Reading: Corporations


A corporation (sometimes called a regular or C-corporation) differs from a sole proprietorship and a partnership because it’s a legal entity that is entirely separate from the parties who own it. It can enter into binding contracts, buy and sell property, sue and be sued, be held responsible for its actions, and be taxed. As Figure 1 shows, corporations account for 18 percent of all U.S. businesses but generate almost 82 percent of the revenues[1]. Most large well-known businesses are corporations, but so are many of the smaller firms with which you do business.

Two pie charts. The number of businesses chart has three sections: 72% sole proprietorships, 18% corporations, and 10% partnerships. The sales revenue chart has three sections: 82% corporations, 14% partnerships, and 4% sole proprietorships.

Figure 1. Types of U.S. Businesses[2]

Ownership and Stock

Corporations are owned by shareholders, who invest money in the business by buying shares of stock. The portion of the corporation they own depends on the percentage of stock they hold. For example, if a corporation has issued 100 shares of stock, and you own 30 shares, you own 30 percent of the company. The shareholders elect a board of directors, a group of people (primarily from outside the corporation) who are legally responsible for governing the corporation. The board oversees the major policies and decisions made by the corporation, sets goals, and holds management accountable for achieving them, and hires and evaluates the top executive, generally called the CEO (chief executive officer). The board also approves the distribution of income to shareholders in the form of cash payments called dividends.

Benefits of Incorporation

The corporate form of organization offers several advantages, including limited liability for shareholders, greater access to financial resources, specialized management, and continuity.

Limited Liability

The most important benefit of incorporation is the limited liability to which shareholders are exposed: they are not responsible for the obligations of the corporation, and they can lose no more than the amount that they have personally invested in the company. Clearly, limited liability would have been a big plus for the unfortunate individual whose business partner burned down their dry cleaning establishment. Had they been incorporated, the corporation would have been liable for the debts incurred by the fire. If the corporation didn’t have enough money to pay the debt, the individual shareholders would not have been obligated to pay anything. True, they would have lost all the money that they’d invested in the business, but no more.

Financial Resources

Incorporation also makes it possible for businesses to raise funds by selling stock. This is a big advantage as a company grows and needs more funds to operate and compete. Depending on its size and financial strength, the corporation also has an advantage over other forms of business in getting bank loans. An established corporation can borrow its own funds, but when a small business needs a loan, the bank usually requires that it be guaranteed by its owners.

Specialized Management

Because of their size and ability to pay high sales commissions and benefits, corporations are generally able to attract more skilled and talented employees than are proprietorships and partnerships.

Continuity and Transferability

Another advantage of incorporation is continuity. Because the corporation has a legal life separate from the lives of its owners, it can (at least in theory) exist forever. Transferring ownership of a corporation is easy: shareholders simply sell their stock to others. Some founders, however, want to restrict the transferability of their stock and so choose to operate as a privately held corporation. The stock in these corporations is held by only a few individuals, who are not allowed to sell it to the general public. Companies with no such restrictions on stock sales are called public corporations; stock is available for sale to the general public.

Drawbacks to Incorporation

Like sole proprietorships and partnerships, corporations have both positive and negative properties. In sole proprietorships and partnerships, for instance, the individuals who own and manage a business are the same people. Corporate managers, however, don’t necessarily own stock, and shareholders don’t necessarily work for the company. This situation can be troublesome if the goals of the two groups differ significantly. Managers, for example, might be more interested in career advancement than the overall profitability of the company. Stockholders might care about profits without regard for the well-being of employees.

Another drawback to incorporation—one that often discourages small businesses from incorporating—is the fact that corporations are costly to set up. When you combine filing and licensing fees with accounting and attorney fees, incorporating a business could set you back by $1,000 to $6,000 or more depending on the size and scope of your business (How Much Does It Cost to Incorporate?San Francisco Chronicle, accessed August 27, 2011). Additionally, corporations are subject to levels of regulation and governmental oversight that can place a burden on small businesses. Finally, corporations are subject to what’s generally called “double taxation.” Corporations are taxed by the federal and state governments on their earnings. When these earnings are distributed as dividends, the shareholders pay taxes on these dividends. Corporate profits are thus taxed twice—the corporation pays the taxes the first time and the shareholders pay the taxes the second time.

