Paying You: How to Pay Yourself When You're the Business Owner

Freelance consultants and business owners dedicate a considerable chunk of mental bandwidth to thinking about how to generate business, because the top line matters. We think a lot about making money, but we may not devote much time to thinking through the mechanics of paying ourselves once the money arrives.

Sole Proprietors and single person LLC owners may consider the self-payment process a no-brainer—as invoices are paid, one simply deposits the money into the business bank account. But like so may actions that seem easy at first glance there is usually a right way, a smart way, to pay oneself as a self-employed person.

So—are you on your business’ payroll or do you take payments from your business in the form of owner draws? Do you and your business partners take guaranteed payments (salary)?  Are you paying yourself too much or not enough? How can you tell? Also, where in your business financials are the payments recorded?

Business type Payment Tax return Payroll Tax

Sole Proprietor Owner’s draw         1040/ Sched. C     Yes                                

Single LLC Member draw 1040/ Sched. C Yes

Multi LLC Member share 1040/ Sched. K-1 Yes

S Corporation Dividend/ wage 1040/ Sched. K-1 Yes

C Corporation Dividends 1040 dividends not on dividends

Sole Proprietor

Business owners and Freelancers who adopt this, the default business structure, pay themselves through an owner’s draw, i.e., the amount of money taken from business earnings, after expenses and taxes, by the owner for his/her personal use. The payment is called a draw because money is drawn out of the business.

Sole Proprietors usually take draws by writing a check to themselves from their business bank accounts. Smart Sole Proprietors will then deposit that check into a personal bank account and avoid co-mingling business and personal funds, a practice that inevitably leads to accounting and tax complications. The owner’s draw doesn’t affect business taxes because the net income has already been taxed. The draw is also not a business expense. From an accounting and tax perspective, the owner’s draw is income distribution. Owner draws are recorded on the Balance Sheet.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

LLC owners, who are known as members, are not (always) considered employees of the entity and therefore they do not (always) take a salary as would an employee. LLC members, especially single member entities, usually pay themselves with a member’s draw, which is taken from the member’s capital account (business bank account). Multiple owner LLCs are considered to be partners in the business and pay themselves with a member’s share distribution, also taken from the member’s capital account. 

While members may periodically draw from their capital account, a draw is in reality an early withdrawal of anticipated year-end profits, a goal that is perhaps at top-of-mind at multi-member LLCs. Whenever a member receives a draw during the year, his/her capital account decreases, but if the business shows a profit at the end of the year, the member’s capital account will increase in accordance with the percentage of ownership. If a member owns 25 % of the LLC, then s/he can expect to receive 25 % of year-end profits. Single member LLCs own 100 % of the entity and are entitled to 100 % of the profits. Member draws are recorded on the Balance Sheet.

A working member in a multi-member LLC has the option of either receiving a guaranteed salary amount as an LLC employee, or paying oneself with a member’s share distribution, as will a single member LLC owner. Members who are strictly silent partner investors and do not work in the business are not entitled to period draws, but will receive their member’s distribution of profits in accordance with their ownership percentage at the end of the tax year. 

The member salary, known as a guaranteed payment, is not based on the percentage split agreed upon in the LLC operating agreement but based on the work the member performs in the business. Unlike member distributions, guaranteed payments are recorded on the Profit & Loss (Income) Statement and are taken from business profits.

The LLC must be diligent about filing the correct tax forms on behalf of members and maintain accurate accounting histories for everyone throughout the year, to reflect member payment choices. Members paid as LLC employees must file IRS Form W-4 to calculate the amount of payroll tax withholding taken from from each paycheck. The member is then treated as a W-2 employee of the LLC. If the member is paid as an Independent Contractor, then s/he must file IRS Form W-9 with the LLC and the LLC must file IRS Form 1099-MISC by the end of the year. All member draws or distributions are deducted from the amount of profits assigned to the capital accounts, based on ownership percentages.

Corporations

An S Corporation is in reality either an LLC or C Corporation that has elected for special tax treatment with the IRS. S Corp income, losses, deductions and credits pass through to its shareholders’ personal IRS Form 1040. Shareholders then report the business’s income and losses on form 1040 and are taxed at their individual income tax rates. C Corps are subject to double taxation—a separate corporation tax and when dividends are paid to shareholders, that amount is recorded on IRS 1040 (but there is no payroll tax).

S and C Corporation owners who work in the business pay themselves a regular “salary” and also distribution payments. S Corp owners are usually employees of the business. Owners who work as employees must be paid a “reasonable salary” before profits (dividend distributions) are paid and the salary is subject to payroll taxes. The IRS has guidelines that define a reasonable salary, based on job responsibilities. Salaries are generally taken from business profits.

