What’s in a name, at least when it comes to your LLC? Well, it’s carries more weight than you might think. Sure, your business name should be memorable so your customer’s won’t easily forget you, but this is also the legal name that will appear on all of your business’s formal documents.
Also referred to as a “trade name,” you’ll end up using this name for everything from setting up your business’s bank account and signing contracts, to representing yourself in any legal cases you might find yourself in.
The good news is that you get to choose your LLC’s name, so get as creative as you want. The bad news is that your choice might be limited by some confusing legal rules and regulations. And, to make things even more complicated, every state will have its own detailed rules about how you can name your LLC.
Since you’re planning on registering your LLC, having an understanding of your state’s naming requirements is key. After all, if you don’t know the rules, you might end up wasting time coming up with a name that will end up being rejected, or one that will violate an existing trademark. And no one likes rejection…or lawsuits!
So, if you’re a freelancer, check out the information below to learn a bit about what it takes to name your business right. Just keep in mind that, although we’ve made every effort to ensure that this information is accurate, it doesn’t constitute legal advice, nor is it a substitute for professional legal advice. For personalized help, it’s always best to consult with an attorney.
You Have to Comply with State LLC Name Requirements
Your LLC’s name must be approved by the state agency that handles business formation filings. In most states, this agency is called the Secretary of State, but it can go by other names.
You have to comply with your state’s requirements. If you don’t, your LLC name will be rejected and the Secretary of State won’t file your articles of organization to legally establish your LLC. So check your Secretary of State’s website for the specific LLC naming requirements in your state.
Here are the general rules:
1. All states require that your LLC’s name include words or abbreviations that make it clear that the entity is an LLC. Typically, your business’s name must end with the words “Limited Liability Company,” company,” or “Limited.” Or you can use abbreviations like “LLC,” “L.L.C.,” or “Ltd.” Usually, you can even opt to abbreviate the words “Limited” and “Company” as “Ltd.” and “Co.” (Most people just stick with “LLC”.)
As an example, let’s say you want to call your business the ABC limited liability company. You can write it out as:
ABC Limited Liability Company
ABC Limited Liability Co.
2. All states prohibit LLC names that falsely imply that your business is a corporation, bank, insurance company, and certain other types of enterprises. For example, your LLC’s name may not contain the words “bank,” “trust,” “trustee,” “incorporated,” “inc.,” “corporation,” “insurer,” “insurance company,” or any other words suggesting that it’s in the insurance business (unless it is).
3. Whatever name you choose shouldn’t be misleading to the public either. So, for example, your LLC’s name shouldn’t imply a false government affiliation. This is why using words like “agency,” “commission,” “department,” “bureau,” “division,” “municipal,” or “board” would be a big no-no.
Your LLC’s Name Can’t Be Similar to Existing LLCs in Your State
State LLC laws specify that your LLC’s name be unique in several ways, so you can’t just use any name you want and add “LLC” to the end of it.
Here’s what you should keep in mind as you brainstorm the perfect name for your business:
The name can’t be the same as, or even just too similar to, the name of an existing LLC that’s on file with the Secretary of State.
Expect that, when you go to file your LLC articles of organization with the Secretary of State, they’ll check to ensure that your proposed name hasn’t already been used. In the event that the name has been registered by someone else already, your articles will be rejected and you’ll need to refile using a new name.
There is an exception: If the other LLC agrees to let you use the name, you might be good to go. Unfortunately, it’s usually either impossible or too expensive to get this consent.
How can you be sure that you won’t end up filing your preferred name, only to be rejected and going back to the drawing board?
Prior to filing your articles, check if the name that you wish to use is actually available in your state.
- If you’re using an attorney, they can help you check for the name’s availability. Just keep in mind that attorney fees could quickly add up, and those costs could burn when you’re first starting off. Ouch!
- If you’re filing all of the paperwork yourself, it’s up to you to check the availability of the name you want. You can perform an online search for the name at your Secretary of State’s business name database. Check your Secretary of State’s website for directions. Sounds simple enough, right? But you should be aware that this database will only show you the names of other LLCs that are registered with the Secretary of State for a single state. So this isn’t a good tool to use if you want to be sure your name will be so unique that it won’t even match the name of registered businesses in other states.
- In some states, you can forgo doing all of the searching yourself and let the Secretary of State’s office do it for you. They may do so for free or charge a small fee. You have to file an official name search request form. In some states, this is handled online. In others, you must file the request by much slower postal mail.
Want to reserve your name before someone else grabs it?
Let’s say you’ve come up with a fabulous name, and you can’t see your business running under any other name but that one. You’ve done your homework and confirmed that the name isn’t in use, so it’s up for grabs.
But what if someone else comes up with the same brilliant name and swoops in and snatches it up before you do?! Don’t fret. There’s a strategy you can employ in this case so that you can rest assured the name will still be available by the time you file your articles.
All you have to do is reserve the name by filing a name reservation request form with the Secretary of State. You usually have to pay a fee to make such a reservation. In many states, the fee is quite small—as little as $10. In some states, you can file the reservation request online; in others, you must use postal mail or hand deliver it.
Depending on the state, the Secretary of State will reserve the name for anywhere from 60 to 120 days. But, in many states, you can renew the reservation. And, during this time, only you’ll be able to file articles of organization using that name. Sweet!
What About Businesses with Similar Names in Other States?
