Incorporating a business, either by establishing a corporation or a limited liability company (LLC), is a fairly straightforward process—as long as you’re organized and have all the documents you need in order. Understanding each document that’s required and when you’ll need to submit it is the best route to a fast, painless business incorporation.
Here are the 11 incorporation documents that every small business should know when registering their business entity:
A business name reservation form is exactly what it sounds like—it allows you to reserve a unique name for your business while you complete the incorporation process. This comes in handy because two businesses can’t have the exact same name in the same locality if it would cause confusion to consumers. For example, two restaurants can’t be called Tasty Food LLC or Tasty Food Inc.
Most secretary of state offices have an online name search that you can use to find out which business names are available. If the business name you want to use is available, then you can ask the state to “reserve” it for a certain amount of time—usually 60 to 120 days. No other business owners will be able to claim that name during that time period.
Articles of incorporation are the foundational document for C-corporations and S-corporations. You have to file these documents with the state for your corporation to exist. The information that goes into the articles of incorporation will vary based on what state you’re in, but it typically includes the following:
All states charge a fee (ranging from approximately $100 to $500) to process the articles of incorporation. Once the state processes it, they will send you a certified copy of the articles which confirms that they’ve approved your corporation to do business in the state.
The articles of organization are the equivalent of the articles of incorporation for LLCs. They officially establish your LLC in the state that you’re registering in. Like the articles of incorporation, the articles of organization contain basic business information such as:
As with incorporations, all states charge a fee to process the articles of organization. After processing your form, the state will send you a certified copy of the articles confirming that they’ve approved your LLC to do business in the state.
Corporate bylaws lay out how the shareholders, officers, and directors will split control within the organization and manage it on a day to day basis. Along with the articles of incorporation, corporate bylaws are the main organizational document for a corporation.
Corporate bylaws usually contain the following info:
Although many people confuse the articles of incorporation and bylaws, they serve different purposes. The first just sets up a skeletal outline for the corporation, while the latter includes all the details for managing and running the corporation on a daily basis.
An operating agreement is similar to the bylaws for a corporation. The operating agreement sets out in detail the structure of the LLC and the day-to-day management processes.
An operating agreement generally contains the following things:
Only a handful of states (California, Delaware, New York, Maine, Minnesota) require LLCs to form an operating agreement, and no state requires you to file one. But, it’s important to have one to map out how you’ll do business and avoid disputes down the line. It’s best to store your agreement with other important business records.
All states requires corporations to maintain and safely store corporate records, so there’s a paper trail for government audits and other legal purposes. Meeting minutes are one of the most important corporate records because they document important company decisions. You should keep minutes during all formal meetings—shareholder, board, and annual meetings.
These are some things you should memorialize in meeting minutes:
Under state laws, only corporations are generally required to keep meeting minutes. However, it’s a good idea for owners of both LLCs and corporations to keep extensive meeting minutes. It’s not pleasant to think about, but they will come in handy if the government audits your business or someone sues your business.
Board resolutions document and formalize board decisions and show how directors voted on different matters affecting the company. These records are important for compliance reasons if a board’s decision is, for example, ever called into question in a lawsuit or during an audit.
It’s a good idea to have a board resolution for each of the following types of business decisions:
You should store resolutions along with other important corporate records, such as your articles of incorporation and meeting minutes. Board resolutions usually follow a specific format, with the date, number, and title of the resolution followed by a description of what exactly the board decided. Follow this description with a listing of all directors present, who voted yes and no, and their signatures.
While resolutions aren’t required for LLCs, it’s wise to keep a record of important decisions in case of a dispute in the future.
A stock certificate is a piece of paper which records the sale and purchase of shares in the corporation. Stock certificates were traditionally physical pieces of paper, but most companies now back them up with digital versions. The certificate will specify the business’s name, the shareholder’s name, the date of the sale, the signature of the board member who authorized the sale of stock, and the company’s seal.
Shareholder agreements touch on shareholder rights and responsibilities that aren’t mentioned in the corporate bylaws.
The shareholder agreement will typically specify a number of things:
Not every small business will need a shareholder agreement, and no states require a business to have one. However, if your corporation has multiple owners, it’s a good idea to have a written shareholder agreement.
In most states, all registered business entities must have file an annual report by a certain date every year and pay an annual tax or processing fee. Without filing your annual report, you cannot maintain approval to do business in the state.
Every state requires different information in your annual report, and you can find out the requirements in your state by contacting your business’s secretary of state office. Usually, it’s just very basic info to keep the state up to date on your company, such as the business’s address, names and addresses of the owners, and registered agent information.
To qualify your business as an S-corporation, you have to file Form S-2553-Election by a Small Business Corporation with the IRS. S-corporations differ from ordinary C-corporations in a few ways, but the main way is taxation. C-corps are subject to “double taxation.” Owners pay a corporate income tax, and shareholders have to pay taxes on dividends on their personal tax returns. In contrast, S-corps are pass through entities. Business income and profits flow through to the owners’ personal tax returns and are taxed at the owners’ personal income tax rates.
Without filing Form S-2553, your business cannot be an S-corporation and will continue to be taxed as a C-corp. The deadline for filing the form is in the first 75 days of the tax year you want the S-corp election to take effect or in the year preceding the year that you want your S-corp election to take effect.
If you’re having trouble keeping track of this list of incorporation documents, don’t worry! Help is available. Many online legal services such as Incfile, Rocket Lawyer, and LegalZoom will help you file incorporation documents and complete most of the legal forms mentioned above to maintain your business entity. Prices range from $10-$20 for a single document, or you can pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to business legal forms. Some legal sites will even connect you to a lawyer to discuss legal matters. This is great when you’re just launching your business and as you continue to grow your company.
Priyanka Prakash is a senior contributing writer at Fundera.
Priyanka specializes in small business finance, credit, law, and insurance, helping businesses owners navigate complicated concepts and decisions. Since earning her law degree from the University of Washington, Priyanka has spent half a decade writing on small business financial and legal concerns. Prior to joining Fundera, Priyanka was managing editor at a small business resource site and in-house counsel at a Y Combinator tech startup.