Once upon a time, most people starting out in business registered as a sole trader and away they went. Today, it’s easier than ever to register a limited company, but which option is right for you? There are benefits to each, so let’s explore the fundamental differences. 

Ownership Structure 

As a sole trader you are the business. Although it’s prudent to manage certain things separately, such as a bank account, as a sole trader you’re entirely responsible for the business. It’ll cease operating when you choose and you alone are accountable for any debts. 
Limited companies, on the other hand, are a separate entity. You are a director, shareholder and employee of the business, but the business is not you. Any assets and debts belong to the company. The business cannot simply be terminated when you choose – it must be formally wound up or struck off by Companies House. 

Setting up 

Setting up as a sole trader is fairly straightforward. You can register online through the HMRC website and will be required to advise them of the nature of the business. 
As a limited company director you’ll be expected to register with both HMRC and Companies House, and this process is a little more involved. 

Annual reporting 

There are also important differences in the kind of information you’ll be required to provide for the authorities. Sole traders and directors of limited companies are both required to complete annual tax returns based on any income and expenditure every tax year. The forms are intended to be simple to fill out and are all available online. 
As a limited company, though, you’ll also be required to complete and file audited accounts on an annual basis. As well as indicating the financial health of the business, these show how much money is owed in corporation tax. 
Crucially, these accounts must be produced by a professionally qualified accountant, who will require access to thorough financial records. A software platform such as QuickBooks or Xero can make keeping these records as simple as possible. 

Paying tax 

As a sole trader your tax payments are based on your profits after you subtract any costs. Tax is paid in line with the government-set income tax bands. You’ll also need to make either Class 2 or Class 4 National Insurance contributions, depending on your total profits. 
As a limited company your business is liable for tax on business profits, with the tax rate currently at 18% on profits up to £300,000. As the director of a limited company, your tax position may benefit from a smaller salary and higher dividend payments from profits after tax, which would not be subject to National Insurance. 


Finally, as we mentioned at the outset, the difference in structure also determines responsibility for any outstanding business liabilities. In the case of a sole trader, all debts of the business belong to the individual. 
Limited companies, on the other hand, hold any debts themselves, as opposed to the shareholders. Owners are therefore insulated from being held personally responsible for debts in the case of insolvency. 

So, sole trader or limited company? 

Overall, operating as a sole trader entails a simpler process. You can get going with the minimum of admin. Thereafter, completing an annual tax return is easy, and you can do this on your own. Just bear in mind that you will take on the risk of being individually responsible for any debts your business incurs. 
Limited companies remove the personal responsibility for business debts. You can also minimise your personal tax by paying yourself less salary and greater dividends. However, setting up is a little more complex, and once you’re up and running you’ll need to employ an accountant to produce your annual accounts for Companies House. 
The choice is then whichever suits you best. Either way, using QuickBooks or Xero online accounting software can make your life easier, allowing you to devote more time to growing your business. 

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