Legal Considerations for Starting a Small Business

Starting a small business can be an exciting and rewarding venture. You have a great idea, a solid business plan, and the determination to make it happen. However, before you jump into the world of entrepreneurship, it’s important to consider the legal aspects of starting a business. From choosing a legal structure to understanding tax obligations, there are several key legal considerations that all small business owners should be aware of. In this article, we will discuss important legal considerations for starting a small business and provide resources for legal assistance.


Starting a business involves making many decisions and taking on different responsibilities. One of the most crucial decisions is choosing the right legal structure for your business. The legal structure of your business determines how your business will be taxed, how much personal liability you will have, and the paperwork required to start and run your business. It’s important to carefully consider the options and choose the one that best suits your business goals and needs.

Choosing a Legal Structure

Legal Considerations for Starting a Small Business

There are several legal structures to choose from when starting a business. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to understand the differences before making a decision. The most common legal structures for small businesses are sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and limited liability company (LLC).

Sole Proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is the simplest form of business, where the owner is the business. This type of structure is easy and inexpensive to set up as there are no legal documents or fees required. As a sole proprietor, you have complete control over your business and receive all profits. However, you are also personally liable for any debts or legal issues related to your business.


  • Easy and inexpensive to start
  • Complete control over business decisions and profits
  • No formal legal documents or fees required


  • Personal liability for business debts and legal issues
  • Limited access to funding and business expansion
  • Difficulty in attracting investors or partners


A partnership is a legal structure where two or more people share ownership of a business. There are two types of partnerships: general and limited. In a general partnership, all partners share equal responsibility for the business’s profits, losses, and management. In a limited partnership, there is at least one general partner who manages the business and is personally liable for its debts, and one or more limited partners who do not participate in the management and have limited liability.


  • Easy and inexpensive to start
  • Shared responsibilities, resources, and decision-making power
  • Access to additional skills, knowledge, and expertise of partners


  • Personal liability for business debts and legal issues
  • Potential conflicts and disagreements between partners
  • Sharing profits and decision-making power


A corporation is a separate legal entity that is owned by shareholders and managed by directors and officers. This means that the corporation has its own rights and responsibilities, separate from its owners. A corporation can generate funds by issuing stocks and can protect its shareholders from personal liability.


  • Limited liability for shareholders
  • Ability to raise funds through stock issuance
  • Perpetual existence, even if shareholders change


  • Complex and expensive to set up and maintain
  • Double taxation on profits
  • Extensive legal formalities and paperwork required

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

A limited liability company (LLC) combines the benefits of a partnership and corporation. It offers the limited liability protection of a corporation and the flexibility and tax benefits of a partnership. LLC owners are called members and have the option to be taxed as either a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation. However, the requirements and regulations for LLCs vary by state.


  • Limited liability protection for members
  • Flexibility in taxation options
  • Simple and inexpensive to set up and maintain


  • Different regulations and requirements in each state
  • Potential conflicts between members
  • Limited access to funding and investors

Registering Your Business

Legal Considerations for Starting a Small Business

Once you have chosen a legal structure, the next step is to register your business. This process varies depending on the type of legal structure you choose and the state in which you operate. Generally, you will need to register with the state government, obtain necessary licenses and permits, and apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

State Registration

If you have chosen a corporation or LLC as your legal structure, you will need to register with the state where your business is located. The specific registration requirements vary by state, but typically involve filling out forms, paying a fee, and submitting any necessary documents such as articles of incorporation or operating agreement.

Licenses and Permits

Most businesses require certain licenses and permits to operate legally. These can include general business licenses, industry-specific licenses, and health and safety permits. The requirements for these licenses and permits also vary by state and industry. It’s important to research and understand the specific licenses and permits needed for your business and make sure they are obtained before starting operations.

Employer Identification Number (EIN)

An EIN is a unique identification number issued by the IRS for tax purposes. You will need an EIN if your business has employees, operates as a partnership or corporation, or if you have a retirement plan. Even if you don’t fall into any of these categories, it’s still advisable to obtain an EIN as it can help protect your personal social security number from being used for business purposes.

