Personal liability for business debts

What the sole trader needs to know

A sole trader is a business that is owned by one person (and sometimes his or her spouse) and that isn’t registered as a corporation or a limited liability company.

Sole proprietorships are so easy to set up and maintain that you may already own one without knowing it. For instance, if you are a freelance photographer or writer, a craftsperson who takes jobs on a contract basis, a salesperson who receives only commissions or an independent contractor who isn’t on an employer’s regular payroll, you are automatically a sole trader.

However, even though a sole trader is the simplest of business structures, you shouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel. You may have to comply with local registration, license or permit laws to make your business legitimate. And you should look sharp when it comes to tending your business, because you are personally responsible for paying both income taxes and business debts.

Personal liability for business debts
A sole trader can be held personally liable for any business-related obligation. This means that if your business doesn’t pay a supplier, defaults on a debt or loses a lawsuit, the creditor can legally come after your house or other possessions.

By contrast, the law provides owners of corporations and limited liability companies (Ltd’s) with what’s called “limited personal liability” for business obligations. This means that, unlike sole traders and general partners, owners of corporations and limited companies can normally keep their house, investments and other personal property even if their business fails. If you will be engaged in a risky business, you may want to consider forming a corporation or an limited company.

Paying taxes on business income
In the eyes of the law, a sole proprietorship is not legally separate from the person who owns it. The fact that a sole proprietorship and its owner are one and the same means that a sole proprietor simply reports all business income or losses on his individual income tax return.

As a sole trader, you’ll have to take responsibility for withholding and paying all income taxes, which an employer would normally do for you. This means paying a “self-employment” tax, which consists of contributions to National Insurance/ P.R.S.I, and making payments of estimated taxes throughout the year.

And if you do business under a name different from your own, such as Custom Coding, you must register that name — known as a fictitious business name — with Companies House. In practice, lots of businesses are small enough to get away with ignoring these requirements. But if you are caught, you may be subject to back taxes and other penalties.

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