One of the best-known and most widely used business entity forms is the corporation.
Traditionally, corporations are viewed as having four identifying characteristics. The four corporate characteristics are: continuity of life, centralization of management, limited liability, and free transferability of interests.
The main advantage of a corporation is the liability protection it provides its owners or shareholders. Liability is limited because the corporation is a legal entity that is separate from its shareholder owners. As a separate legal entity, the corporation has a perpetual life. Also, as a separate legal entity, the corporation is liable for its own debts and can only be held liable to the extent of the corporation's assets.
The assets of a shareholder are personal assets that cannot be reached by corporate creditors, unless the "veil" of corporate limited liability is "pierced." The corporate veil is pierced when the required corporate formalities, such as having annual directors' and shareholders' meetings, etc., aren't followed. In effect, the corporate veil will be pierced (by a court when a lawsuit is filed against the corporation and its shareholders) when the corporate form is a mere sham that exists to enable shareholders to avoid personal liability. If the veil is pierced, the shareholders will be liable for the obligations of the corporation.
Formation. Forming a corporation is more complicated and more expensive than forming a sole proprietorship or a simple partnership. However, the formation process is not that difficult. To form a corporation, articles of incorporation must be filed with the secretary of state's office in the state in which the corporation is being organized. If the secretary of state's office accepts the articles of incorporation, it will send a certificate of incorporation. Many states require that a copy of the certificate of incorporation be recorded in the local recorder's office where the corporation resides.
A corporation does not have to be organized in the state in which it is going to do business. It can be organized in any state. Many corporations organize in states like Delaware to take advantage of favorable corporate laws. However, corporations must register as "foreign" corporations in any states in which they do business, outside of the state in which they were organized. Both organization and foreign registration entail the payment of initial and annual fees which can add up to substantial amounts of money over time.
Operation. A corporation is owned by its shareholders. The shareholders don't have any control over the day-to-day operations of the business directly. The shareholders are responsible for electing directors of the corporation. The directors oversee the operation of the corporation and make major corporate decisions, such as appointing the officers of the corporation. The directors meet at least annually to assess the past performance of the corporation and to plan for the future. The officers of the corporation are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company.
Once the directors are elected and the corporate officers are appointed, the corporation can begin to operate. However, it is important that the corporation observe all the formalities of being a corporation. The formalities include, among other things, issuing stock certificates to the shareholders, holding annual meetings, recording the minutes of the meetings in the corporate register, and electing directors or ratifying the status of existing directors.
Observing all the corporate formalities provides evidence that the corporation is a separate legal entity rather than an extension of the shareholders. The reason it is necessary to enforce the notion that the corporation is a separate legal entity is to protect the limited liability of the shareholders.
Advantages of a corporation:
Disadvantages of a corporation:
Close corporations. Some states allow a type of corporation called a close corporation, which may appeal to small business owners. A close corporation is one that is managed by its shareholders. Directors do not have to be elected and officers do not have to be appointed. In addition to these formalities being eliminated, the laws usually streamline some of the other meeting and voting requirements. The intent is to relieve some of the administrative burdens to the small corporation owner. If a close corporation appeals to you, consult an attorney in the state you are incorporating in to determine if a close corporation statute exists.
Protective measures. A corporation with two or more shareholders may require the efforts of all of the shareholders to succeed, especially in the early life of the business. If one shareholder withdraws or dies, the existence of the corporation may be threatened. To protect the corporation and the remaining shareholders, consider buy/sell agreements and key man life insurance policies on the shareholders.
A buy/sell agreement specifies how the value of a shareholder's interest will be determined if a shareholder wants to leave the corporation. Having a buy/sell agreement in place minimizes disputes over the company value and facilitates the purchase of the withdrawing shareholder's interest by the corporation or other shareholders.
Key man life insurance is a life insurance policy on the life of key members of an organization to provide cash in the event of the death of a key member. The beneficiaries of a key man policy are the organization or the organization members. In a corporation, key man life insurance can be purchased on the life of all shareholders or on some designated class such as corporate officers. The life insurance proceeds can be used by the corporation to keep the business going in the absence of a key shareholder or officer. The proceeds can also be used to buy out a deceased shareholder's interest pursuant to a buy/sell agreement.
Professional corporations. The corporate form can also be used for professional service providers. The main advantage of incorporating is that professionals in the corporation are not liable for the malpractice of others in the corporation, but they still remain liable for their own individual acts. Incorporating a professional corporation is essentially the same as incorporating any other corporation. A professional corporation however, must identify itself as such by including the following in its name: P.C., P.A., chartered, or incorporated.
Once created, only professionals can own shares of the corporation. The corporation can only provide one form of service, i.e., a professional corporation of lawyers who are also accountants can provide legal services but not accounting services. There are many other aspects of professional corporations that should be addressed before you venture into this form of entity. Your attorney or accountant can advise you as to whether the professional corporation is right for your situation.
Tax issues. In general, corporations are separate taxable entities that are subject to federal and state taxation. Corporate income is taxed at the corporate level. When that income is passed on to the shareholders as a distribution or dividend, it is taxed again on the shareholder's individual tax return. Double taxation may be partially or completely avoided in a small business by paying a salary to the employee shareholder. However, the tax laws governing this area are complex and should be discussed with your accountant or your attorney.
Also, be aware of the tax consequences upon dissolution of a corporation.
With all forms of business entity except a C corporation, dissolution and
distribution of the business's assets to the owners is, at worst, a single
taxable event. In a C corporation, a double tax may be due; the corporation may
owe a capital gains tax on liquidation and the individual shareholders also must
recognize a gain upon the transfer of proceeds from the corporate entity to the
individual recipient. Consequently, dissolving a C corporation can have serious
tax ramifications, so think carefully about incorporating in this form if you
anticipate a short-term business opportunity.