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B3-3.2-02, Business Structures (12/16/2014)


This topic contains information on various types of business structures, including:


The legal structure of a business determines the following:

  • the way business income or loss is reported to the IRS,

  • the taxes that are paid,

  • the ability of the business to accumulate capital, and

  • the extent of the owner’s liability.

There are five principal business structures: sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs), S corporations, and corporations. Knowledge of the structure of a self-employed borrower’s business will assist the lender in analyzing and evaluating the stability of the business and the degree of the borrower’s involvement.

Note: Refer to B3-3.2-03, IRS Forms Quick Reference, for a summary of the IRS forms referenced in this section and their full titles.

Sole Proprietorships

A sole proprietorship is an unincorporated business that is individually owned and managed. The individual owner has unlimited personal liability for all debts of the business. If the business fails, the borrower not only will have to replace their lost income, but also will be expected to satisfy the outstanding obligations of the business. Since no distinction is made between the owner’s personal assets and the assets used in the business, creditors may take either (or both) to satisfy the borrower’s business obligations.

The financial success or failure of this type of business depends solely on the owner’s ability to obtain capital and to manage the various aspects of the business. Poor management skills or an inability to secure capital to keep the business running will compromise the continuance of the borrower’s business (and income). The owner’s death terminates the business and may cause the assets to be placed into probate, thus delaying the disposition of the assets to creditors and heirs.

The income, expenses, and taxable profits of a sole proprietorship are reported on the owner’s IRS Form 1040, Schedule C, and are taxed at the tax rates that apply to individuals. (See B3-3.3-03, Income or Loss Reported on IRS Form 1040, Schedule C.)

When evaluating a sole proprietorship, the lender must:

  • review the owner’s most recent signed federal income tax returns to ensure that there is sufficient and stable cash flow to support both the business and the payments for the requested mortgage, and

  • determine whether the business can accommodate the withdrawal of assets or revenues should the borrower need them to pay the mortgage payment and/or other personal expenses.


A partnership is an arrangement between two or more individuals who have pooled their assets and skills to form a business and who will share profits and losses according to predetermined proportions that are set out in the partnership agreement. A partnership may be either a general partnership or a limited partnership:

  • General Partnership — Under a general partnership, each partner has responsibility for running the business, is personally liable for the debts of the entire business, and is responsible for the actions of every other partner (unless otherwise specified in the partnership agreement). A general partnership is dissolved immediately on the death, withdrawal, or insolvency of any of the partners, although the personal liability to partnership creditors exists even after the partnership is dissolved. However, the partnership’s assets will first be applied to the creditors of the business and the partners’ individual assets will be first be applied to their personal creditors, with any surplus in a partner’s personal assets then being applied to the remaining business creditors.

  • Limited Partnership — Under a limited partnership, a limited partner has limited liability based on the amount they invested in the partnership, does not typically participate in the management and operation of the business, and has limited decision-making ability. A limited partnership will have at least one general partner who manages the business and is personally liable for the debts of the entire business. A limited partner’s death, withdrawal, or insolvency does not dissolve the partnership. Because limited partnerships often are formed as tax shelters, it is more likely that IRS Form 1065, Schedule K-1, will reflect a loss instead of income. In such cases, the borrower’s ability to deduct the loss will be limited by the “at risk” amount of their limited partnership interest (and will probably be subject to passive loss limitations).

The partnership must report its profit or loss on IRS Form 1065 and each partner’s share of the profit or loss on IRS Form 1065, Schedule K-1; however, the partnership pays no tax on the partnership income.

Each partner uses the information from IRS Form 1065, Schedule K-1, to report their share of the partnership’s net profit or loss (and special deductions and credits) on their IRS Form 1040—whether or not the partner receives a cash distribution from the partnership. Individual partners pay taxes on their proportionate share of the net partnership income at their individual tax rates.

