The Right Business Structure to Protect Your Assets
Once you have made the decision to operate your own business, choosing the correct structure is the next step. Keep in mind that your business structure can change if your business grows in a direction that would suit a different structure. It makes sense to seek legal and financial advice before getting started, so you can tailor your business structure to your unique circumstances.
In Australia, your main options for establishing a business are:
- Sole trader
- Joint venture
Getting a business name is not setting up a business, it is just registering a business name. We’ll discuss that a little more at the end, for clarity.
In deciding which option would best suit you and your business ideas, think about the following:
- Your existing assets, income, tax and other ownership structures
- The simplicity of the new structure and your initial set up costs
- The type of business you would like to operate and the size of the business
- The likelihood and speed of business growth and the requirements for investment
- The tax impact upon the business and on you
- The type of management and control levels required to operate successfully
- The number of people involved in the management or ownership of the business
- The degree of flexibility required to adapt as the business evolves and expands or moves in a new direction to first planned
- The potential risk of the new structure failing and what impact that could have on you
- The costs and ease of ending the business if it doesn’t turn out
Let’s have a look at potential business structures in light of the above factors.
1. Sole Trader
A sole trader is a very simple business structure and there are minimal set up costs involved for you as the business owner. You will need to register for an Australian Business Number (ABN) in your own name.
If trading under your own name eg. “Harper Lee Consulting” then you don’t need to register a business name. But if you want to trade under another name “Awesome Consulting” then you will need to register a business name. You are still the business, it just has a name that is not your name.
You will bear the responsibility over all of the business functions and will be completely personally liable for all of the debts that the business incurs.
If protection of your personal assets is important to you then this type of business structure might not be the most suitable for your needs. If you own a home or an investment property in your own name and someone sues the business, they are suing you and your property is on the line.
A sole trader business can have quite limited growth potential as it is heavily reliant on the owner and often can consume vast amounts of an owner’s time and resources. Even as a sole trader, you can employ other people, but the business is still intimately associated with you.
A sole trader business will pay tax at the personal tax rate applicable to the business owner.
It is relatively easy to end a sole trader business and cease trading, provided any debts of the business are paid in full.
A good example of a sole trader business could be a business consultant, a freelance writer, an at home hairdresser or a tradesman such as a painter.
A partnership is similar to a sole trader, except it involves more than one owner. It trades under a registered business name and a partnership can comprise of owners with similar skills (eg. business brokers) or owners with complimentary skill-sets (eg. a graphic designer and a website developer).
Like sole trader businesses, partnerships are easy to establish. You simply register an ABN naming each of the partners in the application. It is also wise to have a partnership agreement prepared to protect the interests of everyone involved, while everyone is still friends and the business is working well. Partnership break ups without a written agreement are a bit like a divorce and can be messy and expensive.
Traditionally, law firms and accounting firms were structured as partnerships.
We’ve seen law firms dissolve without ever having had a partnership agreement and all the profits left in the business were spent on attempting to resolve disputes between the partners when it came to an end.
Partnerships are better for whole of business long term ventures between people. They are not really suited to short-term, part-time enterprises. The number of partners can vary and can be comprised of individuals, or companies, or trusts.
Each owner pays tax at their own individual rates, depending on their share of the partnership profits. Partners don’t have to hold equal shares and can be split depending on the contributions of the partners. A partnership will require the agreement of all parties if the ownership structure or members are to change, and it is possible that a new ABN will be required if partners change.
When a partnership is working smoothly, it can be a great vehicle to operate a successful business. When a partnership is affected by personal differences between the owners, it can impact quite considerably on the successful business operation. Each partner is 100% liable for all the business debts and their own personal assets can be at risk if the partnership cannot repay its debts or taxes. This is the case even if the partner had nothing to do with incurring the debt in the first place.
We’ve seen partners in business lose their home because one of the other partners committed fraud through the partnership and went to jail, without being able to pay back the missing money. The people owed money were entitled to chase the other partners in the business to get paid, even though they knew nothing about the fraud.
3. Joint Venture
A joint venture is usually set up by a written joint venture agreement between the parties for a particular purpose or project. It is a good structure for operating a specific project instead of continuing indefinitely. It can vary how many entities are involved and can be comprised of individuals, or companies, or trusts.
It is best to seek legal advice before signing a joint venture agreement to ensure you understand your contribution to the venture, what happens when things change during the project and to ensure you are adequately protected if the joint venture is not successful.
A joint venture helps to grow your business through collaboration with other entities that have complementary skills or financial resources. The structure can vary depending on what you want to achieve, the governance type and obligations as well as the division of profits and losses to the parties. The agreement should also contain the process for disagreement or dispute resolution, if the parties’ relationships break down.
Each of the joint venture members are responsible for the profits, losses and costs involved in undertaking the joint venture project. The joint venture is a distinctly separate entity from the members other businesses and assets.
An example of a joint venture might be the combination of ride-share giant, Uber, with vehicle manufacturer, Volvo, for the purpose of producing driverless motor vehicles.
A company is a separate legal entity to the business owners. It is a legal vehicle that can incur debts in its own name, can sue and be sued by other parties. It does not cease if an owner passes away but exists until it is wound up. The business owners are the shareholders and can often hold the position of director and secretary as well, particularly in a small business arrangement.
