Legal Requirements for Starting a Small Business: A Comprehensive Guide

legal requirements for starting a business

Are you looking to start your own small business? As exciting as it is to turn your business idea into reality, there are some important legal requirements you need to know before getting started. Failing to meet legal obligations can lead to fines, penalties, or even force you to shut down. Avoid legal troubles down the road. Experienced business lawyer, Shane Johnson, has advice on the key legal requirements for starting a new business in North Carolina.

What Are the Legal Requirements for Starting a Small Business?

Starting a business involves more than having a great idea or product. Every business needs to meet certain legal and regulatory requirements set by federal, state, and local governments. While the specific requirements vary based on your business structure, location, and industry, some common requirements apply to most small businesses in the United States.

It is crucial to understand these requirements upfront and ensure your new business complies with them. It helps ensure your business operates legally, protects your personal assets, and sets you up for success. Read on to learn about the essential legal steps and requirements to legally start your own small business:

1. Choose a Business Structure

Choosing your business structure is one of the first legal steps in starting a business. Will you operate as a sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, S-corp, nonprofit, or limited liability company (LLC)?

The business structure you choose determines your personal liability, how you file taxes, and what registrations or documents you’ll need. It’s important to pick the right structure for your small business goals and vision.

Some common business structures for small businesses include:

  • Sole proprietorship – You are the sole (only) owner, and there is no legal distinction between you and the business. This offers less protection but is the easiest business structure.
  • Partnership – Two or more co-owners share control and profits. You can create a general partnership or form a limited partnership with limited and general partners.
  • LLC – This limits the owner’s personal liability without needing to be treated as a corporation. LLCs combine the benefits of partnerships and corporations.
  • Corporations – Corporations are legal entities owned by shareholders. They require more formal processes but limit liability.
  • Nonprofit corporation – For businesses aiming to serve the public interest rather than make profits. These can qualify for tax exemptions.

2. Register Your Business Name

Once you pick a business structure, it’s time to make it official! Registering your business name protects your right to use that name in your state.

If you operate under your own personal name, you can skip straight to other registrations. But if you use a different business name than your personal name, you need to register it:

  • Sole proprietors (and any entity choice) can file for a “Doing Business As” (DBA) name to register their official business name.
  • Partnerships and corporations should check their state’s registration requirements for partnerships and corporations.
  • LLCs need to register their business name through their state LLC registration process.

Registration ensures no other business in your state can use the same name. It also lets you open business bank accounts and take other steps using your business name.

3. Apply for Business Licenses and Permits

Virtually every small business needs certain licenses and permits from federal, state, and local government agencies to operate legally. Requirements vary based on your business activities, location, and local laws. Here’s a good starting place: Business Registration Checklist | NCDOR

Some common licenses and permits small businesses need include:

  • Business license – General license to legally operate your business in a city or county.
  • Sales tax license – Required in most states to collect sales tax from customers.
  • Food service permit – For businesses that sell or serve food.
  • Building permits – For remodeling or buildouts at a physical business location.
  • Liquor license – To sell alcohol.
  • Health department permit – For businesses in healthcare, beauty, salons, spas, etc.

Thoroughly research which licenses and permits apply to your business. Get these approved before opening for business to avoid legal penalties.

4. Get an Employer Identification Number (EIN)

An Employer Identification Number (EIN) is like the Social Security Number for your business. This unique number identifies your business and is required to open business bank accounts, file taxes, hire employees, and more.

Sole proprietors can use their SSN instead. But all other business structures need an EIN. Apply online through the IRS website – it only takes minutes!

5. Set Up Accounting and Taxes

Another key legal consideration is setting up proper tax and accounting practices for your new business. Here are some important steps related to your business finances and taxes:

  • Set up bookkeeping and accounting systems to track income and expenses. This is critical at tax time!
  • Understand your tax obligations. If applicable, file and pay ongoing taxes, including estimated quarterly income tax payments, payroll, sales, and excise taxes.
  • Obtain an appointment to pay sales tax if you plan to collect sales tax from customers. You may need to pay these taxes periodically.
  • Apply for tax exemptions or certifications if you qualify as a nonprofit or other special business type.

