This is “Classifications of Corporations”, section 43.4 from the book The Legal Environment and Business Law (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (19 MB) or just this chapter (279 KB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you. helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

43.4 Classifications of Corporations

Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish the “public,” or municipal, corporation from the publicly held corporation.
  2. Explain how the tax structure for professional corporations evolved.
  3. Define the two types of business corporations.

Nonprofit Corporations

One of the four major classifications of corporations is the nonprofit corporationA corporation in which no part of the income is distributable to its members, directors, or officers. (also called not-for-profit corporation). It is defined in the American Bar Association’s Model Non-Profit Corporation Act as “a corporation no part of the income of which is distributable to its members, directors or officers.” Nonprofit corporations may be formed under this law for charitable, educational, civil, religious, social, and cultural purposes, among others.

Public Corporations

The true public corporation is a governmental entity. It is often called a municipal corporationA governmental entity; also called a public corporation., to distinguish it from the publicly held corporation, which is sometimes also referred to as a “public” corporation, although it is in fact private (i.e., it is not governmental). Major cities and counties, and many towns, villages, and special governmental units, such as sewer, transportation, and public utility authorities, are incorporated. These corporations are not organized for profit, do not have shareholders, and operate under different statutes than do business corporations.

Professional Corporations

Until the 1960s, lawyers, doctors, accountants, and other professionals could not practice their professions in corporate form. This inability, based on a fear of professionals’ being subject to the direction of the corporate owners, was financially disadvantageous. Under the federal income tax laws then in effect, corporations could establish far better pension plans than could the self-employed. During the 1960s, the states began to let professionals incorporate, but the IRS balked, denying them many tax benefits. In 1969, the IRS finally conceded that it would tax a professional corporationA corporation of lawyers, doctor, accountants, or other professionals who enjoy the same benefits in corporate form as do other corporations. just as it would any other corporation, so that professionals could, from that time on, place a much higher proportion of tax-deductible income into a tax-deferred pension. That decision led to a burgeoning number of professional corporations.

Business Corporations

The Two Types

It is the business corporationIn contrast to public (municipal), professional, or nonprofit corporations, business corporations are of two types: publicly held and closely held, referring to how the stock is held within the corporation. proper that we focus on in this unit. There are two broad types of business corporations: publicly held (or public) and closely held (or close or private) corporations. Again, both types are private in the sense that they are not governmental.

The publicly held corporation is one in which stock is widely held or available for wide public distribution through such means as trading on a national or regional stock exchange. Its managers, if they are also owners of stock, usually constitute a small percentage of the total number of shareholders and hold a small amount of stock relative to the total shares outstanding. Few, if any, shareholders of public corporations know their fellow shareholders.

By contrast, the shareholders of the closely held corporation are fewer in number. Shares in a closely held corporation could be held by one person, and usually by no more than thirty. Shareholders of the closely held corporation often share family ties or have some other association that permits each to know the others.

Though most closely held corporations are small, no economic or legal reason prevents them from being large. Some are huge, having annual sales of several billion dollars each. Roughly 90 percent of US corporations are closely held.

The giant publicly held companies with more than $1 billion in assets and sales, with initials such as IBM and GE, constitute an exclusive group. Publicly held corporations outside this elite class fall into two broad (nonlegal) categories: those that are quoted on stock exchanges and those whose stock is too widely dispersed to be called closely held but is not traded on exchanges.

Key Takeaway

There are four major classifications of corporations: (1) nonprofit, (2) municipal, (3) professional, and (4) business. Business corporations are divided into two types, publicly held and closely held corporations.


  1. Why did professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants, wait so long to incorporate?
  2. Distinguish a publicly held corporation from a closely held one.
  3. Are most corporations in the US publicly or closely held? Are closely held corporations subject to different provisions than publicly held ones?