Are you growing your business? Adding new products or services? New locations? Adding partners or owners? If so, these are all instances when you should consider setting up a subsidiary or other new entity for your existing company. While you can run multiple streams of business through one entity, there are tax, asset protection, and partnership reasons why you may want to open up a new subsidiary entity for your new activity.
Let’s run through a few common situations when it makes sense to open up a subsidiary entity. And by subsidiary, I mean “a new entity which is owned wholly or partly by your primary business entity or by a common holding company.” Your new subsidiary could result in a parent and child relationship where your primary entity (parent) owns the new subsidiary entity (child), or it could be a brother and sister type structure where the primary business is a separate entity (brother) to the new entity (sister) and the two are only connected by you or your holding company that owns each separately and distinctly. (See the diagrams below to view the differences.)
I. Adding a New Product or Service
You may want a new entity to separate and differentiate services or products for liability purposes. For example, let’s say you are a real estate broker providing services of buying and selling properties and you decide to start providing property management services. Because the property management service entails more liability risk, a new entity owned wholly by your existing business could be utilized. The benefit of the new subsidiary is that if anything occurs in the new property management business, then that liability is contained in the new subsidiary and does not go down and affect your existing purchase and sale business. On the other hand, if you ran the property management services directly from the existing company without a new subsidiary and a liability arose, then your purchase and sale business that is running through the same entity would be effected and subject to the liability.
For tax purposes, in this instance, the income from the new subsidiary entity (child) will flow down to the parent entity without a federal tax return, and as a result, there is no benefit or disadvantage from a tax planning standpoint.
II. Opening a New Location
What if you’re establishing a new retail or office location for your business? Let’s say you are a restaurant opening up your second location. For asset protection purposes, you should consider setting up a second entity for the new location. This can limit your risk on the lease (don’t sign a personal guarantee) for the new location or for any liability that may occur at the new location. In this instance, if one location fails or has liability, it won’t affect the other location as they are held in separate entities. The saying goes, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” In this case, the basket is the same entity and the locations are your eggs. In the multiple location scenario, you should consider the brother-sister subsidiary structure such that each location is owned in a brother-sister relationship (e.g. neither owns the other) and their common connection is simply the underlying company (or person) who owns each entity for each location. Because both locations have risk it is useful for each to have their own entity and not to own each other (as can occur in the parent-child subsidiary). When structured in a brother-sister relationship, the liability for each location is contained in each subsidiary entity and cannot run over into the other subsidiary entity (the sibling entity) or down to the owner (which may be you personally or your operational holding company).
For tax purposes, the brother and sister subsidiary income (usually single member LLCs) flows down to the parent or primary entity where a tax return is filed (usually an S-Corp). (See the diagram below for an illustration.)
III. Adding a New Partner
Maybe you’re starting a new business or operation where you have a new partner involved. If this partner isn’t involved in your other business activities or your existing company, it is critical that a new entity be established to operate the new partnership business. If you have an existing entity where you run business operational income (e.g., an S-Corporation), then this entity may own your share of the new partnership entity (e.g., an LLC) with your new partner. Your share of the new partnership income flows through the partnership to your existing business entity where you will recognize the income and pay yourself. In this instance, your existing entity is the parent and the new partnership is a partial-child subsidiary. The new partnership entity will typically file a partnership tax return.
IV. California Caveat
Because of gross receipts taxes in California, you may use a Q-Sub entity model where the subsidiary entity is actually another S-Corporation and is called a Q-Sub. This is available only when the parent entity is an S-Corporation and can avoid double gross receipts tax at the subsidiary and parent entity level.
Make sure you speak to your tax attorney for specific planning considerations as there are asset protection and tax considerations unique to each business and subsidiary structure.
Many business owners and investors doing business in multiple states often ask the question of whether their company, that is set up in one state needs to be registered into the other state(s) where they are doing business. This registration from your state of incorporation/organization into another state where you also do business is called a foreign registration. For example, let’s say I’m a real estate investor in Arizona and end up buying a rental property in Florida. Do I need to register my Arizona LLC that I use to hold my real estate investments into Florida to take ownership of this property? The answer is generally yes, but after reviewing a few states laws on the subject I decided to outline the details of when you need to register your LLC or Corporation into another state where you are not incorporated/organized. (Please note that the issue of whether state taxes are owed outside of your home state when doing business in multiple states is a different analysis).
