Tax treatment is one of the key factors a business owner must consider when choosing a business form. Business partnerships can exist in several multiple forms, differing mainly in the extent of liability protection offered to the owners. As a general rule, partnerships are not directly subject to federal income tax. Individual partners are instead liable for tax on a pro rata share of partnership income, commonly known as “pass-through taxation.” 26 U.S.C. § 701. Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) of 2015, Pub. L. 114-74 (Nov. 2, 2015), 129 Stat. 584, which amends the rules for partnership tax audits and could make partnerships themselves subject to income tax. The new rules do not go into effect until 2018.
A general partnership consists of any two or more people engaged in business together. It does not offer its owners, known as partners, any protection against personal liability for business debts. State laws allow the formation of partnerships that offer liability protection, including limited liability partnerships and limited partnerships. See, e.g. N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 42:1A-47, 42:2A-1 et seq. The business form known as the limited liability company, see N.J. Rev. Stat. § 42:2C-1 et seq., is normally subject to pass-through taxation like a partnership, but it gives owners the option to elect taxation as a corporation. 26 C.F.R. § 301.7701-3(a).
The current rules regarding partnership tax audits originated with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) of 1982, Pub. L. 97-248 (Sep. 3, 1982), 96 Stat. 324. TEFRA created a process for partnership-level audits, instead of audits of each individual partner. Partnerships that are subject to these audit rules are known as TEFRA partnerships. A “small partnership exception” applies to many partnerships with 10 or fewer partners. 26 U.S.C. § 6231(a)(1)(B). Partnerships with 100 or more partners may make a “large partnership election,” which allows for different procedures. 26 U.S.C. §§ 771 et seq., 6240 et seq.