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When an entrepreneur decides it is time to start a new business, exploring the various business structures available is usually the first step taken.  Unfortunately, most discover there is much confusion related to the differences in the DBA vs. LLC option.

One of the most common questions we are asked as advisors to business owners is “what is the difference between a DBA and an LLC?”  The short answer is “an awful lot!” The long answer to the DBA vs LLC question is spelled out here and will hopefully serve as a guide when making the important decision about the business entity structure for your new business.

This post will cover:

  • DBA is an acronym for Doing Business As
  • LLC is an acronym for Limited Liability Company
  • The Differences in business income taxation between a DBA and an LLC
  • Why use a DBA
  • Similarities and Differences when considering the DBA vs LLC

DBA Definition

DBA is simply an acronym for “doing business as.” It is sometimes referred to as a trade name, fictitious business name, or assumed business name. A DBA allows a business to operate under a name that is different from its legal name. For example, if John Smith wants to operate his cleaning business as ABC Cleaning, he will need to file for a DBA. In most states, DBAs are filed at the county level where the business is located.

LLC Definition

A limited liability company, or LLC, means that a business is operating as a distinct and separate legal entity from its owners. While LLCs require more formalities than a DBA, they have fewer restrictions than corporations.

An LLC must be managed by members or a manager. Members are the owners of the company, while a manager, may or may not be a member. The LLC structure also includes more tax flexibility, as the LLC can choose to be taxed as a sole proprietor, partnership, or corporation.

To form an LLC, business owners must file articles of organization at the state level and adopt a Member(s) Operating Agreement.

What does a DBA Intend to Accomplish for a Business Owner?

Filing a DBA allows business owners to use a name other than their legal name to operate their business. Filing for a fictitious name can be beneficial to the business as it may help in the development of a recognizable brand presence with a descriptive and creative business name.

A DBA also allows the business owner to open a business bank account and receive payments in the name of the business, without the need to incorporate or form an Limited Liability Company (LLC).

How is an LLC Similar to a DBA?

Both LLCs and DBAs allow business owners to name their business something other than their own legal name. Both structures also allow owners to perform banking under their business’ name instead of their personal name.

How is an LLC Unlike a DBA?

The biggest difference between a DBA and an LLC is liability protection. Under a DBA, there is no distinction between the business owner and the business. The business owner is liable for all expenses incurred on behalf of the business. On the other hand, an LLC provides limited liability protection. The business owners’ personal property remains completely separate from the business.

In addition, a DBA does not provide any tax benefits. As an LLC, owners can choose a corporate structure such as an S-corporation that receives special tax treatment.

And last, but not least, in most states where you form an LLC, there is a requirement to file an annual report and in certain circumstances pay an annual fee.  Fictitious name certifications, which provide you with the right to use a DBA typically has a one-time filing and fee in most states.

Is it Ever Appropriate to Create an LLC for a DBA?

An LLC can benefit from the ease of DBA filing when the company wants to expand into new products or services. If John Smith’s cleaning company were ABC Cleaning, LLC and he decided he wanted to expand into selling cleaning supplies online, he could file a DBA for his new project  “ABCCleaningSupplies.com” that would be protected under the original LLC. A DBA allows an LLC to broaden its offerings without creating a new LLC or corporation for each division.

Understand the differences between an LLC and a DBA, and how to decide when a DBA makes the most sense.

DBA vs. LLC
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Holly Magister, CPA, CFP

Holly A. Magister, CPA, CFP®, is the founder of Enterprise Transitions, LP, an Emerging Business and Exit Planning firm. She helps entrepreneurs assess, re-align, and accelerate their business with the intent of ultimately executing its top-dollar sale.
Holly also founded ExitPromise.com and to date has answered more than 2,000 questions asked by business owners about starting, growing and selling a business.
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