Owners of C Corps can elect to pay its shareholders a cash dividend, which is a distribution of company profits. However, the C Corp board may choose to retain either the entirety or some portion of business net profits and decline to pay a dividend in a given quarter or year. If a dividend is paid, that amount is added to income reported on the shareholder’s personal IRS Form 1040. The company records dividend payments on the Balance Sheet.

S corporation owners have been known to request that their corporations pay them little or no salary, since salaries are taxed, and instead take payments as dividend distributions, which are not taxed. The IRS has stepped up enforcement on this issue and in 2000 audited thousands of S Corps whose owner the IRS concluded had received a suspiciously low salary and very generous dividend distribution, in an apparent attempt to evade payroll taxes by disguising their salary as corporate distributions.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Pay day on a U.S. Navy cruiser (1942)

Limited Liability Company — Should Your Business Be an LLC?

Going into business invariably entails lots of decision-making,  one of which will be to choose the legal structure of the business entity.  As you know there are three choices: Sole Proprietorship,  Limited Liability Company and Corporation,  typically S Corporation for Freelance consultants and small business owners.  Most Freelancers begin as Sole Proprietors and many remain there.  If business-related liability is not an issue,  then that is a perfectly acceptable choice.  About 70% of  US businesses are Sole Proprietorships.  However at some point in the life of your business,  perhaps as revenue and reputation grow,  it may be preferable to move beyond Sole Proprietor status.

At any time,  you may decide to operate your Freelance consultancy through an entity that limits your personal liability as the owner  (alone or in partnership),  decide that it’s worth the  $500.00 or so filing fee  (payable each year on renewal),  plus maybe three hours of attorney or accountant fees to make sure everything is done the right way.  Or maybe it’s not liability you’re worried about.  Maybe you feel that you’ll appear to clients and prospects more  “real”  and the legal structure is more marketing tool than liability protection.  Whatever your motive,  the matter of selecting your consultancy’s legal entity will present itself.  Should you structure your business as a corporation, or as an LLC? The answer to the question is— it depends.

Most Freelancers and small business owners are directed by their accountants and attorneys to the LLC.  It’s flexible and easy to set up and file.  Your state’s Secretary of State’s office will have a form online for you to inspect.  There may be one or several owners of the LLC,  but there must be a registered agent  (to receive mailings associated with the LLC entity)  who resides within the state.

A big advantage of organizing your business as an LLC is that you will receive protection from creditors of the business.  If the business owes money,  those to whom it owes money will not be able to come after personal property and other assets.   Moreover,  limited liability means that business owner(s) may not be held liable for debts that exceed their investment in the business.  For example,  if your investment in your Freelance operation is $5000.00 and you manage to incur business debts of $8000.00,  you are potentially liable for only the $5000.00.

Furthermore,  there is no separate business tax on the LLC.  All business income and expenses  “pass through”  to the owner(s) of the business,  who pay personal taxes only on the net profit,  based on the share of business ownership.  The owner of a single-entity LLC does not have to file a separate tax return for the business—all financial information is reported on form 1040.  Schedule C Profit and Loss for a Business must also be filed  ( you file schedule C also as a Sole Proprietor),  where one may deduct all of the allowable pre-tax business expenses,  i.e. advertising expenses,  travel and entertainment,  office supplies, etc.  You must also pay self-employment tax,  as do Sole Proprietors.

I was surprised to learn that an LLC can own property.  In fact,  if the property owned increases in value  (and it probably will),  your LLC will avoid the capital gains double taxation that regular corporations  (C Corporations)  would incur should the property be sold or the business entity liquidated.  Like business expenses and profit,  the capital gains would  “pass through”  to the owner(s).

One must be careful when doing business as a separate legal entity,  though.  Your LLC cannot become entwined with personal finances.  Keep your grocery store charges,  shopping sprees and personal vacations out of your business affairs.  Failing to do so will cause LLC status to be forfeited.  Moreover,   an LLC terminates if one of the owners retires,  resigns, dies or goes bankrupt  (remaining owners can form a new LLC).

The LLC works best in relatively straightforward businesses,  single- or multi-owner.  If your goal is to raise money to vastly expand your business,  then the business is advised to incorporate,  so that investors will have the security of holding stock certificates as proof of ownership stake in the business.  Ditto if you plan to take your company public.  I’ll be back next week with a look at incorporating your Freelance consultancy.

Thanks for reading,

Kim