Legal Requirements for Starting a Business

Gavel and podium. Represents the legal requirements to start a business.

Kody Wirth

8 min. read

Updated January 5, 2024

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A lot of creative work and planning is required to start a business

There are also less enjoyable but absolutely necessary legal requirements to comply with. Tax obligations, registrations, permits, and insurance may seem like a never-ending list if you don’t know what is absolutely necessary.

This guide covers the ten legal steps you must take as a new business.   

Don’t worry about completing these steps in the order presented. Most can, and should, be done simultaneously. Use this as a checklist to ensure you’re ready to officially do business.

If you’re running a business in the UK, check out our guide covering UK-based legal requirements.

1. Choose your business structure

A business structure refers to how a company is legally organized. Your chosen structure impacts operations, taxes, paperwork, fundraising, and liabilities.

Here is a brief overview of the most common business structures to get you started.

  • Sole Proprietorship: A single individual owns and operates the business.
  • Partnership: Two or more individuals jointly own the business.
  • Corporation: A separate legal entity owned by shareholders.
  • Limited Liability Company (LLC): Combines features of corporations and partnerships, offering liability protection to owners.
  • Nonprofit: A business granted tax-exempt status because it provides a public benefit or furthers a social cause. 

Looking for more? Check out our full guide on business structures to learn about each option and how to select the right structure for your business.

2. Register your business name

You need to choose a business name that reflects your brand and isn’t already legally claimed. Once you have a name, register it to certify and protect it.

Dig Deeper: The complete guide to registering your business name

At a minimum, you should register an “entity name” to protect your business name at the state level. You may also need a trademark to bar others in the industry from using the name at a national level.

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Optional: Register for a DBA (Doing Business As)

You can also register a business name by filing a fictitious name (“doing business as”) statement. It allows a business to operate under a different name other than your formal business or personal name.

Dig Deeper: 3 reasons why you shouldn’t wait to register for a DBA

3. Apply for state and federal tax identification numbers

You must have state and federal employer identification numbers (EIN) to legally hire employees, pay federal and state taxes, apply for licenses and permits, and open a business bank account.

An EIN is required if you: 

  • Are registered as a corporation or partnership
  • Withhold taxes on wages
  • Use a tax-deferred pension plan 

You are required to change/replace your EIN if there has been a change in tax status, business name, address, management, or ownership.

Dig Deeper: How to apply for a federal tax ID number

4. Create a business partnership agreement

Even if you’re not in an official partnership, you should consider drafting a partnership agreement. Doing so will clearly define rights and responsibilities—helping you amicably resolve any disputes.

Drafting a partnership agreement is a step many entrepreneurs miss and can be catastrophic if not done initially. Here’s what Noah Parsons, COO of Palo Alto Software, says about the need for a partnership agreement.

“I’ve heard way too many stories—several from people I know personally—who have skipped the step of documenting a partnership and had things go sideways in the worst way. The effort required to do this step is low, and the consequences of not doing it are significant.”

Dig Deeper: How to draft a business partnership agreement

5. Obtain business licenses and permits

There is, unfortunately, no standardized list of federal and state-level permits and licenses you must acquire. It ultimately depends on location, business activities, industry, and government rules.

The only way to operate a business legally is to apply for the proper permits and licenses. They indicate that you’ve complied with the set regulations and requirements for running a business within a set jurisdiction.

Also, depending on the city or county, you might be required to apply for local business permits.

Dig Deeper: How and where to obtain business licenses and permits

6. Apply for trademarks, patents, and copyrights

Consider if your product/service has any intellectual property (IP) that needs protection from being copied by others. If not protected, anyone can leverage your creations in their business.

Need a quick overview of IP? Here are the most common Intellectual Property protections to consider.

  1. Patents: A patent is a right granted to an inventor that prevents others from making, selling, or using their invention for a set period, typically 20 years. There are three main types of patents: utility, design, and plant.
  1. Trademarks: Trademarks are symbols, names, and slogans for identifying goods or services. They help consumers distinguish one brand from another and assure the quality of the goods or services.
  1. Copyrights: Copyright protects original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, and certain other intellectual works. This protection allows creators to control the use of their creations and earn revenue from their use.
  1. Trade secrets: Trade secrets are practices, designs, formulas, processes, recipes, or any information that provides a business advantage over competitors who do not know or use it. Unlike other forms of IP, trade secrets are protected without formal government registration as long as they remain confidential.
  1. Industrial designs: These protect the visual design of objects, such as the shape, surface, or ornamentation. They are applicable when the design isn’t purely utilitarian.
  1. Geographical indications: These are signs used on products with a specific geographical origin and possess qualities, reputation, or inherent characteristics. For example, “Champagne” for sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France.

