Choice of Entity
One of the first decisions – and certainly among the most important – that the owner of a new business must make is the form of legal entity through which the business will be operated. This seemingly simple choice, which is too often made without adequate reflection, can have far-reaching tax and, therefore, economic consequences for the owner.
The well-advised owner will choose a form of entity for his business only after having considered a number of tax-related factors, including the income taxation of the entity itself, the income taxation of the entity’s owners, and the imposition of other taxes that may be determined by reference to the income generated by, or withdrawn from, the entity.
In addition to taxes, the owner will have considered the rights given to her, the protections afforded her (the most important being that of limited exposure for the debts and liabilities of the entity), and the responsibilities imposed upon her, pursuant to the state laws under which a business entity may be formed.
The challenge presented for the owner and her advisers is to identify the relevant tax and non-tax factors, analyze and (to the extent possible) quantify them, weigh them against one another, and then see if the best tax and business options may be reconciled within a single form of legal or business entity.
The foregoing may be interpreted as requiring a business owner, in all instances, to select one form of business entity over another; specifically, the creation of a corporation (taxable as a “C” or as an “S” corporation) over an LLC (taxable as a partnership or as a disregarded entity) as a matter of state law. Fortunately, that is not always the case. In order to understand why this is so, a brief review of the IRS’s entity classification rules is in order.
The Classification Regulations
A business entity that is formed as a “corporation” under a state’s corporate law – for example, under New York’s business corporation law – is classified as a corporation per se for tax purposes.
In general, a business entity that is not thereby classified as a corporation – such as an LLC – can elect its classification for federal tax purposes.
An entity with at least two members can elect to be classified as either a corporation (“association” is the term used by the IRS) or a partnership, and an entity with a single owner can elect to be classified as a corporation or to be disregarded as an entity separate from its owner.
Unless the entity elects otherwise, a domestic entity is classified as a partnership for tax purposes if it has two or more members; or it is disregarded as an entity separate from its owner if it has a single owner. Thus, an LLC with at least two members is treated as a partnership for tax purposes, while an LLC with only one member is disregarded for tax purposes, and its sole member is treated as owning all of the LLC’s assets, liabilities, and items of income, deduction, and credit.
Election to Change Tax Status
If a business entity classified as a partnership elects to be classified as a corporation, the partnership is treated, for tax purposes, as contributing all of its assets and liabilities to the corporation in exchange for stock in the corporation, and immediately thereafter, the partnership liquidates by distributing the stock of the corporation to its partners.
If an entity that is disregarded as an entity separate from its owner elects to be classified as a corporation, the owner of the entity is treated as contributing all of the assets and liabilities of the entity to the corporation in exchange for stock of the corporation.
An election is necessary only when an entity chooses to be classified initially (upon it creation) as other than its default classification, or when an entity chooses to change its classification. An entity whose classification is determined under the default classification retains that classification until the entity makes an election to change that classification.
In order to change its classification, a business entity must file IRS Form 8832, Entity Classification Election. Thus, an entity that is formed as an LLC or as a partnership under state law may file Form 8832 to elect to be treated as a corporation for tax purposes.
Alternatively, an LLC or a partnership that timely elects to be an S corporation (by filing IRS Form 2553) is treated as having made an election to be classified as a corporation, provided that it meets all other requirements to qualify as a small business corporation as of the effective date of the election.
Electing S Corporation Status – Why?
Most tax advisers will recommend that a new business be formed as an LLC that is taxable as a pass-through entity (either a partnership or a disregarded entity). The LLC does not pay entity level tax; its net income is taxed only to its members; in general, it may distribute in-kind property to its members without triggering recognition of gain; it may pass through to its members any deductions or losses attributable to entity-level indebtedness; it can provide for many classes of equity participation; it is not limited in the types of person who may own interests in the LLC; and it provides limited liability protection for its owners.
In light of these positive traits, why would an LLC elect to be treated as an S corporation? Yes, an S corporation, like an LLC, is not subject to entity-level income tax (in most cases), but what about the restrictive criteria for qualifying as an S corporation? An S corporation is defined as a domestic corporation that does not: have more than 100 shareholders, have as a shareholder a person who is not an individual (other than an estate, or certain trusts), have a nonresident alien as a shareholder, and have more than one class of stock.