What if another business is using a similar name to operate in another state? It still might not be a good idea to use it, even if you’d be able to register it with ease in your home state.
- You shouldn’t use a name similar to that of a well-known business. We’re talking about names like Amazon, Tesla, or McDonald’s. Did you know that these companies will sue other businesses that use similar names? McDonald’s regularly sues companies that use the “Mc” prefix. Pretty extreme, but true. So, to avoid problems, it’s best to steer clear of similar business names, just in case.
- You shouldn’t use a name that is similar to that of another company that provides goods and services that are similar to yours. If the other business finds out, it might sue you for unfair competition. To protect yourself, if you’re only planning on doing business locally, you can search for the names of local businesses within your niche. On the other hand, if you’re planning on doing business around the country, search for businesses on a national level.
1. Perform an online search for the business name that you’re hoping to use. See if anyone else, anywhere, is already using it or something similar. Also look into what goods and services they provide.
2. Check out SuperPages or the Thomas Register of Products and Servicesto search for trade and corporate names online. It’s free!
What About Trademarks?
Trademarks are different from business names. We know, it gets confusing. Hold tight, as we’re about to explain.
First off, when your home state’s Secretary of State registers your LLC name, it merely establishes that name as your LLC’s formal legal name. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll actually have the legal right to use that name, or any form of it, to sell your products and/or services.
Secondly, there are both federal and state trademark laws designed to protect the names that are used to market products and services. Companies will often use a shorter version of their business name as a trademark. Example: Apple Computer Corporation becomes Apple, which is the trademark for all of those computers and devices everyone loves.
Okay, but what does this all mean for you, the freelancer who just wants to register their LLC and get started making money?
Well, if you choose a name that’s the same or similar to a registered trademark for another business, whether it’s a fellow LLC or another type of company, you might get sued for trademark infringement when you try to market your products or services. Yikes!
So, in addition to checking if your preferred business name was already registered by another company, you also need to check that you won’t be competing with a trademark that’s the same or similar.
In the event that your LLC’s name is registered as a trademark by someone else, you’ll need to limit the use of that name to your bank account and legal documents. And that could leave you walking on eggshells.
But, here’s the thing: you don’t have to use your official legal business name to market your goods or services!
Here’s an example of what we mean:
If you registered your LLC as “AAA Web Design, LLC,” you can operate under a fictitious name, like “Gorgeous Websites for Cheap.” Use that name on your website, business cards, promotional materials, advertising, etc. by filing a fictitious statement or assumed name certificate, which is also known as DBA (“doing business as”).
- In some states, you can file a fictitious business name statement (or similar document) with the Secretary of State or similar official, and it applies state-wide. In other states, fictitious business name statements are filed at the local level—in the county or city where you have a business location.
- You may have to file more than one statement if you do business in more than one county. To find out what you need to do, check your Secretary of State’s website and the website of the county where your office is located.
Bottom line: Before you file your fictitious business name statement, you should check fictitious name records to be absolutely sure that the name you wish to use isn’t already taken by another business. In states with state-wide dba application, you can check the registry maintained by the Secretary of State. In states with local filing, you’ll have to check your county’s records.
Pro tip: You can use an online service like Hyke to help you sort through the process of naming your LLC.
Bonus Tips to Consider When Naming Your LLC
Wow, this information is a lot to take in. Take a breath, and know that you can definitely get it all done and have the perfect LLC name in no time. But, before we send you on your way, we have a few other tips for you.
- Check if your LLC’s name can be used as your domain name for your website. Search through domain name registration websites like Register and Network Solutions, or browse the hosting service that you’re planning on using, such as WordPress. You might need to purchase a domain name that’s owned by someone else, or tweak your domain name to find one that’s available. This link has a list of resources that could help you generate a domain name if you’re having trouble.
- Come up with a distinctive business name that will stand out, especially if you’re hoping to use a version of your name as a trademark or service mark. Think about it: you know exactly what Exxon and Häagen-Dazs are because they’re such original names. Plus, the more distinctive a business name is, the more protection it will receive as a trademark. On the opposite end, a name that’s not so distinctive, or even considered weak, might not get as much, if any, legal protection.
- Choose a name that’s appealing, memorable, easy to use, easy to pronounce, and easy to spell. Keeping your name short is also recommended.
- Avoid the use of personal names (first names, surnames, nicknames, and initials) in your company name. Avoid names that describe your geographic location, like “Oregon Marketing Research, LLC”. And avoid names that describe the attributes of your products or services, like “Original Web Design, LLC”. Come on, you can do better than that!
Ready to Come Up with the Perfect Name for Your LLC?
When you’re ready to launch your business, start by getting creative and coming up with a list of potential LLC names that you’d be happy using. Then, keep things simple by contacting us. At Hyke, we can help you perform all of the appropriate searches to find out if any potential names don’t make the cut. And we’ll even guide you through the process of registering your business. Before you know it, you’ll be one step closer to operating like a pro!
Stephen has dedicated his career as an attorney and author to writing useful, authoritative and recognized guides on taxes and business law for small businesses, entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and freelancers. He is the author of over 20 books and hundreds of articles and has been quoted in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and many other publications. Among his books are Deduct It! Lower Your Small Business Taxes, Working with Independent Contractors, and Working for Yourself: Law and Taxes for Independent Contractors, Freelancers & Consultants.