LLC’s, Corporations, And
Other Business Structures - Part II:
Written By New York Entertainment Attorney And LLC Counsel
John J. Tormey III, Esq.
This article is not intended to, and does not constitute, legal advice with respect to your particular situation and fact pattern. Do secure counsel promptly, if you see any legal issue looming on the horizon which may affect your career or your rights. What applies in one context, may not apply to the next one. Make sure that you seek individualized legal advice as to any important matter pertaining to your career or your rights generally.
Part I of this article discussed the process of selecting
a new name for a business, typically a limited liability company (LLC)
or a corporation in this day and age. Many people choose to incorporate
or form an LLC, so as to minimize their personal liability for the debts,
liabilities, and obligations of their business. There is cost to forming
an entity, but the cost is often worth it. What follows is a brief discussion
of “personal liability”, and the types of entities that
may be available. These types of issues regarding corporations and limited
liability companies (LLC’s) are often brought to music
lawyers, film lawyers, television
lawyers, publishing lawyers,
and entertainment attorneys
such as myself in the
context of new entertainment venture start-up companies and otherwise,
but are in fact universal concerns and themes
across manifold sectors and industries besides entertainment.
2. Choosing an Entity.
A full description of all the differences between an S-corporation (S-corp), a C-corporation (C-corp), and a limited liability company (LLC) would be beyond the scope of this article. Besides, the distinctions are often altered - some would say “blurred” - by changes in the Internal Revenue Code and state laws. Even by the time you read this article, further changes to relevant tax laws and state laws may be made, further affecting your entity choice as between a limited liability company (LLC), a corporation, or other available form of entity such as a partnership or trust. The bottom line is that a choice of entity should be made upon current information only, with the assistance of a lawyer and an accountant. To do it any other way is to risk making a bad choice that one will later regret, especially when the first or successive tax returns relating to the LLC or corporation are filed. Though in this day and age an entertainment attorney will typically be asked to form and file a limited liability company (LLC) rather than an alternate form of entity in the context of a new film, music, television, publishing, or other media or entertainment business start-up, the choice of entity should still be carefully examined by the entertainment attorney and the business-owner at the outset – just as it should be carefully examined in any other sector or industry.
The distinctions between an S-corp, C-corp, and limited liability company (LLC) make sense when taken in the historical perspective. Look at them as the product of a kind of Darwinian evolution. In that vein, the S-corp and C-corp may someday become but extinct historical artifacts, while the LLC could become the only entity “fittest” to survive. The LLC may be the best choice of entity - if affordable, and if one is not otherwise precluded from forming it by virtue of one’s own tax profile or one’s home state’s current restrictions on LLC’s.
At some point in history it was realized that persons involved in businesses could be thereby putting their own personal assets at risk as a result. That principle still applies, by the way. If one runs an unincorporated or non-LLC business out of one’s house, that business owner may risk later losing that same house, not to mention cars, bank accounts, and other assets, to the debts, liabilities and obligations of one’s business. This is what “personal liability” is all about. A business owner wants to avoid personal liability, at all costs. The owner wants to shield his or her assets - like a house, cars, and personal bank accounts - from the risks engendered by the business. For these reasons, understandable and common to all humanity, the concept of a corporation was first formulated, many years ago. Copyright, trademark, and other rights-deals in the context of film, music, television, publishing, and media particularly, tend to be liability-evocative, and so it is not uncommon for an entertainment attorney to first focus on the structure of the business vehicle through which the proposed deal is intended to run, before looking at the deal itself.
The traditional and old-fashioned form of corporation in the U.S. still exists as of this writing - in the form of the C-corporation, named after a “Subchapter-C” in the Internal Revenue Code. When properly filed and maintained, the C-corp shields the business-owner/principal from personal liability. For example, if there is US$10,000 in the C-corp’s corporate bank account, then, in theory, only that US$10,000 amount can be used to satisfy a civil (court) judgment against the corporation - even if the President and sole shareholder of the corporation has an additional $50,000 in his/her personal bank account. A “wall”, “shield”, or “veil” is put up between the two sets of assets.
But the C-corp posed historical problems, principally that of so-called “double taxation”. Those C-corp owners filed corporate tax returns as well as individual tax returns. The unsuspecting were thereupon often disheartened to find out that they were subjected to an extra tax hit. The C-corp would be taxed on corporate earnings. In addition, the shareholders could also be taxed personally on monies withdrawn from the corporation by way of dividends. The net effect wasn’t always necessarily a 100% increase in otherwise-prevailing tax (as the somewhat-misleading phrase “double taxation” might otherwise suggest). But, on the other hand, the monies generated by the C-corp were required to filter through two “layers” of taxation as opposed to one.
In this regard, a number of business owners, including some in the entertainment business, realized that they would have oddly been better off from a tax perspective if not incorporated - a bizarre result if there ever was one. Why should the tax code and state corporation law encourage you to take unacceptable personal risk, after all? Some persons thereupon decided to simply not incorporate (or “un-incorporate”, dissolving a pre-existing corporation), and thereupon take the oft-significant risk of individual liability so as to minimize taxes. If continued, one would expect the rate of commercial litigations and personal bankruptcies to rise as result, an event which in no way would be in the public interest. Other persons instead opted out of corporate and business ownership entirely. As an entertainment attorney practicing in New York, I still encounter many companies who have yet to incorporate or form a limited liability company (LLC) – they are typically either sole proprietorships or de facto partnerships, the risks of which their principals are still assuming personal liability whether aware of it or not. The risks are exacerbated if the business hires employees or even independent contractors.
The next installment of this article will address how society responded to the growing dissatisfaction with the C-corp - namely, the creation of the S-corp and the limited liability company (LLC) thereafter.
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