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The S-Corp (so named from a chapter of the tax code) is a tax device created by federal law in 1958. It is a regular corporation with regular limited liability under state law, whose owners elect pass through status for federal tax purposes. That status requires compliance with a number of often constricting rules but, with some exceptions, complying corporations escape federal corporate tax. As regular business S-corporations under state law, they may be taxed under state tax law as regular corporations, or in some other way. Corporations whose owners don't choose to make the federal S-corp election-that choose to be taxed a S-corporations-are called C-corps (after another chapter of the tax code).
Ordinary partnerships, called "general partnerships," do not have limited liability under state law.
Limited partnerships limit liability for some partners but not others. A limited partnership has both general partners (who manage the business) and limited partners (who in essence are passive investors). The liability of limited partners is generally limited to their investments. The liability of general partners is theoretically unlimited, but can be limited in practice where the general partner is an entity, such as a corporation, with limited liability. A limited partner who takes on what state law considers "too much" management participation is treated as a general partner, losing limited liability.
Both general and limited partnerships are treated as pass through entities under federal tax law, but there are some relatively minor differences in tax treatment between general and limited partners.
A still more recent development, not yet adopted everywhere, is the limited liability partnership (discussed below) which was designed for professional practices.
Other partnership forms are the giant "publicly traded partnerships" (treated as C-corps for tax purposes) and limited liability limited partnerships (adopted in only a few states) which limit the liability of general partners (where two or more) as well as of limited partners.
LLCs have become the most popular business form for new entities, and many existing entities have converted to this form. They exist in some form in every state. They embody limited liability features of corporations and pass through characteristics of partnerships and S-corps, but are more flexible than S-corps.
For business law purposes, LLC members may be either passive investors or active investor-managers. Unlike with limited partnerships, active management won't affect limitation of liability. For federal tax purposes, LLCs are treated as partnerships (unless they elect otherwise).
Types of Business Entities
Businesses fall under one of two federal tax systems:
Taxation of both the entity itself (on the income it earns) and the owners (on dividends or other profit participation the owners receive from the business). This system applies to the business S-corporation-called the "C-corporation" (C-corp) for reasons we'll see shortly-and the system of taxing first the corporation and then its owners is called the "corporate double tax."
A sole proprietorship such as John Doe Plumbing or Marcus Welby, M.D. is also considered a pass through entity even though no "organization" may be involved.
The first major consideration (in this case, a tax consideration) in choosing the form of doing business is whether to choose an entity (such as a C-corp) that has two levels of tax on income or a pass through entity that has only one level (directly on the owners).
Tip: Co-owners and investors in pass through entities may need to have their operating agreements require a certain level of cash distributions in profit years, so they will have funds from which to pay taxes.
Losses are directly deductible by pass through owners while C-corp losses are deducted only against profits (past or future) and don't pass through to owners.
Tip: Business and tax planners therefore typically advise new businesses-those expected to have startup losses-to begin as pass through entities, so the owners can deduct losses currently against their other income, from investments or another business.
The major business consideration (as opposed to tax consideration) in choosing the form of business is limitation of liability, that is, to protect your assets from the claims of business creditors. State law grants limitation of liability to corporations (C and S-corps), LLCs, and partners in certain forms of partnership. Liability for corporations and LLCs is generally limited to your actual or promised investment in the business.
Form of Business Organization