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Independent Contractor vs Sole Proprietor: Differences & Similarities

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Ade Bankole
July 04, 2022
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Self-employed workers usually fall under one of two categories: independent contractors or sole proprietors. In some cases, a worker could wear both hats at the same time. What differentiates independent contractors from sole proprietors is how they structure their companies and earn income.

An independent contractor (IC) is a worker who is employed by one or more companies on a contract basis. Unlike the definition of a traditional employee in a company, contractors only work when their services are required.

4 Major Differences between Independent Contractors and Sole Proprietors

The difference between sole proprietors and independent contractors can be explained in four ways: making an income, income reporting, business structure, and financial risk.

A sole proprietor (SP), sometimes referred to as a sole trader is a one-person business that isn’t registered as a corporation or limited liability company. If you earn income from your business, you’re a sole proprietor.

  1. Making an income

    How self-employed workers earn money will determine whether they’re independent contractors or sole proprietors.
    Imagine you’re a classical pianist who teaches children how to play the instrument. If you haven’t set up a formal business entity, you’re considered a sole proprietor because you’re earning a business income.

    However, if you agree to compose an original music score for a film for a fee, then you’re also earning money as an independent contractor. As you can see, in this scenario, the pianist could make money as an independent contractor, a sole proprietor or both.

  2. Income reporting

    Income reporting refers to the way that earnings are reported. In a typical state in the US like Maine, for example, a sole proprietor must track their income as and when they earn it for tax purposes. Whereas independent contractors will receive a 1099 form that outlines the income earned during the previous calendar year.

    As was the case with your homemade cookies empire, sole proprietorships aren’t formal business structures. That means that there’s usually little to no paperwork to complete before you launch your business. Independent contractors, by contrast, have more to do in the beginning. In the UK, for example, you can either operate as an employee of an umbrella company or by starting your own limited company and working as a self-employed contractor.

  3. Business structure

    Working for an umbrella company is ideal for those who want to avoid the paperwork involved with running your own limited company. As an “employee” of the umbrella company, you’ll be paid a net salary directly from the company. While they’ll take care of the administrative tasks, you won’t receive the tax benefits associated with traditional independent contractors.

  4. Financial risk

    Finally, sole proprietors and independent contractors can be differentiated by the level of risk each one takes on. In a sole proprietorship, the risk level is greater as the sole proprietor’s business funds are directly linked to their personal funds and assets. So while a sole proprietor takes home all business profits, they are also liable for all business debts.

    The legal structure of LLCs or umbrella companies means that independent contractors have a safety net for their personal funds and assets. In other words, any business debt belongs to the business and not the individual who runs the business.

What do independent contractors and sole proprietors have in common?

Sole proprietors and independent contractors are both self-employed workers who aren’t classed as employees. Instead, they provide services or goods to clients but do not receive a set salary for their work. Other similarities between the two are that they:

  • Work for themselves rather than an employer.
  • Separate their business expenses from personal expenses.
  • Pay self-employment taxes on business income.

Can a sole proprietor also be an independent contractor?

Yes, sole proprietors can be independent contractors and vice versa, depending on the type of service you provide.

Just like the aforementioned pianist, lots of self-employed people can earn money as independent contractors and sole proprietors.

If you haven’t set up a formal business entity, you’re considered a sole proprietor because you’re earning business income. If you agree to compose an original music score for a film for a fee, then you’re also earning money as an independent contractor.

Similarly, the sole proprietor of a flower shop might also make floral arrangements for weddings as an independent contractor. In this scenario, the florist would file taxes as a sole proprietor while also receiving a 1099 tax form as an independent contractor from their wedding clients.

Can independent contractors or sole proprietors become payroll employees?

Absolutely. You can even transition from being an overseas contractor to a full-time employee. You’ll need to leave self-employment by contacting the relevant tax authorities. In the United Kingdom, for example, you’ll need to write to HMRC.

If you don’t notify HMRC, you could find that they continue to send you self-assessment tax returns after you’ve stopped trading. And if you ignore these returns you could be liable for penalties.

How do sole proprietors and independent contractors differ from an LLC?

Sole proprietors and independent contractors are both classed as self-employed workers. And in self-employment, the proprietor or contractor and the business are treated as one legal entity. While for limited liability companies, the business is a distinct legal entity that is separate from its shareholders and directors. 

Being self-employed comes with very few formalities. However, limited companies have much more paperwork and legal responsibilities such as registering the business with the relevant authorities such as Companies House in the United Kingdom or Bundesanzeiger Verlagsgesellschaft mbH in Germany.

Frequently asked questions 

  • How sole proprietors are taxed?

    A sole proprietor needs to report and pay income tax on business profits by filing a personal return, a Form 1040, plus two additional forms, a Schedule C and a Schedule SE.

    A Schedule C is used to report the profit and loss of your business. The form is usually split into five sections asking about your income, expenses, cost of goods sold, mileage data from your business car/van (where applicable), and other expenses. You’ll use some of the information from your Schedule C to complete your Form 1040. That way, the sole proprietor tax rate you’ll pay on your business’s income will be equal to your personal income tax rate.

    A Schedule SE is how self-employed individuals pay things like Medicare and other social security taxes. If you’ve earned over a certain amount in the past year and are a freelancer, sole proprietor, partner in a partnership, or member of a limited liability company, you have to fill out a Schedule SE.

  • What is a form 1099-NEC?

    “NEC” stands for Non-employee Compensation, so naturally, a 1099-NEC is an IRS form for reporting income payments made to non-employees such as independent contractors. A 1099-NEC form is just one of various 1099 forms issued by the IRS to collect information about income.

  • Why is it important to have a contractor agreement?

    Contractor agreements are essential when hiring contractors both domestically and overseas. Having the nature, terms and conditions, and compensation of the work written down can help avoid conflicts, or worse, misclassification.

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