paid as a distribution is not subject to employment tax under IRS rules. Therefore, there is the potential to realize substantial employment tax savings.
Still, while the potential employment tax savings may make the S-corporation an attractive structure for your business, bear in mind that you would then have to deal with all the paperwork associated with payroll tax. The payroll tax is a pay-as-you-go tax that must be paid to the IRS regularly throughout the year--on time, or you will incur interest and penalties. The paperwork alone can be an overwhelming task for someone who is not familiar with this; and if you expect to incur losses or otherwise experience a cash flow crunch during the year that would hinder you from paying the payroll tax when due, this could present a problem.
Owners of LLCs pay their self-employment tax once a year on April 15 when income taxes are normally due. Income tax filings are also relatively easy for the owners of an LLC: A single-member LLC files the same 1040 tax return and Schedule C as a sole proprietor; partners in an LLC file the same 1065 partnership tax return as do owners of traditional partnerships.
There is no one, magical entity that works for everyone. A CPA or a specialized tax attorney can assist you in choosing the right structure for your business. The important thing is to consider the operational, legal and tax aspects of each structure as they apply to your unique situation.