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Your Sole Proprietorship and Your Spouse

When starting a small business, understanding how a sole proprietorship works with your spouse can be a little confusing. A sole proprietor is the only owner of an unincorporated business. Often family members, like a spouse, are involved in the operations.

Sole proprietorships can be the easiest and cheapest form of doing business, but things can get complicated if your spouse starts helping out. It's important to choose the right type of business to register under.

Sole proprietorships, by definition, can only be run by one person. So if you plan on having your spouse help out, there are some important things to consider. For married couples in business, there are specific rules for filing income tax returns. This is especially true if both spouses actively take part in the business.

Let's dive deeper into this topic and explore the world of sole proprietorships, business tax, income tax, and more.

Your Sole Proprietorship, Spouse, and Filing a Joint Return

By definition, a sole proprietorship only has one owner. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will not recognize you as a sole proprietorship unless there is only one owner. When a sole proprietor is married and the spouse works in the business, they might wonder how to file their income tax return. 

Married couples can choose to file a joint federal income tax return. In this case, they report the business's income and expenses on a separate Schedule C for each spouse. The Schedule SE is then used to compute Social Security and Medicare taxes, often known as FICA taxes. This means each spouse pays these taxes on their share of the business income. Keep in mind if only one spouse is involved in the business, then only that spouse will complete a Schedule C.

Filing a joint tax return with your spouse that includes the profits of your sole proprietorship will not convert it into a partnership. Although the IRS treats the income as belonging to you and your spouse, it still recognizes that only you own and run the business. On your joint tax return, you would list all your business income on a Schedule C form.

Be careful when filling out your tax return to list only yourself on Schedule C as well as any other business registration forms you file. This will make it clear to the IRS that although the income is joint, the business is run solely by you. Anyone familiar with marriage property rights may find this odd since, legally, your spouse will typically co-own the company under your state's laws.

Your Sole Proprietorship, Spouse, and the Tax Consequences

As a business owner, you will typically owe employment taxes. You will have to withhold a certain part of an employee's paycheck for tax purposes. If you plan on having your spouse occasionally volunteer for your business, you need to be extremely careful about what you allow them to do. This includes how often they volunteer.

For example, if your spouse does any sort of advertising, contact with the public, or signing of documents, they may be holding themselves out to the public as a co-owner of the business in the eyes of the IRS. If that happens, the IRS will hit you with back taxes and penalties. Any advantage you gained by running a sole proprietorship will be erased and then some. In addition, you may also owe back state and local taxes as well.

If you do end up using your spouse to help, even if only sporadically, consider creating an independent contractor agreement. Simply making an independent contractor agreement won't shield you from the IRS if you really are treating your spouse as a regular worker or co-owner, but it should be sufficient if your spouse is only occasionally helping out in a limited capacity.

Finally, be aware of the consequences to your spouse of either treating them as a volunteer or an independent contractor. First, as a volunteer, your spouse will not be earning credit towards their Social Security account, which requires a certain amount of work to be accomplished before they can benefit from Social Security. Second, as an independent contractor, your spouse will have to pay their own self-employment taxes since you will not be doing payroll taxes as if they were an employee.

Your Sole Proprietorship, Spouse, and Equal Ownership

If your spouse wants any kind of say in your business or wants a specific share of your business' profits, then a sole proprietorship will not work. The second you break the cardinal rule of a sole proprietorship, in that there is only one owner, you have created a different kind of business entity that requires specific documentation and which will be taxed differently. 

In other words, you cannot simply call a business a sole proprietorship but run it as if it's a partnership or corporation. If you do, you will be heavily penalized by both the federal and state governments.

If the limitations of a sole proprietorship are proving to be too restrictive, consider switching to another form of business that allows for more flexibility but requires greater documentation and tax returns. Common forms of joint business ownership include partnershipslimited liability companies, and corporations. Each of these has its own special advantages and disadvantages and may require registration of some sort with your state.

Even if you create one of these other forms of business, you can still run it as a sole proprietorship with one spouse doing the majority of the work. This can reduce any future ambiguity and liability that may come with your spouse's status in a sole proprietorship but still allow one spouse to primarily run the business.

Have Additional Questions About Your Sole Proprietorship? Talk to an Attorney

Running a business can be quite a workload for one person, so getting help from a spouse is often a good idea. Make sure you understand the legal implications of working with your spouse. It's a good idea to contact a local business attorney to learn about the effects of involving your spouse in your sole proprietorship. They can help you pick the right business structure, help with any tax deductions you might be owed, and make sure the owner-spouse relationship is covered.

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