Understanding Registered, Fictitious, and Trade Names

Registered, Fictitious, and Trade Names on Historic pubs
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Many business articles use the terms "business name," "registered name," "trade name," "d/b/a," and "fictitious name" without explaining the difference. Here is an explanation of how these names for business names differ and how they are used.

In a nutshell: 

  • A registered or legal name is your business tax ID number, used by federal and state taxing agencies, banks, and for other legal purposes. 
  • A trade name is used for advertising or trade purposes. 
  • A fictitious name (sometimes called a d/b/a or "doing business as" name) is a name registered with your city or county to let people know who owns the business. 

Every U.S. state has different processes and names for these different types of registrations. The best place to find information about business name registration is the website of yourstate's secretary of state. 

What Is a Business Registered or Legal Name?

Every business must have a legal name, which is registered with the state and also through the process of obtaining a Tax ID or Employer ID number. Registering a business name with your state may involve simply filing a name registration request or filing an application as a corporation or limited liability company or another business type (the name registration is included in the application). Your registered business name is the one used for taxes and legal matters.

For example, Dave Holtan forms a limited liability company to sell books on the Internet. The name of the LLC is Holtan Enterprises and that is the name he uses on the EIN application and the Articles of Organization.

What is a Trade Name?

A trade name is a name the business uses for advertising and trade purposes, with clients, vendors, customers, and the public. Its trade name is the name the general public sees, on signs, on the website, on advertisements. The business trade name may be different from the registered name. Holtan Enterprises, for example, uses "Dave's Books" as its trade name.

How Do I File a Fictitious Name (D/B/A) Application?

If you are using a different trade name from the registered name of the business, the public has a right to know who is actually running the company. So you must file a fictitious name statement (sometimes called a d/b/a statement, for "doing business as") with your county.

This statement is posted in the newspaper and becomes public record, letting everyone know that your trade name is connected to another legal name for the business.

Sometimes on legal documents, the two names are connected; for example, "Holtan Enterprises, d/b/a "Dave's Books." Dave's Books is the trade name, and it has filed a fictitious name statement connecting that name with Holtan Enterprises. If the registered business name and the name you are doing business as are the same, you do not need to file a fictitious name statement. 

A DBA may be registered in a locality (city or county) or a state. In Florida, you can register a D/B/A in a state, but this registration isn't needed if the business is already registered with the state - as an LLC, partnership, or corporation. 

Business Name Trademarks

A trademark asserts ownership of a business name, along with a logo and maybe a catchphrase, as a unit, or as a "brand," letting others know that you have the sole right to that name. Even if you don't officially register your trademark, you may still want to use the "TM" or "SM" designation as a form of public notice of your ownership. If Dave had an artist create a logo using "Dave's Books" and a graphic, he could trademark that logo to keep others from using it.

Can Your Business Have One Name for Everything? 

It's probably not likely that you will have the same name for your business for legal purposes, advertising purposes, and identification purposes. For example, let's say you form a business called Contact Express LLC. The LLC is a legal name designation, the one you register with your state.

But for advertising purposes, you may not include the "LLC" or you might do business under another trade name like "Great Contacts." In this case, because the name of the business isn't the same as your name, you will have to register a fictitious name with your locality.

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