Choosing a business name is one of the most important decisions a business owner will make. The name of your business is often the first impression a customer will form of your brand. It can also affect your sales, reputation, and even its chance for success.
When selecting a business name, it’s important to decide upon a name that’s easy to remember, descriptive of the business, and attention drawing.
But what if you find out that another business in a different state has the same or similar name? Should you restart the process of finding a name?
This article explores your options in this scenario.
Can I use a business name if it exists in another state?
All may not be lost. You can often use the same business name in your own state or another state, if it is not in the state where the business name is filed, and it doesn’t violate trademark rules. This is common practice for smaller local businesses.
However, this depends on what you mean by “business name”. Is it a legal name or a “doing business as” (DBA) name? Trademarks may also come into play.
If you plan to expand or operate your business outside your home state or nationwide, you will also need to be cognizant of any other business using the same or similar name.
Understand legal names vs. a DBA name
What is a business legal name and how does it differ to a DBA? A “legal name” is the official name used when you file with the state to form a legal business entity (such as an LLC or corporation). It appears on your formation document (e.g., Articles of Incorporation or Certificate of Organization). This name must meet the state’s business entity naming requirements for LLCs and corporations.
If you choose to operate your business under a name that is anything other than your given name (i.e., something fictitious), then that name is known as a DBA name. For example, if John Doe sets up a landscaping business and rather than operate under his own name, he chooses to call it “John’s Landscaping Solutions”, the name is considered a DBA name and may need to be registered with the appropriate local authorities. (More on this later.)
A DBA name is also called an assumed name, trade name or fictitious business name.
DBA names, unlike legal names, are often not exclusive in most states. If you incorporate as "Suzy’s Nail Bar, Inc.” (your business legal name), your competitors—or any other company—will be barred from incorporating or qualifying under that name. In some states, they would be barred from using a deceptively similar name.
In many states, no such protection exists for a DBA name. If you wish to protect a DBA name, you may be able to file for protection under the trademark and tradename laws.
Name availability for legal names
The availability of your chosen name may also be impacted by state legal requirements.
If you are forming your business as an LLC or corporation, for example, your business name must meet the state’s business entity naming requirements.
The name of a legal business entity must also be distinguishable on the record of the state government. That means that it must not be substantially similar to another name already in use by a business incorporated or registered to transact business in that state. If the name is not unique or if it is already in use, the state will reject the formation documents.
Additionally, your name must show your business type. Most states require that the company name be followed by a specific identifier, such as "Corporation", "Incorporated", or an abbreviation such as "Inc." or "Corp" for corporations, "Limited Liability Company" or the abbreviation of "LLC" for LLCs, "Limited Partnership" or the abbreviation "LP" for limited partnerships, or "Limited Liability Partnership" or the abbreviation of "LLP" for limited liability partnerships. These requirements vary by state.
Keep in mind, changing only your company’s identifier (such as from Corporation to Inc.) will not make your name distinguishable.