Sole Proprietorship vs. LLC: Which Is Right for You?

Sole Proprietorship vs. LLC: Which Is Right for You?

Sole Proprietorship vs. LLC: Which Is Right for You?

The decision to incorporate or not incorporate your business can be a very important choice. While most businesses operate as sole proprietorship, a formal business structure such as an LLC can provide significant benefits including asset protection and greater access to small business financing. Learn more about an LLC vs. a sole prop in this article from Nav’s experts.

Sole Proprietorship vs. LLC: Comparison

One of the key benefits of a limited liability company (LLC) versus the sole proprietorship is that a member’s liability is limited to the amount of their investment in the LLC. Therefore, a member is not personally liable for the debts of the LLC. A sole proprietor would be liable for the debts incurred by the business. This liability, however, is dependent upon following the rules associated with an LLC. If you treat the LLC the way you would a sole proprietorship, you lose the liability protections.

For example, creditors can go after a sole proprietor’s home, car, and other personal property to satisfy debts, while an LLC that is properly maintained can protect the owner’s personal assets.

What Is a Sole Proprietorship?

When a business operates as a sole proprietorship, it simply starts doing business without forming a separate legal entity. This is the most common business structure used by small business owners in the U.S. It is also the most risky. Here are some key takeaways to think about when considering a sole proprietorship:

  • No required paperwork apart from industry-specific licenses 
  • No annual state filings
  • Simplified tax filing
  • No liability protection
  • Difficult to obtain financing in the business name
  • Harder to build business credit

Advantages of a Sole Proprietorship

When you form a sole proprietorship, you have the following benefits:

Disadvantages of a Sole Proprietorship

However, with a sole proprietorship, you also have the following drawbacks:

What Is an LLC?

An LLC, or limited liability company, is a legal business structure for operating a business. It is popular with many business owners due to the ease of setting it up, the fact that it is often cost effective and easier to maintain than other business structures such as S corps or C corps, and because it can provide asset protection. Here are some key takeaways to consider when forming an LLC:

  • More market credibility
  • Liability protection in the case of certain lawsuits and commercial debts
  • More financing options
  • Some paperwork
  • Annual state filings
  • Tax advantages and disadvantages

The Pros & Cons of Forming an LLC

Choosing to form an LLC brings both advantages and additional costs. It will be up to you to weigh the costs against the benefits, however, for serious business owners, it is often well worth it.

Advantages of Forming an LLC

When you form an LLC, you are creating a business entity separate from yourself. In other words, you are not your LLC and your LLC is not you. With the LLC, you will have the following benefits:

Disadvantages of Forming an LLC

With an LLC, you have the following drawbacks as well:

The Difference Between an LLC and a Sole Proprietorship

Forming a sole proprietorship vs. LLC

Let’s look at the distinctions of creating an LLC vs. a self-employed business. Forming a sole proprietorship can be as simple as getting to work. Depending on what kind of work you do, you may have to obtain licenses, permits, zoning clearances, or other permissions from your local government. If you so desire, you can form a legal entity and file an assumed business name, and to make tax season more bearable, obtain an EIN (employer identification number). 

Forming an LLC is a little more involved, but still a relatively simple process. You’ll need to choose a legal name your LLC, and be sure to check your proposed name before going to file; you’ll want to be sure you’re choosing a name unique to your business and and check with an attorney before using a name others have protected with a trademark. You’ll also need to choose a registered agent. This could be yourself if you’re a single-member LLC, or one of your business partners in the case of a multi-member LLC. 

You’ll then need to file articles of incorporation (the specific name of this document can vary depending on your locale) and create an operating agreement, as well as paying a filing fee. Having a business plan in place can make aspects of this step much simpler as you form an LLC. In some states, you’ll be required to obtain your EIN for tax purposes. 

Financing a sole proprietorship vs. LLC

Whatever type of legal entity you choose to file, funding will likely be a hot topic and a challenge. Experienced small business owners will likely suggest you keep your full-time job while you get your business off the ground; this personal income can be a steady stream of capital as you get your operation moving. Either way, get a business bank account and a business credit card if possible.