Understanding Tax Obligations

Taxes are an inevitable part of running a business. Understanding your tax obligations is crucial to avoid penalties and minimize the overall cost of taxes. As a business owner, you are responsible for paying income taxes, employment taxes, and sales taxes.

Income Taxes

All businesses are required to pay federal income taxes on their profits. The amount of income tax your business pays depends on its legal structure. For example, corporations are subject to corporate income tax, while sole proprietors report business profits on their personal tax returns. It’s important to consult with an accountant or tax professional to ensure you are filing and paying the correct amount of income taxes.

Employment Taxes

If you have employees, you are responsible for collecting and paying employment taxes such as social security, Medicare, and federal unemployment taxes. These taxes must be withheld from your employees’ paychecks and paid to the appropriate government agencies.

Sales Taxes

If your business sells goods or services, you may be required to collect sales tax from your customers and remit it to the state. Sales tax rates and requirements vary by state, so it’s important to research and understand your specific obligations.

Protecting Intellectual Property

Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind such as inventions, designs, trade secrets, and branding. As a small business owner, protecting your intellectual property is essential to safeguarding your competitive advantage and preventing others from using your ideas without permission. There are several types of IP protection, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.


A patent protects inventions or processes from being used, made, or sold by anyone else without the inventor’s permission. To obtain a patent, you must file a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The process can be complex and expensive, but a granted patent gives you exclusive rights to your invention for up to 20 years.


A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or design that distinguishes your products or services from those of others. Registering a trademark with the USPTO gives you exclusive rights to use it nationwide and provides legal protection against anyone else using a similar mark. It’s important to research and make sure your desired trademark is not already in use before filing for registration.


A copyright protects original works of authorship, including novels, songs, photographs, and software. The creator automatically owns the copyright to their work, but registering with the United States Copyright Office provides additional legal protections and makes it easier to enforce if someone infringes on your work.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets refer to confidential information that gives your business a competitive edge, such as customer lists, manufacturing processes, or business plans. Unlike patents, trademarks, and copyrights, trade secrets do not require registration. However, it’s important to take measures to keep this information confidential and protect it from being revealed or stolen.

Hiring Employees

As your business grows, you may need to hire employees to help you run and expand your operations. Hiring employees comes with a new set of legal responsibilities and obligations. It’s important to understand federal and state laws regarding employment and have proper procedures in place to protect your business.

Employee Classification

When hiring employees, it’s important to properly classify them as either employees or independent contractors. Employees are subject to more regulations and taxes, while independent contractors are not entitled to the same benefits and protections. Misclassifying workers can result in penalties and legal issues, so it’s important to consult with an attorney or accountant to ensure you are classifying your workers correctly.

Employee Laws and Regulations

There are several laws and regulations that govern the relationship between employers and employees. These include minimum wage and overtime laws, anti-discrimination laws, safety and health regulations, and family and medical leave policies. As a small business owner, it’s your responsibility to understand and comply with these laws to avoid legal consequences.

Employee Benefits

Offering employee benefits is a great way to attract and retain top talent. However, providing certain benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans may be subject to specific regulations and requirements. It’s important to research and understand the laws around offering employee benefits and consult with a financial advisor to determine what benefits you can afford to offer.

Contracts and Agreements

Starting a business often involves entering into contracts and agreements with other businesses, suppliers, or clients. These contracts outline the terms of the agreement and protect both parties from potential disputes or misunderstandings. It’s important to have a clear understanding of contract law and to consult with an attorney before signing any legally binding documents.

Types of Contracts

There are many different types of contracts that you may encounter in the course of running your business. Some common types include:

  • Sales contracts: used to specify the terms of a sale, including price, delivery, and payment.
  • Service contracts: used when providing services to another business or individual.
  • Employment contracts: outlines the terms of employment for a worker.
  • Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs): used to protect confidential information shared between two parties.