In analyzing whether you need to register your out of state company into a state where you do business or own property it is helpful to understand two things: First, what does the state I’m looking to do business in require of out of state companies; and Second, what is the penalty for failure to comply.
When Do I Need to Register Foreign?
First, a survey of a few state statutes on foreign registration of out of state companies shows that the typical requirement for when an out of state company must register foreign into another state is when the out of state company is deemed to be “transacting business” into the other state. So, the next question is what constitutes “transacting business”? The state laws vary on this but here are some examples of what constitutes “transacting business” for purposes of foreign registration filings.
- Employees or storefront located in the foreign registration state.
- Ownership of real property that is leased in the foreign registration state. Note that some states (e.g. Florida) state that ownership of property by an out of state LLC does not by itself require a foreign registration (e.g. a second home or maybe land) but if that property was rented then foreign registration is required.
Here is an example of what does not typically constitute “transacting business” for foreign registration requirements.
- Maintaining a bank account in the state in question.
- Holding a meeting of the owners or management in the state in question.
So, in summary, the general rule is that transacting business for foreign registration requirements occurs when you make a physical presence in the state that results in commerce. Ask, do I have employees or real property in the state in question that generates income for my company? If so, you probably need to register. If not, you probably don’t need to register foreign. Note that there are some nuances between states and I’ve tried to generalize what constitutes transacting business so check with your attorney or particular state laws when in question.
What is the Penalty if I Don’t Register Foreign?
Second, what is the penalty and consequence for failing to file a foreign registration when one was required? This issue had a few common characteristics among the states surveyed. Many company owners fear that they could lose the liability protection of the LLC or corporation for failing to file a foreign registration when they should have but most states have a provision in their laws that states something like the following, “A member [owner] of a foreign limited liability company is not liable for the debts and obligations of the foreign limited liability company solely by reason of its having transacted business in this state without registration.” A similar provision to this language was found in Arizona, California and Florida, but this provision is not found in all states that I surveyed. This language is good for business owners since it keeps the principal asset protection benefits of the company in tact in the event that you fail to register foreign. On the other hand, many states have some other negative consequences to companies that fail to register foreign. Here is a summary of some of those consequences.
- The out of state company won’t be recognized in courts to sue or bring legal action in the state where the business should be registered as a foreign company.
- Penalty of $20 per day that the company was “transacting business” in the state when it should have been registered foreign into the state but wasn’t. This penalty maxes out at $10,000 in California. Florida’s penalty is a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $1,000 per year of violation. Some states such as Arizona and Texas do not charge a penalty fee for failure to file.
- The State where you should have registered as a foreign company becomes the registered agent for your company and receives legal notices on behalf of your company. This is really problematic because it means you don’t get notice to legal actions or proceedings affecting your company and it allows Plaintiff’s to sue your company and to send notice to the state without being required to send notice to your company. Now, presumably, the state will try to get notice to your company but what steps the states actually takes and how much time that takes is something I couldn’t find. With twenty to thirty day deadlines to respond in most legal actions I wouldn’t put much trust in a state government agency to get me legal notice in a timely manner nor am I even certain that they would even try.
- In addition to the statutory issues written into law there are some practical issues you will face if your out of state company is not registered into a state where you transact business. For example, some county recorders in certain states won’t allow title to transfer into your out of state company unless the LLC or corporation is registered foreign into the state where the property is located. It is also common to run into insurance and banking issues for your company until you register foreign into the state where the income generating property, employee, or storefront is located.
In summary, you should register your company as a foreign company in every state where you are “transacting business”. Generally speaking, transacting business occurs when you have a storefront in the foreign state, employees in the foreign state, or property that produces income in the foreign state. Failure to file varies among the states but can result in penalties from $1,000 to $10,000 a year and failure to receive legal notices and/or be recognized in court proceedings. Bottom line, if you are transacting business outside of your state of incorporation/organization you should register as a foreign entity in the other state(s) to ensure proper legal protections in court and to avoid costly penalties for non-compliance.