Getting a startup loan can be difficult for a new business, but there are other funding opportunities available. You can consider crowdfunding where you can offer donors a gift for their contribution, make them shareholders, or just rely on the goodness of their heart. There are also a number of non-profit lenders offering microloans for new or disadvantaged businesses.

Which pays less taxes, sole proprietorship or LLC?

With both an LLC and a sole proprietorship, the profit of the business passes through to the owner’s personal tax return. But LLCs have more flexibility in how they are taxed, which may result in tax savings.

Sole proprietors typically report their business income and expenses on Schedule C. This form is filed with the owner’s personal tax return. The net profit from the business (line 31 on Schedule C) indicates the net profit of the business and it passes through to the owner’s personal tax return. 

Pass through entities like LLCs and sole proprietorships may benefit from the Qualified Business Income (QBI) deduction that allows them to deduct 20% of QBI. Not all business income (and not all types of small businesses) qualify, so talk with a tax professional.

Is a single-member LLC the same as a sole proprietorship?

Single-member LLCs are automatically treated as sole proprietors for tax purposes, but may elect to be taxed as an S Corporation or C Corporation. This may provide tax savings but will also carry additional requirements. Check with your tax professional to choose the right filing status for your business.

Don’t forget about self-employment tax! The current self-employment tax rate (SECA, instead of FICA) is 15.3%. Normally this is split between the employer and the employee, but when you are the employer you pay the full amount yourself. (There may be ways to reduce self employment tax for LLCs that elect to be taxed as an S Corp.)

Whichever method you choose, keeping good documentation and staying on top of bookkeeping is essential. Keep good records of both income and expenses and work with an experienced bookkeeper or accountant, at least to set things up properly even if you decide to do your own bookkeeping or taxes.

Personal liability protection

Many business owners opt for LLCs because there is no personal liability and have better protections in place for their assets. However, the personal liability protection is not always absolute, so here are things you can do to stay protected:

  • Get LLC Insurance
  • Establish business credit without a personal guarantee
  • Keep business finances and personal finances separate

Sole proprietorships are known for their lack of legal protection, but people who are worried about liability can take the necessary steps to stay protected. Because of the lack of personal protection, the best way to protect yourself is to convert your business into a single-member LLC.

When should a sole proprietor become an LLC?

The decision is ultimately yours. But keep in mind that as a new business, legal protection can be important to your well-being and the longevity of your endeavor. Forming an LLC early on can help protect you personally from business liability. It can also make your business appear more stable to lenders and vendors, as well as customers and business partners. In that sense, it can be an investment in your success. 

Running a sole prop is as simple as getting to work and tracking your income and keeping it separate. You are the owner and the business, so all decisions are yours to make. That makes it easy to get started, but as your business grows you take on more risk.

Is an LLC Always the Best Choice?

Life is all about making choices and choosing to be an LLC owner can be a very important one. Asset protection consultants routinely market to business owners stating that an LLC is “always a good idea,” but I do not believe this to be true. Some entities are actually better suited for a sole proprietorship as the additional costs of an LLC do not provide any significant benefits over operating as a sole proprietor.

Also, understand that with the concept of an LLC providing “liability protection against commercial acts of your business,” a savvy attorney is going to try to find any loophole he can in your current setup to “pierce the corporate veil” and go after personal assets. 

In addition, some courts may not look favorably upon sole member LLCs, and the question comes up in legal proceedings as to whose interests are you being protected against if technically, you are the only member of the LLC.

Let’s look at some specific industry examples to give you a better idea of how to decide on sole proprietorship vs. LLC.

LLCs vs. sole proprietor for professional services

Whether you’re a lawyer, architect, or accountant, you’ll have to decide how to set up your professional services business. The limited liability protection of an LLC is especially valuable in professional services where legal risks may come up. The flexibility of an LLC allows for multiple members, which can foster collaboration and enable a scalable business structure. 

However, forming and maintaining an LLC involves more administrative tasks and may bring higher costs than a sole proprietorship. A sole proprietorship is simpler to establish and manage, with fewer regulatory requirements and lower initial costs. Yet, the main disadvantage lies in the lack of personal liability protection, exposing the owner’s assets to potential business risks. Additionally, sole proprietorships may face challenges in getting small business loans.

