Your business might operate under various names for marketing and branding purposes, but it has a legal name too—an official name that goes on government forms and other legally binding documents. So, what is your business’s legal name, and how do you find out?
The answer depends on your business type (or, if you’re new to this game, the type of business you intend to start). We’ll cover how to identify your business’s legal name for sole proprietors, general partnerships, and registered business entities like LLCs and corporations, so that regardless of the type of business you own or intend to own, you’ll find the answer you need.
Legal Names for Corporations, LLCs, and LPs
This one is an easy answer. If you own a limited liability company (LLC), limited partnership (LP) or corporation, your company’s legal name is the company name you entered on your formation documents approved by the state and will include the corporate identifier that goes with your business type.
Corporations, LLCs, LPs and other businesses formally registered with a state choose a legal name at formation. These names must be distinct from the name of any other business or entity registered with the state—so if you’re forming a new registered business, you should check your state’s business registry in advance to see if your chosen name is available.
If you have a name in mind that is currently available, but aren’t ready to file business registration paperwork yet, most states allow a name to be reserved ahead of time.
Tip: If you’re ready to start your business today, you can hire us—or if you need time to work out the details, get a free account with Northwest to access the resources you’ll need to start your business on your own. No obligations.
Legal Names for Sole Proprietorships
A business operating under a sole proprietor has the same legal name as its owner. This is because these businesses are legally indistinguishable from their owners—not separate entities the way that registered businesses like LLCs or corporations are. So if your name is “Joan Smith,” that is also your legal business name.
Some states (such as Indiana) allow legal names with additional details—like “Joan Smith Crafts” or “Smith Fabrications,” but these names must still include the surname of the owner. But not all states allow such names, so check your state statutes to be certain.
You can operate a sole proprietorship under a name that does not include the owner’s name, but you’ll need to register a DBA (doing business as) name to do so.
Legal Names for General Partnerships
Much like a sole proprietorship, a general partnership is legally identical to its owners. This means that the legal name of a general partnership is usually the combined legal names or surnames of the owner partners.
However, in some states (for example, Idaho and Ohio) general partnerships are allowed to choose a different legal name when filing a Statement of Partnership Authority. In some states, you may also be allowed to use a different business name as the legal name, if named as such in your partnership agreement. Otherwise, you’ll need to register a DBA to operate under a name other than the legal names of all partners.
Legal Business Names and DBAs
Using a DBA name (also referred to as a “trade name,” “assumed name” or “fictitious name” in some states) can be useful for businesses. But a DBA is not interchangeable with your company’s legal name.
Business legal names and DBAs work much like a person’s legal name and a nickname. You might go by a nickname in everyday life, but you still need to use your legal name when signing contracts, paying taxes or doing other official business. Likewise, a business can only sign contracts and pay taxes under its legal name (though you can include a DBA alongside it). Contracts only signed with a DBA may not be valid.
In addition, DBAs don’t necessarily grant a business exclusive rights to use a name. Another company may be able to freely use the name in your state. Meanwhile, registered businesses like LLCs provide more protection, as states avoid allowing businesses with the same or similar names to be registered. To have stronger legal rights to your business name, you can get a federal trademark.
Formally registered businesses are also able to register and operate with a DBA. But with more freedom to choose a name at formation, corporations, LLCs and similar businesses often use DBAs for other purposes—such as starting a new business line under an existing company.