If you’re unsure whether to file for legal protection, consult an IP attorney for professional guidance.

Dig Deeper: Intellectual property explained

7. Understand your tax obligations

You need to know and understand the local, state, and federal taxes that apply to your business. It’ll help you file taxes accurately, hire employees, and make timely payments.

As always, the content here is general knowledge, not legal advice. To be sure you are paying the correct taxes for your business, consult an accounting professional or contact the IRS. 

Dig Deeper: Small business taxes for beginners

8. Select the right employee classifications

Before hiring anyone, you must understand the different employee classifications. Each classification varies in how it legally impacts employment, including wage laws, benefits, and tax implications. 

Here’s a brief summary of the primary employee classifications:

  • Full-time employees: Workers who typically work a 40-hour week. They are usually eligible for all employer-offered benefits, such as health insurance, paid time off, and retirement plans.
  • Part-time employees: Workers who work fewer hours than the standard full-time schedule. They might not be eligible for all the benefits full-time employees receive or receive them on a prorated basis.
  • Temporary employees: Hired for a specific period or the duration of a particular project. They typically do not receive long-term employment benefits.
  • Seasonal employees: Hired to work during a particular season, such as holiday or summer workers. They might not be eligible for standard company benefits.
  • Independent contractors: Self-employed individuals hired to perform specific tasks or services. They are not considered employees, so they don’t receive traditional employee benefits and are responsible for their own taxes.
  • Interns: Individuals, often students, who work for a company for a short period to gain experience. They can be paid or unpaid, but specific legal criteria must be met for an intern to be unpaid.
  • Exempt employees: Typically salaried employees who are exempt from federal wage and hour laws, meaning they aren’t eligible for overtime pay. Common examples include managers and professionals.
  • Non-exempt employees: Typically hourly workers covered by wage and hour laws, making them eligible for minimum wage and overtime pay.
  • Remote or telecommuting employees: Workers who perform their tasks from a location other than the company’s primary location, often from home. With the rise of digital technology, this classification has become more common.
  • Freelancers: Like independent contractors, freelancers are self-employed individuals who offer their services per-project basis. They handle their own taxes and usually don’t receive benefits from the companies they work for.

Understanding these classifications will prepare you to comply with labor laws, provide appropriate benefits, and manage your workforce effectively. Check out our hiring guide for additional guidance in choosing the right employees and roles for your business. 

9. Get business insurance

While it’s not always a legal requirement—business insurance will protect you from costly damages or lawsuits.

If you’re unsure of what business insurance you need, these are the most common:

  • General liability insurance: Protects your business from claims such as personal injury, damage to another person’s property, and bodily injury.
  • Professional liability insurance: Protects a business from lawsuits filed by a client claiming a work mistake in the services offered.
  • Workers’ compensation insurance: Insures employees if something happens when working. It pays for medical care, funeral costs, death benefits, and income compensation during recovery.
  • Commercial property insurance: Covers machines or buildings used for business operations except for damage caused by earthquakes and floods.

Dig Deeper: Check out our full business insurance guide for why, when, and what types of business insurance you may need.

Unsure how to handle these legal steps? It may be worth connecting with professional legal counsel to ensure you have your bases covered.

Dig Deeper: What to know about business laws, lawyers, and lawsuits

Get your finances in order

By completing this requirements list, you can legally do business and are now ready to get your finances in order.

You now know all the costs associated with permits, applications, and insurance. And have your federal tax identification number. 

This means you can map out all of your startup costs, open a business banking account, and begin setting up an accounting process. But those are just a few steps to set up your finances

Check out the next step in starting a business for the full process.

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Content Author: Kody Wirth

Kody Wirth

Kody Wirth is a content writer and SEO specialist for Palo Alto Software—the creator's of Bplans and LivePlan. He has 3+ years experience covering small business topics and runs a part-time content writing service in his spare time.