LLCs vs. sole proprietor for health care companies

Choosing between a LLC and a sole proprietorship is a big question for health care companies. Opting for an LLC provides a crucial layer of limited liability protection, which helps shield personal assets from business-related liabilities and potential malpractice claims. This is particularly necessary in the healthcare industry. 

Although a sole proprietorship offers simplicity in establishment and management, the significant drawback of a lack of personal liability protection exposes the owner’s assets to potential legal and malpractice risks. Additionally, it’s often easier for LLCs to get health care loans.

LLCs vs. sole proprietor for software companies

LLCs and sole proprietorships both have advantages and disadvantages for software companies. The software industry is prone to intellectual property disputes, so picking an LLC gives business owners some personal liability protection. 

Although a sole proprietorship has fewer requirements and lower costs to start, you may be able to pick up clients easier if you’re an LLC. An LLC is often viewed as more stable and legitimate than a sole proprietorship.

LLCs vs. sole proprietor for truckers

Trucking companies are open to a lot of liability since they’re operating large machinery that can be involved in accidents. Opting for an LLC provides limited liability protection for the owner or owners, which keeps personal assets safer and is crucial in the transportation industry where accidents and unforeseen events can occur. 

Additionally, many trucking companies rely on business financing for truckers, and sole proprietors may find it harder to qualify for certain business financing options. Ultimately, the decision depends on the trucker’s priorities regarding liability protection, collaboration opportunities, administrative ease, and scalability in the trucking industry.

LLCs vs. sole proprietor for home services

In the realm of home services, like running a cleaning or a plumbing company, you’ll need to pick between operating as an LLC or sole proprietor. Since you’re running a business from other people’s homes, this is a critical consideration because accidents or property damage might occur. An LLC offers more personal liability protection in case of accidents. Sole proprietors may also face limitations in accessing financing or forming partnerships.

LLCs vs. sole proprietor for retail

For retail businesses, an LLC provides limited liability protection, which is particularly important in a retail environment with potential customer-related risks. A sole proprietorship simply doesn’t offer as many legal protections for the business owner as an LLC.

Additionally, sole proprietors may face challenges in accessing certain business financing options for retailers.

LLCs vs. sole proprietor for restaurants

In the restaurant industry, it’s important to guard yourself against inherent risks like customer injuries or food-related concerns. Restaurant owners can run into legal problems if their customers get hurt or get sick, and an LLC provides limited liability protection for their personal assets. Sole proprietors may also face limitations in accessing certain business financing options or forming partnerships, so if business financing for restaurants is important to you, that should weigh into your decision.

How Management Structures Differ

At a sole proprietorship, the company owner can make any business decisions without additional input, permission, or legal documents. Sole proprietorships are known to have a simpler structure of management because there’s only one person at the head of the business. As a sole proprietor you only have to make sure that your business is operating legally and safely, and to create a profit margin to reduce business debts.

LLCs can be more complex in terms of the management structures of your type of business. An LLC can be managed by the members or by a manager that’s specifically appointed. Anyone can find that structure in an LLC operating agreement. Not all states require an operating agreement for an LLC, but most businesses operating under them have one — especially with multiple members. An operating agreement details each member’s profit share, voting rights, and stake in the business. 

Mixing Business Funds and Personal Funds

For many businesses, starting off can be quite a task of all the information needed just to get running, leaving other areas vulnerable to mishaps. One mishap entrepreneurs can make is mixing business and personal funds. Typically, this is through storing funds within one account which can create a headache when you file taxes, deter investors looking for the business’s financial discipline, and risk accumulating personal versus business debt.

The best way to start an LLC or sole proprietorship is to get a separate business checking account or an additional account that separates business and personal funds. 

Which Is Better: LLC or Sole Proprietorship?

As with so many questions like this, the answer is: it depends. While obtaining funding or financing can be challenging for any business, the advantages and protections you can enjoy with an LLC can’t be understated. 

Keep in mind your business goals and what you want to achieve. Don’t be scared to get advice or help from seasoned professionals.

If you’re looking for business financing, including small business loans or business credit cards, Nav can help. Using your business credit scores, annual revenue, and other business data, we find the financing you’re most likely to qualify for. Plus you can find tools to help you improve your financial health, like our Cash Flow tool. Use Nav to start seeing your best options today.