To quantify the level of the borrower’s financial risk, the lender must:

  • determine whether the borrower has guaranteed any loans obtained by the partnership (other than loans that are considered as nonrecourse debt or qualified nonrecourse debt),

  • determine if the borrower received a distribution from the partnership, and

  • determine the borrower’s share of non-cash expenses that can be added back to the cash flow of the partnership business.

For additional information, see the following:

Limited Liability Companies

A limited liability company (LLC) is a hybrid business structure that is designed to offer its member-owners the tax efficiencies of a partnership and the limited liability advantages of a corporation. The member-owners of the LLC (or their assigned managers) can sign contracts, sell assets, and make other important business decisions. The LLC operating agreement may set out specific divisions of power among the member-owners (or managers). Although the member-owners generally have limited liability, there may be some instances in which they are required to personally guarantee some of the loans that the LLC obtains. Profits from the operation of the LLC may be distributed beyond the pool of member-owners, such as by offering profit distributions to managers.

The LLC may report its profit or loss on IRS Form 1065 or IRS Form 1120S with each member-owner’s share of the profit or loss on Schedule K-1, IRS Form 1065 or IRS Form 1120S; however, the LLC pays no tax on its income. Each member-owner uses the information from Schedule K-1 to report their share of the LLC’s net profit or loss (and special deductions and credits) on their individual IRS Form 1040, whether or not the member-owner receives a cash distribution from the LLC. Individual member-owners pay taxes on their proportionate share of the LLC’s net income at their individual tax rates.

The lender must evaluate the LLC using IRS Form 1065 or IRS Form 1120S along with the Schedule K-1, as applicable, to determine the following:

  • whether the borrower actually received a cash distribution from the LLC, since profits may or may not be distributed to the individual member-owners; and

  • whether the borrower has guaranteed any loans obtained by the LLC (other than loans that are considered as nonrecourse debt or qualified nonrecourse debt).

For additional information, see the following:

S Corporations

An S corporation is a legal entity that has a limited number of stockholders and elects not to be taxed as a regular corporation. Business gains and losses are passed on to the stockholders. An S corporation has many of the characteristics of a partnership. Stockholders are taxed at their individual tax rates for their proportionate share of ordinary income, capital gains, and other taxable items.

The ordinary income for an S corporation is reported on IRS Form 1120S, with each shareholder’s share of the income reported on IRS Form 1120S, Schedule K-1.

Because this income from the distribution of corporate earnings may or may not be distributed to the individual shareholders, the lender must determine if the borrower received a cash distribution from the S corporation.

The cash flow of an S corporation is otherwise evaluated similarly to that of a regular corporation.

For additional information, see the following:


A corporation is a state-chartered legal entity that exists separately and distinctly from its owners (who are called stockholders or shareholders). It is the most flexible form of business organization for purposes of obtaining capital. A corporation can sue; be sued; hold, convey, or receive property; enter into contracts under its own name; and does not dissolve when its ownership changes. There are two types of corporations—publicly owned (widely held) corporations and privately owned (closely held) corporations. Because more than 50% of the outstanding stock of a privately owned corporation is owned directly or indirectly by no more than five people, the corporation has little or no access to public funds and must raise capital through institutional financing.

Although legal control of the corporation rests with its stockholders, they typically are not responsible for the day-to-day operations of the business since they elect a board of directors to manage the corporation and delegate responsibility for the day-to-day operations to the directors and officers of the company. The distribution of profits earned by the business is determined by the corporation’s board of directors or other entities that have a significant financial interest in the business. However, the profits usually are filtered down to the owners in the form of dividends. Since a stockholder is not personally liable for the debts of the corporation, losses are limited to their individual investment in the corporation’s stock.

Corporations must report income and losses on IRS Form 1120 and pay taxes on the net income. The corporation distributes profits to its shareholders in the form of dividends, which it reports on IRS Form 1099-DIV. The shareholders must then report the dividends as income on their individual IRS Form 1040.

For additional information, see:

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