6. Open a Business Bank Account

You should open a dedicated business bank account to keep your finances organized. This keeps personal and business transactions separate for accounting, tax, and liability purposes.
Shop around to find a bank that offers services tailored to small businesses. When opening the account, be prepared to provide details about your business entity structure and legal paperwork.

Also, decide if you need a business credit card tied to the account.

7. Get Business Insurance

Business insurance is highly recommended to protect your company from certain risks and liabilities. Common types of business insurance include general liability insurance, professional liability insurance, commercial property insurance, and workers’ compensation insurance.

The specific policies and coverage amounts you’ll need depend on your business type, size, operations, number of employees, and more. Work with an insurance agent to determine what plans make sense for your new small business. Having proper insurance gives you peace of mind and protects your business assets.

8. Maintain Legal Compliance

As your business grows, you must continue meeting legal and regulatory requirements. This includes renewing licenses, complying with labor laws if you have employees, adhering to privacy and data security laws, and following industry-specific regulations.

Stay organized and set reminders for renewals and ongoing compliance requirements. Consider working with legal counsel or other advisors to ensure you get all the important deadlines and requirements. Failing to maintain compliance could put your business at risk.

What are Some Other Key Legal Considerations?

  • Taxes: Understand your federal, state, and local tax obligations. You may need to register for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), collect and pay sales tax, file business tax returns, and more.
  • Contracts: Use clear, written contracts when entering into agreements with clients, partners, vendors, employees, etc. Define the terms, rights, and responsibilities of both parties.
  • Privacy policy: Post a privacy policy if you collect customer data online. Make sure it complies with laws like the GDPR and CCPA.
  • Intellectual property: File for appropriate IP protections if your business has patents, trademarks, copyrights, or trade secrets to protect.
  • Legal counsel: Consider having a business attorney review your business formation documents, contracts, insurance policies, and other key legal paperwork.

The legal requirements for starting and running a business may seem complex. However, taking the time to understand the laws and setting up proper legal protections will benefit your business in the long run. Be sure to consult legal and tax professionals when starting your new venture. Following important legal steps from the start will help set your small business up for success.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What business structure should I choose to start my own small business in North Carolina?

The most common legal structures for small businesses in North Carolina are sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLCs, and corporations. Consult with your local business lawyer to determine the best structure for limiting your liability while meeting state and federal requirements.

I want to open a home-based business. Do I need a business license or permit?

Many local governments require home-based businesses to obtain a business license or permit. Check with your city or county to understand licensing requirements for home-based or online businesses. This helps ensure you comply with zoning ordinances.

What is a DBA, and does my new business need to file for one?

A DBA (doing business as) is a fictitious business name filing that sole proprietors can use to conduct business under a name different than their personal name. If you want to operate your business under a fictitious name, you must register for a DBA.

Reach Out To A Small Business Lawyer For Help Getting Started

Don’t let the legal requirements overwhelm you! Take things step-by-step, research the specifics of your business, and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. With cautious planning and preparation, you’ll be ready to launch your business legally and start turning your dreams into reality. If you’re in Wilmington and planning to set your business dreams into motion, partnering with an experienced firm like Johnson Legal, PLLC, ensures you start on solid ground, fully equipped to face the exciting journey ahead.

Contact us today for a consultation.

Author Bio

Shane T. Johnson is the CEO and Managing Partner of Johnson Legal, an estate planning and business law firm in Wilmington, NC. With years of experience in estate and business law, he has zealously represented clients in various legal matters, including small business formation and purchasing, estate planning, probate, domestic violence, and other legal cases.

Shane received his Juris Doctor from the University of Wyoming and is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for her work, including being named among the Best Probate Lawyers in Wilmington by

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