Key Elements of a Contract

While contracts can vary greatly in terms of their length and complexity, there are some key elements that should be included in every contract to make it legally enforceable. These include:

  • Offer and acceptance: one party must offer something of value, and the other party must accept the offer.
  • Consideration: both parties must receive something of value in exchange for their obligations under the contract.
  • Mutual assent: both parties must be in full agreement on all terms of the contract.
  • Legal purpose: the contract must not violate any laws or public policies.
  • Competence: both parties must be competent and legal adults.

Enforcing Contracts

If one party fails to uphold their end of a contract, the other party may seek legal remedies to enforce the terms of the contract. These can include monetary damages, specific performance (forcing the other party to fulfill their obligations), or termination of the contract. It’s important to have a clear understanding of your rights and options for enforcing contracts before entering into any agreements.

Liability and Insurance

Starting a business involves taking on certain risks and potential liabilities. As a business owner, it’s important to protect yourself and your assets from these risks by obtaining appropriate insurance coverage.

Types of Liability

Business liability refers to the potential legal responsibilities and obligations that a business faces. There are three main types of liability that all small business owners should be aware of:

  • Personal liability: this is when the business owner is personally responsible for the debts and legal issues of the business.
  • Product liability: if your business sells products, you may be held liable for any harm or injury caused by those products.
  • Professional liability: businesses that offer services, such as consulting or medical care, may face professional liability if they fail to meet expected standards.

Types of Insurance

There are several types of insurance that can protect your business from different types of liability. It’s important to assess your business’s needs and consult with an insurance agent to determine which types of insurance are necessary for your business. Some common types of insurance for small businesses include:

  • General liability insurance: protects against lawsuits or claims for bodily injury or property damage.
  • Product liability insurance: covers any legal costs or damages if a product you sell causes harm or injury.
  • Professional liability insurance: also known as errors and omissions (E&O) insurance, this covers claims related to negligence, errors, or mistakes in your work.
  • Property insurance: provides coverage for physical assets such as buildings, equipment, or inventory.
  • Workers’ compensation insurance: required in most states and covers medical costs and lost wages for employees who are injured on the job.

Compliance with Regulations

In addition to industry-specific regulations, there are also general business regulations that all small businesses must comply with. These can include employment laws, tax laws, health and safety regulations, and environmental laws. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in fines, penalties, or legal action.

Staying Compliant

To ensure your business stays compliant with regulations, it’s important to stay informed about any changes or updates to laws that may affect your business. You can do this by regularly monitoring government websites, joining industry associations, or hiring an attorney or accountant to advise you on compliance matters.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

The consequences of non-compliance with regulations can be severe and costly for a small business. Depending on the nature of the violation, a business may face fines, lawsuits, loss of business licenses, or even criminal charges. It’s important to take compliance seriously and make sure all aspects of your business are in line with relevant laws and regulations.

Resources for Legal Assistance

Navigating the legal considerations of starting a small business can be overwhelming, especially for first-time entrepreneurs. However, there are several resources available to assist you with legal matters and provide guidance and support.

Small Business Administration (SBA)

The SBA is a government agency that provides support and resources for small businesses, including legal assistance. They offer free or low-cost educational materials and workshops, as well as counseling and mentoring programs for small business owners.


SCORE is a nonprofit organization that offers free business advice and mentorship from retired business executives and professionals. They can provide guidance on legal matters such as choosing a legal structure, registering a business, and understanding tax obligations.

Local Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)

SBDCs are partnerships between the government, higher education institutions, and the private sector that provide assistance to small businesses. They offer free or low-cost resources, workshops, and consulting services on a variety of topics, including legal considerations for starting a business.

Attorneys and Accountants

Hiring an attorney or accountant who specializes in small business matters can be a valuable resource for navigating legal issues. They can advise you on choosing a legal structure, registering your business, understanding tax obligations, and any other legal matters related to your business.


Starting a small business involves many exciting and challenging tasks. However, it’s important to consider the legal aspects of starting a business to ensure you are setting yourself up for success. From choosing the right legal structure to staying compliant with regulations, understanding and addressing these legal considerations is crucial for the long-term success of your business. By utilizing the resources available and seeking guidance from professionals, you can confidently navigate the legal side of entrepreneurship and focus on growing your business.