FAQs on Sole Proprietorship vs. Limited Liability Company (LLC)

This article was originally written on December 3, 2019 and updated on January 10, 2024.

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27 responses to “Sole Proprietorship vs. LLC: Which Is Right for You?

  1. Can an LLC incorporated in Ohio be considered a single member LLC if along with this single member it also utilizes the services of a professional registered agent? What would the single member’s title then be?

    1. I am not aware of any situation where a registered agent would be automatically considered a member of an LLC. I am not an attorney, however, so you’ll want to check with your advisors.

  2. I wanted to give it a five stars but hit the button by accident and only gave it to but it was worth every star possible

  3. For a solo contract / consulting software business, assuming you aren’t taking out any debts, the main lawsuit risk is errors and omissions – correct? In this case whether you are a sole proprietor or a SMLLC your personal assets would be at risk for those types of mistakes (i.e. LLC corporate veil would be pierced) – correct? So either way you need Professional Liability insurance to cover these lawsuits – either for yourself as a sole proprietor or for the LLC. Other than $800 a year to the state of California for the privilege of having an LLC with a cool name, is there really any difference (assuming you will be taxed as a sole proprietor and not do an S Corp election)?

    1. Don’t mean to be vague JT but these are all good questions for an attorney and/or your insurance professional. The type of exposure could depend on the type of consulting you are doing. And I know there are some issues with some SMLLs in certain states but I’m not familiar with all the nuances.

  4. This has been very helpful in understanding their differences. However, I am still undecided. I am
    staring an online business for toddler clothes. The clothes are exclusively made for me. I am a full time stay at home wife/mom and I am not employed in any way. I want to maximize all the tax benefits for my husband and I but I also want to protect our personal assets on any lawsuits possible in this line of business. I am not getting a loan as of now to finance my business. Everything is from our bank account.

  5. There is a spelling error. “You can combine the “best” of the incorporation worlds, by electing your single memeber LLC to be taxed as a Sole Proprietor (which is the standard election), an S-Corporation or a C-Corporation. “

  6. great article!!
    To the point and answered many questions that have been weighing on me lately. working on starting a plumbing company. just a one man show. And i am now going to start a sole proprietorship (with liability insurance of course) and change to an LLC once more established. thank you for the info very much appreciated.

  7. Thanks John! Going into the trucking business for myself but, I’ll be leasing a tractor through my current employer. I’m leaning towards a sole proprietorships with a focus on obtaining liability insurance. The taxes scare me a bit but I think I can handle it.
    Love your article, man! Well written. Every sentence is meaningful and to the point. I even took notes. Awesome! Thanks again.

    1. I am looking at building and selling guitars on line. No business loans required. Just working out of my garage. Also performing using said instruments I build. I start as a part time business while I am still working full time at my job. LLC or sole prepierter?

      1. Jimmy – we can’t answer that question for you! It would seem to be a pretty low-risk business but we’d recommend you talk to an attorney to fully understand the risks of remaining unincorporated.

  8. Dhanks for the educational information. I want to start a care consultancy business. I am thinking of starting LLC but single-membership. I am living in Connecticut, do I have a referral for a registered agent at a lowest cost since I am starting. Thanks

  9. Thank you for this great article, John! I am considering buying a small business, and your article will help me make some important decisions.

  10. John,
    This is very helpful information for me to know as a small business person.
    It is outlined in clear, easily understood terms. It helps me decide what choice
    is right for me at this time. Thank you!

  11. Hey John,
    Thanks for this great article! Clear and succinct, straight-talking info.

    I was in the same boat couple of years back. I went my first few years in business as a sole proprietor. Then switched to an LLC once I was sure I was going to stick with it.


    1. Between the article and your comment, I now know for sure which route is best for me too. Thanks so much to both of you! My own personal plan was to start with a sole proprietor and by the end of the 2nd year, reevaluate and switch to the LLC. I wasn’t confident if that was an abnormal business move to make or if I was able to legally do so. Thanks again!

  12. I first went to the website for my answers. Seems like double-talk. I found this site. How refreshing to read and actually understand.