A director is responsible for the management and governance of the company and need not be a shareholder. A company secretary is responsible for ensuring that the reporting obligations of the company are met.
If you are considering setting up a company, you will need a company name, you will have to set up a governing structure with a constitution suitable to your business. The company must be registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and will incur a yearly fee.
There are many complex parts to a company and essential for you to speak to your accountant or lawyer, or both, prior to setting up a company structure. It can have considerable set up costs compared to other entities and there are many legal obligations of the office-bearers. However, there are considerable benefits too.
It is an excellent vehicle to conduct business and ensure your personal assets, such as your home, are protected against legal action.
We had a client who, after audit, was required to repay some tax rebates received as R&D credits, together with penalties. The shareholders thought they had to sell their home to pay the company’s debt. They did not. The company remained responsible for its own debts and the shareholders got to keep their house.
Unless you give a personal guarantee for a business loan, then your private assets are protected. Since the company is a separate legal entity, it has a separate liability from the business owners. It can incur debts that are limited to the value of the company. If an aggrieved party sues the company for the outstanding debts, it is limited to the company itself and cannot sue the owners, unless they have given a personal guarantee, or fall within a category of liability where directors can be found personally liable – such as failing to pay superannuation.
There are other benefits with respect to taxation as well. The company pays tax at a company rate and can pay “fully franked” dividends to its shareholders, which can be very attractive to the business owners, depending on their individual circumstances.
Since November 2021 directors of companies (along with some other entities) now must be issued a Director Identification Number (DIN) which is issued by ASIC.
There are two types of companies – a privately owned company and a publicly owned company. So what is the difference between a private company and a public company in Australia?
4.1. Private Company
A private company is distinct from a public company because it is privately owned. It will often have “Pty Ltd” after its business name, and this means ‘proprietary limited’. This indicates it is privately owned, with limited liability.
A Pty Ltd or proprietary limited It is the most common structure for small businesses. It is incorporated, issues shares, will have a maximum of fifty shareholders, and each of the shareholders are not personally liable for the debts of the business. They will only be liable for any unpaid financial value of their shares. What this means if that if you purchase 10 x $1 shares but only pay the company $5 at that time of purchase, there will still be 50c owed against each of your 10 shares, and that must be paid if called by the company.
A private company is for protection of your personal assets. There are a large variety of share structuring options available, so it is definitely an option to discuss in greater depth with your accountant or lawyer.
4.2. Public Company
A public company is a company that can be listed on the stock exchange and is funded by investors, or a company to be limited by guarantee and operated as a charity or not-for-profit.
Not for profit means the members or shareholders are not entitled to a distribution of the profits of the business and the profits must be reinvested back into the business. In a for profit company, members or shareholders are entitled to receive a distribution of the profits if dividends are paid. Business is not sustainable if it does not generate a profit.
A public company often has “Ltd” or “limited” after its name to indicate that it has limited liability.
For profit public companies have a complex structure and are required to issue public documents when paying dividends or raising capital. Qantas is a public company. Any company you can purchase shares for on the Australian Stock Exchange is a public company.
A public company remains an option if you grow your business to the point where you would like to take it public and raise considerable share capital through a public offering.
A not-for-profit public company is an appropriate structure for a large charity.
A trust can be an excellent asset protection structure, but you will need tailored legal and financial advice to correctly suit your personal circumstances. A trust is a vehicle that enables a trustee to act in the best interests and hold property or income for a particular purpose, for the benefit of the beneficiaries or trust members. The trustee can be an individual or a company.
Whilst there are many types of trusts available, there are two main types of trust used in small business. They are:
- Unit Trust
- Discretionary or Family Trust
The trust is set up with a formal trust deed that provides guidance on the way that the trust operates and the powers of the trustee.
There are other parties named in the trust deed – such as the settlor who won’t have any future involvement in the trust, but who is essential in its establishment.
Superannuation trusts are often established with limited investment categories, for example, an inability to invest in cryptocurrency.
The trustee is responsible for administering the trust. Provided that the trustee behaves appropriately, the trustee is usually entitled to be indemnified out of the trust fund for any liabilities incurred in association with the administration of the trust. If the trust is an individual trustee, their own personal assets can be at risk if the trustee is sued and a good reason to appoint a company as a trustee.
A trust may also be entitled to a 50% capital gains tax exemption, but a company is not. You should seek accounting advice when reviewing your tax obligations.
The most common structure in small business is a discretionary trust.
One of the most common structures for small property development is a unit trust.
Unit trusts have certainty in proportionate interests, whereas a discretionary trust is variable depending upon the decisions of the trustee. Where a greater degree of certainty in financial dealings of trust property is required, the unit trust is more effective. Each unitholder of the trust holds a specified number of units and the trustee has no discretion to give unitholders distributions that are inconsistent with the rights of other unitholders. You can transfer a unit to another unitholder, just like shares in a company.
We normally recommend that people involved in a unit trust structure enter into a unitholder agreement, similar to a shareholder agreement, to better protect their interests.
How can Onyx Legal help you?
Book an appointment to talk with one of our team about your business structure and whether it is still the most appropriate structure for what you are doing and what you’d like to achieve.