Five years after starting their ice cream business, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield evaluated the pros and cons of the corporate form of ownership, and the “pros” won. The primary motivator was the need to raise funds to build a $2 million manufacturing facility. Not only did Ben and Jerry decide to switch from a partnership to a corporation, but they also decided to sell shares of stock to the public (and thus become a public corporation). Their sale of stock to the public was a bit unusual: Ben and Jerry wanted the community to own the company, so instead of offering the stock to anyone interested in buying a share, they offered stock to residents of Vermont only. Ben believed that “business has a responsibility to give back to the community from which it draws its support” (Fred Chico Lager, Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop, New York: Crown Publishers, 1994, p 91). He wanted the company to be owned by those who lined up in the gas station to buy cones. The stock was so popular that one in every hundred Vermont families bought stock in the company (Fred Chico Lager, Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop, New York: Crown Publishers, 1994, p 103). Eventually, as the company continued to expand, the stock was sold on a national level.

In addition to the three commonly adopted forms of business organization—sole proprietorship, partnership, and regular corporations—some business owners select other forms of organization to meet their particular needs. We’ll look at several of the following options:

  • S-corporations
  • Limited-liability companies
  • Cooperatives
  • Not-for-profit corporations

Hybrids: S-Corporations and Limited-Liability Companies

To understand the value of S-corporations and limited-liability companies, we’ll begin by reviewing the major advantages and disadvantages of the three types of business ownership we’ve explored so far: sole proprietorship, partnership, and corporation. Identifying the attractive and unattractive features of these three types of business ownership will help us appreciate why S-corporations and limited-liability companies were created.

Attractive and Unattractive Features of Corporations

What feature of corporations do business owners find most attractive? The most attractive feature of a corporation is limited liability, which means that the shareholders (owners) cannot be held personally liable for the debts and obligations of the corporation. For example, if a corporation cannot pay its debts and goes bankrupt, the shareholders will not be required to pay the creditors with their own money. Shareholders cannot lose any more than the amount they have invested in the company.

What feature of corporations do business owners find least attractive? Most would agree that the least attractive feature of a corporation is “double taxation.” Double taxation occurs when the same earnings are taxed twice by the government. Let’s use a simple example to show how this happens. You’re the only shareholder in a very small corporation. This past year it earned $10,000. It had to pay the government $3,000 corporate tax on the $10,000 earned. The remaining $7,000 was paid to you by the corporation in the form of a dividend. When you filed your personal income tax form, you had to pay personal taxes on the $7,000 dividend. So the $7,000 was taxed twice: the corporation paid the taxes the first time and you (the shareholder) paid the taxes the second time.

Attractive and Unattractive Features of Sole Proprietorships and Partnerships

Now let’s turn to the other two types of business ownership: sole proprietorship and partnership. What feature of these forms of business organization do owners find most attractive? The most attractive feature is that there is no “double taxation” with proprietorships and partnerships. Proprietorships and partnerships do not pay taxes on profits at the business level. The only taxes paid are at the personal level—this occurs when proprietors and partners pay taxes on their share of their company’s income. Here are two examples (one for a sole proprietorship and one for a partnership). First, let’s say you’re a sole proprietor and your business earns $20,000 this year. The sole proprietorship pays no taxes at the “business” level. You pay taxes on the $20,000 earnings on your personal tax return. Second, let’s say you’re a partner in a three-partner firm (in which each partner receives one-third of the partnership income). The firm earns $90,000 this year. It pays no taxes at the partnership level. Each partner, including you, pays taxes on one-third of the earnings, or $30,000 each. Notice that in both cases, there is no “double taxation.” Taxes were paid on the company earnings only once—at the personal level. So the total tax burden is less with sole proprietorships and partnerships than it is with corporations.

What feature of sole proprietorships and partnerships do business owners find least attractive? And the answer is . . . unlimited liability. This feature holds a business owner personally liable for all debts of his or her company. If you’re a sole proprietorship and the debts of your business exceed its assets, creditors can seize your personal assets to cover the proprietorship’s outstanding business debt. For example, if your business is sued for $500,000 and it does not have enough money to cover its legal obligation, the injured party can seize your personal assets (cash, property, etc.) to cover the outstanding debt. Unlimited liability is even riskier in the case of a partnership. Each partner is personally liable not only for his or her own actions but also for the actions of all the partners. If, through mismanagement by one of your partners, the partnership is forced into bankruptcy, the creditors can go after you for all outstanding debts of the partnership.

  1. Number of Tax Returns, Receipts, and Net Income by Type of Business," The 2012 Statistical Abstract: The National Data Book, January 30, 2011, accessed January 27, 2012
  2. "Number of Tax Returns, Receipts, and Net Income by Type of Business," The 2011 Statistical Abstract: The National Data Book, (accessed August 27, 2011); "Number of Tax Returns and Business Receipts by Size of Receipts," The 2011 Statistical Abstract: The National Data Book, (accessed August 27, 2011).