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The Basics of Sole Proprietorships

Chances are, you're already running a sole proprietorship. Now, educate yourself on the pros and cons, the tax implications, and the legal liabilities to determine if you want to remain a sole proprietorship.

The sole proprietorship is the simplest business form under which one can operate a business. The sole proprietorship is not a legal entity. It simply refers to a person who owns the business and is personally responsible for its debts. A sole proprietorship can operate under the name of its owner or it can do business under a fictitious name, such as Nancy's Nail Salon. The fictitious name is simply a trade name--it does not create a legal entity separate from the sole proprietor owner.

The sole proprietorship is a popular business form due to its simplicity, ease of setup, and nominal cost. A sole proprietor need only register his or her name and secure local licenses, and the sole proprietor is ready for business. A distinct disadvantage, however, is that the owner of a sole proprietorship remains personally liable for all the business's debts. So, if a sole proprietor business runs into financial trouble, creditors can bring lawsuits against the business owner. If such suits are successful, the owner will have to pay the business debts with his or her own money.

The owner of a sole proprietorship typically signs contracts in his or her own name, because the sole proprietorship has no separate identity under the law. The sole proprietor owner will typically have customers write checks in the owner's name, even if the business uses a fictitious name. Sole proprietor owners can, and often do, commingle personal and business property and funds, something that partnerships, LLCs and corporations cannot do. Sole proprietorships often have their bank accounts in the name of the owner. Sole proprietors need not observe formalities such as voting and meetings associated with the more complex business forms. Sole proprietorships can bring lawsuits (and can be sued) using the name of the sole proprietor owner. Many businesses begin as sole proprietorships and graduate to more complex business forms as the business develops.

Tax Implications

Because a sole proprietorship is indistinguishable from its owner, sole proprietorship taxation is quite simple. The income earned by a sole proprietorship is income earned by its owner. A sole proprietor reports the sole proprietorship income and/or losses and expenses by filling out and filing a Schedule C, along with the standard Form 1040. Your profits and losses are first recorded on a tax form called Schedule C, which is filed along with your 1040. Then the "bottom-line amount" from Schedule C is transferred to your personal tax return. This aspect is attractive because business losses you suffer may offset income earned from other sources.

As a sole proprietor, you must also file a Schedule SE with Form 1040. You use Schedule SE to calculate how much self-employment tax you owe. You need not pay unemployment tax on yourself, although you must pay unemployment tax on any employees of the business. Of course, you won't enjoy unemployment benefits should the business suffer.

Suing and Being Sued

Sole proprietors are personally liable for all debts of a sole proprietorship business. Let's examine this more closely because the potential liability can be alarming. Assume that a sole proprietor borrows money to operate but the business loses its major customer, goes out of business, and is unable to repay the loan. The sole proprietor is liable for the amount of the loan, which can potentially consume all her personal assets.

Imagine an even worse scenario: the sole proprietor (or even one her employees) is involved in a business-related accident in which someone is injured or killed. The resulting negligence case can be brought against the sole proprietor owner and against her personal assets, such as her bank account, her retirement accounts, and even her home.

Consider the preceding paragraphs carefully before selecting a sole proprietorship as your business form. Accidents do happen, and businesses go out of business all the time. Any sole proprietorship that suffers such an unfortunate circumstance is likely to quickly become a nightmare for its owner.

If a sole proprietor is wronged by another party, he can bring a lawsuit in his own name. Conversely, if a corporation or LLC is wronged by another party, the entity must bring its claim under the name of the company.

Advantages of a Sole Proprietorship

  • Owners can establish a sole proprietorship instantly, easily and inexpensively.
  • Sole proprietorships carry little, if any, ongoing formalities.
  • A sole proprietor need not pay unemployment tax on himself or herself (although he or she must pay unemployment tax on employees).
  • Owners may freely mix business or personal assets.

Disadvantages of a Sole Proprietorship

  • Owners are subject to unlimited personal liability for the debts, losses and liabilities of the business.
  • Owners cannot raise capital by selling an interest in the business.
  • Sole proprietorships rarely survive the death or incapacity of their owners and so do not retain value.

Forming a Sole Proprietorship

You may already be operating a sole proprietorship. One of the great features of a sole proprietorship is the simplicity of formation. Little more than buying and selling goods or services is needed. In fact, no formal filing or event is required to form a sole proprietorship; it is a status that arises automatically from one's business activity.

This article was excerpted from the books Start Your Own Business and Entrepreneur Magazine's Ultimate Book on Forming Corporations, LLC's, Sole Proprietorships and Partnerships.

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