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Become self-employed or set up a limited company?

One of the most important decisions you make when you set up a new business is to decide what type of trading structure to use.

There are several less widely used legal structures – such as limited liability partnerships which are often used by accountancy and other professional firms.

However, the vast majority of small business owners work as self-employed (i.e. as ‘sole traders’ or ‘partnerships’), or via their own limited companies.

Please take some time to read the following points to help evaluate which trading structure is best for you.

Tax Issues

Limited companies, their directors, and the self employed are each taxed in different ways.

Limited company taxes

A limited company has a separate legal entity from its shareholders and directors, whereas the business and personal affairs of self employed people are treated ‘as one’ for tax purposes.

  • Limited companies pay Corporation Tax on their annual profits.
  • Directors and employees pay personal tax on any income they receive from the company.
  • Shareholders pay dividend tax on dividends received from the company.
  • Employees (including directors) pay income tax and NICs if they receive a salary.
  • The company itself pays Class 1 Employers’ NICs on salaries it pays to employees.

Self employed taxes

If you are a sole trader, you pay income tax and Class 2 and 4 national insurance on your annual profits if they are above £12,570.

Your total tax bill is calculated when you fill in your annual tax return. The self assessment deadline for submitting your return and paying any tax due is 31st January each year.

For the current tax and NI rates and thresholds, read our in-depth guide to how sole traders are taxed.

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Value Added Tax (VAT) – companies and the self employed

Both companies and sole traders must register for Value Added Tax (VAT) if turnover reaches £85,000 or more per year (2023/24).

You can register for VAT voluntarily before your turnover reaches the VAT registration threshold if you wish to.

There are many benefits to doing so. For example, you can reclaim the VAT on purchases too.

You can find out more about VAT here.

Administration and Costs

Generally speaking, running a limited company is more onerous than being self employed.

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As a company director, you also have a number of statutory and financial duties to keep on top of.

Limited company administration

All limited companies are registered with Companies House.

Companies file a Confirmation Statement and PSC each year and file a company of their annual accounts.

You can form a limited company for under £100, so the costs of setting up the business structure itself are minimal.

You can set up a company right away via our partner, 1st Formations – one of the UK’s leading company formations services.

In reality, the ‘hassle’ involved in being a company director is not significant.

Most companies use an accountant to take care of their tax affairs and deal with Companies House and HMRC.

Self employed administration

There is less paperwork to worry about if you’re self employed, although you must still keep accurate records.

When you first start up your new business, you need to inform HMRC when you become self employed.

You also need to comply with any industry regulations (such as employment laws, health and safety, and discrimination rules).

Sole traders typically employ the services of a bookkeeper or accountant to complete or help with their annual tax returns.

You can find details of how and when to do this in our popular guide –  10 Things You Must Do When You Go Self Employed.

For an insight into the key benefits of being self employed, read 7 Advantages a Sole Trader Has Over a Limited Company

Business structures and credibility

In some industries or professions, you may find it more advantageous to trade via a limited company.

Some business owners find that their customers feel more comfortable dealing with a limited company.

If you are providing professional services (as a consultant, or surveyor, for example), most clients expect you to trade via your own company – in fact, it may be a contractual requirement.

Employment Status

Although you can run most types of business under either type of trading structure, the legal status of each is very different.

Limited company

A limited company is a legal entity in its own right. It has a separate legal status from its directors and shareholders.

If you are a director, you are an officer of the company. In many cases, directors are also employees of their companies.

Even though you are working for yourself, you are not considered ‘self employed’ for tax purposes.

Self employed

As the name suggests, as a self employed person, you cannot also be an ’employee’ of your new business. You are the business.

This means that both you (the individual) and your business share the same legal and tax status.

Business structures and liability

Following on from employment status, your liability also differs between structures if things go wrong.

Limited company liability

A limited company is a separate legal entity. So if something goes wrong, it is the company, not its directors which is held liable.

If your company fails and owes money to creditors,  you will not have to pay the creditors out of your own personal assets.

This is unless fraud or other offences have taken place.

The liability of company directors is therefore limited, hence the term ‘limited liability company’.

This is a key advantage that running a business as a limited company has over being a sole trader

Sole trader liability

As a sole trader, you are personally liable if things go wrong. This might happen if your business gets into debt, or faces a legal claim from a client or employee.

If your business goes under, creditors can pursue you for your personal assets if you are self employed.

For these reasons, we always recommend you discuss your business with an accountant before deciding upon the right legal structure to use. You should not rely solely on the information we have provided in this article.