The answer lies, in no small part, in the application of the self-employment tax.
The Code imposes a tax on the “self-employment income” of every individual for a taxable year (self-employment tax). In general, self-employment income is defined as “the net earnings from self-employment derived by an individual.”
“Net earnings from self-employment” is defined as the gross income derived by an individual from any trade or business carried on by such individual, less allowable deductions which are attributable to such trade or business, plus his distributive share (whether or not distributed) of income or loss from any trade or business carried on by a partnership of which he is a member . . . .”
Certain items are excluded from self-employment income, including “the distributive share of any item of income . . . of a limited partner.”
That being said, any guaranteed payments made to a limited partner for services actually rendered to or on behalf of the partnership, “to the extent that those payments are established to be in the nature of remuneration for those services . . . ,” are subject to the tax.
In creating the exclusion for limited partners, Congress recognized that certain earnings were basically in the nature of a return on investment. The “limited partner exclusion” was intended to apply to those partners who “merely invest” in, rather than those who actively participate in and perform services for, a partnership in their capacity as partners.
A partnership cannot change the character of a partner’s distributive share for purposes of the self-employment tax simply by making guaranteed payments to the partner for his services. A partnership is not a corporation and the “wage” and “reasonable compensation” rules which are applicable to corporations do not apply to partnerships.
Instead, a partner who is not a “limited partner” within the meaning of the exclusion is subject to self-employment tax on his full distributive share of the partnership’s income, even in cases involving a capital-intensive business.
Thus, individual partners who are not limited partners are subject to self-employment tax on their distributive share of partnership income regardless of their participation in the partnership’s business or the capital-intensive nature of the partnership’s business.
Unfortunately, the Code does not define the term “limited partner,” though the IRS and the courts have, on occasion, interpreted the term as applied to the members of an LLC; specifically, based upon these interpretations, the level of a member’s involvement in the management and operation of the LLC will be determinative of her status as a “limited partner” and, consequently, of her liability for self-employment tax.
The shareholders of an S corporation, on the other hand, are not subject to employment taxes in respect of any return on their investment in the corporation – i.e., on their pro rata share of S corporation income – though they are subject to employment taxes as to any wages paid to them by the corporation.
For that reason, the IRS has sought to compel S corporations to pay their shareholder-employees a reasonable wage for services rendered to the corporation. In that way, the IRS hopes to prevent an S corporation from “converting” what is actually compensation for services into a distribution of investment income that is not subject to employment taxes.
Why Not Incorporate?
If the self-employment tax on an owner’s share of business income can be legitimately avoided by operating through an S corporation – except to the extent it is paid out as reasonable compensation for services rendered by the owner to the corporation – why wouldn’t the owner just form a corporation through which to operate the business?
The answer is rather straightforward: because tax planning, although a very important consideration, is not necessarily the determinative factor in the choice-of-entity decision.
There may be other, non-tax business reasons, including factors under state law, for establishing a business entity other than a corporation.
For example, in the absence of a shareholders’ agreement – which under the circumstances may not be attainable – shares of stock in a corporation will generally be freely transferable, as a matter of state law; on the other hand, the ability of a transferee of an ownership interest in an LLC to become a full member will generally be limited under state law – in most cases, the transferee of a membership interest in an LLC will, in the absence of a contrary provision in the LLC’s operating agreement, become a mere assignee of the economic benefits associated with the membership interest, with none of the rights attendant on full membership in the LLC.
With that in mind – along with other favorable default rules under a state’s LLC law, as opposed to its corporate law – and recognizing the limitations imposed under the Code for qualification as an S corporation, a business owner may decide to form her entity as an LLC in order to take advantage of the “benefits” provided under state law; but she will also elect to treat the LLC as a corporation for tax purposes so as to avoid entity-level income tax and to limit her exposure to self-employment tax.
In this way, the business owner may be able to reconcile her tax and non-tax business preferences within a single legal entity. The key, of course, will be for both the owner and her tax advisers to remain vigilant in the treatment of the LLC as an S corporation. The pass-through treatment for tax purposes will be easy to remember, but other tax rules applicable to corporations (such as the treatment of in-kind distributions as sales by the corporation), and to S corporations in particular (such as the single class of stock), will require greater attention, lest the owner inadvertently cause a taxable event or cause the LLC to lose its “S” status.