A corporation is an organization—usually a group of people or a company—authorized by the state to act as a single entity (a legal entity; a legal person in legal context) and recognized as such in law for certain purposes. Early incorporated entities were established by charter (i.e. by an ad hoc act granted by a monarch or passed by a parliament or legislature). Most jurisdictions now allow the creation of new corporations through registration.
Corporations come in many different types but are usually divided by the law of the jurisdiction where they are chartered based on two aspects: by whether they can issue stock, or by whether they are formed to make a profit . Corporations can be divided by the number of owners: corporation aggregate or corporation sole. The subject of this article is a corporation aggregate. A corporation sole is a legal entity consisting of a single ("sole") incorporated office, occupied by a single ("sole") natural person.
Where local law distinguishes corporations by the ability to issue stock, corporations allowed to do so are referred to as "stock corporations", ownership of the corporation is through stock, and owners of stock are referred to as "stockholders" or "shareholders". Corporations not allowed to issue stock are referred to as "non-stock" corporations; those who are considered the owners of a non-stock corporation are persons (or other entities) who have obtained membership in the corporation and are referred to as a "member" of the corporation.
Corporations chartered in regions where they are distinguished by whether they are allowed to be for profit are referred to as "for profit" and "not-for-profit" corporations, respectively.
There is some overlap between stock/non-stock and for-profit/not-for-profit in that not-for-profit corporations are always non-stock as well. A for-profit corporation is almost always a stock corporation, but some for-profit corporations may choose to be non-stock. To simplify the explanation, whenever "Stockholder" or "shareholder" is used in the rest of this article to refer to a stock corporation, it is presumed to mean the same as "member" for a non-profit corporation or for a profit, non-stock corporation.
Registered corporations have legal personality and their shares are owned by shareholders whose liability is generally limited to their investment. Shareholders do not typically actively manage a corporation; shareholders instead elect or appoint a board of directors to control the corporation in a fiduciary capacity. In most circumstances, a shareholder may also serve as a director or officer of a corporation.
In American English, the word corporation is most often used to describe large business corporations. In British English and in the Commonwealth countries, the term company is more widely used to describe the same sort of entity while the word corporation encompasses all incorporated entities. In American English, the word company can include entities such as partnerships that would not be referred to as companies in British English as they are not a separate legal entity.
Late in the 19th century, a new form of company having the limited liability protections of a corporation, and the more favorable tax treatment of either a sole proprietorship or partnership was developed. While not a corporation, this new type of entity became very attractive as an alternative for corporations not needing to issue stock. In Germany, the organization was referred to as Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung or GmbH. In the last quarter of the 20th Century this new form of non-corporate organization became available in the United States and other countries, and was known as the limited liability company or LLC. Since the GmbH and LLC forms of organization are technically not corporations (even though they have many of the same features), they will not be discussed in this article.
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