Congrats! You’ve decided to form a limited liability company (LLC) for your business. Did you know that often the first field of the application involves writing the company name? While you may have some unique and trendy titles for your new endeavor, you’ll want to check out the rules first. See what your state may require when selecting from your top list of LLC names.
LLC Name types
Your business only has one official name, but that name may need to be filed or registered at various government levels. According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), you may need to be registered:
- As an entity, at the state level
- As a trademark, at the federal level
- As a DBA (doing business as); this is usually part of the entity process, but you may need to use a separate form
- As a domain name (URL for your website), email address, and other online communications
All business types may choose to register their name at these levels, but here are the specifics for LLCs.
How to learn the LLC name rules for your state
Since filing for an LLC is done through your state, contacting your state’s business licensing office is your first step. The secretary of state is most common, but a quick search for “business license” and your state’s name can point you in the right direction. The site should have directions on filing for an LLC and rules for how to name your LLC.
Some states require you file a DBA, or “doing business as” before filing for an LLC. The DBA rules will give you a list of do’s and don’ts that may include things like:
- No profanity
- No racial or ethnic slurs
- No reference to illegal activities (such as gambling in some states)
- No reference to highly regulated services, if you haven’t been approved for those services (banking, for example)
Some states have strict rules for avoiding confusion between companies. Identical LLC names aren’t usually allowed, and similar names must not be within the same industry. “Smith Computing” and “Smith Automotive Repair” may both be allowed, but “Smith Computing” and “Smith Computer Repair” may not.
Other tips for naming your LLC
Most states require your company to have the term “LLC” (or some version of it) in the official name. You can’t use “Inc.” or “Incorporated,” since these are terms for S Corp and C Corp entities only.
If you work as a professional in highly regulated fields, such as law or insurance, your state may require you to use a specific LLC designation. Instead of having “LLC” after your business, you might have to use “PLLC.”
These same industries may dictate how you describe your business services. Accountants, for example, might have to use their full name in their business name. Other industries might require business offerings to be described from a set list of words. Professional licenses are often referred to by their association letters in the business name as well.
What happens if you’ve been doing business for a while without forming an LLC? It’s possible your name isn’t legal.
If it doesn’t follow the naming rules or another company has started doing business as a registered LLC with a similar name, you may be asked to change yours. Avoid spending much money on branding, marketing, or business tools that use your name until you have checked it against your state records and have gotten the OK.
How to check if a business name is taken
It’s impossible to know about all the various names being used in your state without an LLC name check.
The state agency that issues DBAs or LLC approvals should also have a searchable database for you to check which LLC names are available. This is the easiest way to check if a business name is available for free. Don’t forget to search for variations of words, such as the plural form or words separated by hyphens.
Some state search tools are more intuitive than others and will show all variations upon typing in the first few letters of a word. Others require a more specific search. Follow the search tips on the website to get the best results; some search engines are very particular about using punctuation, capital letters or special symbols.
Not all state offices offer a public, searchable database. For example, Nebraska asks that you send your search request via email at the time you register your business. Their staff will search for you and let you know if your chosen LLC name is available. They can also reserve an available name for you until your paperwork comes through for the LLC.
Where to get LLC name ideas
Choosing an LLC company name may feel like picking a name for a new baby. How can you make the right choice?
Brainstorm a list of LLC names that you feel represent the business well. These can be as creative as you wish, provided they follow the rules of the state. Here are some ways that other businesses have come up with their names:
- Use your last name and the type of business you run (example: “Anderson Plumbing”).
- Use a name that will appear at the top of an alphabetical listing (example: “Awesome Carpets”).
- Pick a name that fits your brand in theme or emotional connection (example: “Lasting Memories Photography”).
- Choose a name with an available and closely related domain name and social media handles.
When it comes to naming your LLC, this list is just a starting point. Expect a few of them to be taken already. Don’t get too attached to any name until you know that it can be reserved, and don’t spend any money on marketing materials until your name is secured.
How to register a business name for free
Some states combine the LLC naming process and the formation of the LLC into one application. Others let you search and put a hold on your LLC name before you go through the steps to form an LLC.
If you know that it may take you months to put your LLC paperwork together, it might make sense to do an LLC name check and do a temporary hold so that the name is still available when your LLC paperwork is ready. States won’t hold a name forever, so it’s helpful to plan how long it will take to complete your LLC paperwork before you start the name hold.
Can you change the name of an LLC?
What if, after some time using your company name, you decide it’s not working for you? This can happen if you don’t find the name marketable or memorable, or if there’s been a legal issue with it infringing on someone else’s brand or trademark.
Changing an LLC name can be complicated because changing the name is just the first step of many. After a name change, you’ll need to update your LLC name with the IRS, your business bank accounts, state agencies (for licensing and permits), your registered agent, and any vendors or customers that reference your official LLC name on essential documents.
Alternatives to an LLC name change include:
- Create a new DBA and tie that DBA to your LLC. For example, it could be “”Smith Enterprises LLC, doing business as Smith’s Cleaning Services.”
- Start a new LLC. This might be the right choice if you have started offering completely new services or products and want your name to reflect it. Creating a new LLC may make it easier to keep books or file taxes as well.
Even after knowing all of this, if you’re still determined to change your LLC name, the options for doing so usually look like this (although each state’s specifics will vary):
- Check your LLC operating agreement. If you have one, see when a name change is allowed and who needs to be involved. If this isn’t addressed in your operating agreement, consider creating an LLC resolution with the proposed name change and the agreement of officers or owner members; then, document it.
- File articles of amendment with your state at the same agency you formed your LLC. They should have these documents available on their website, and there is usually a filing fee.
- Wait until your articles of amendment have been approved. Once you get the OK from your state, you can start using your new LLC name on your documents, financial forms, and marketing. Don’t forget to notify everyone about the change, including the IRS, your bank, and vendors.
What’s in a name?
Naming your LLC won’t be something you rush into, but you also shouldn’t get attached to the very first name you come up with.
The law tries to be clear on what words can be included and how close to another company’s name you can get. In the end, you’ll want to choose something that inspires your customers to buy and helps differentiate your company in a crowded marketplace.
With a few names in mind and some flexibility to work with the rules, you’ll be in a great position to fill out that LLC paperwork and get your business on its way.
Linsey Knerl is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech and finance solutions.