“Disregarded Entity” vs “Taxable Association”: What is the best way to structure your LLC?

For the past 15 years I have been promoting the USA as the ultimate banking solution for non-residents (or as some might say a “Tax Haven” for non-residents). Our traditional proposal was to set up a US LLC, take the default election of ‘disregarded entity’ (A “disregarded entity” is an LLC that is treated by the Internal Revenue Service as a complete pass through entity. For tax purposes it does not exist. For all other purposes it does.), open a bank account, and as long as you are not earning any US Source/Effectively Connected Income, you are fine. No need to file tax returns let alone pay any taxes.

That is no longer entirely the case. FATCA has not changed the tax treatment issues, but has changed the reporting requirements for US payors. The issue of the W-9 (reporting form for US resident payees receiving funds) and W-8Ben (reporting form(s) for non-US residents receiving funds) was always a little murky but now it is downright impossible. Non-residents receiving payments from US payors, even if the funds are “not effectively connected” to US income, are now facing serious problems. No one really understands how the new W-8Ben system works since they have replaced the one form with 4 or 5 related forms that no one really understands how to use. And the penalties for getting it wrong are quite serious so payors are paying a lot more attention, or just choosing not to do business with anyone who cannot execute a W-9.

In short, it has become very difficult for non-residents to use their US bank accounts to receive funds from US payors.

Our solutions:

For those non-residents who do not need to receive funds from US payors, the Disregarded LLC is still fine. Nothing to worry about.

For those receiving money from US payors, we need a more sophisticated structure. The US LLC will elect to be a ‘taxable association’ (that is an entity that will be taxed separately like a C Corporation), but it will only act as an Payment Agent of a non-resident business (with a written agency agreement) to resell non-resident goods and services in the USA. 90% percent of the gross income goes to the foreign provider (with appropriate W-8Ben — that will be very easy), and all operating expenses will come out of the 10% agency fee — there should be little or no taxes.

This solution is simple and easy to implement. In fact old Disregarded LLCs can be converted to “Taxable Association” LLCs with little effort. Another alternative is to set up a second US LLC to be the Payment Agent that then transfers the 90% to the original company.

The only downside is that there is now a requirement to file an annual tax return which means there is a requirement to maintain a good set of books so that the tax preparer can accurately file the return. There may be little or no taxes due, but failure to file a tax return can cause a lot of problems. I have always advised my clients to maintain a set of books for professional reasons, but they were not required for US tax purposes. Now they are.