Legal Names vs. Trade Names or “Samuel J. Kavalier DBA Sam”

I called the customer service line for my utility provider the other day and had a moment of confusion when I was addressed as “Samuel J. Kavalier.” The name I heard was not “Sam,” the name by which friends and family have known me for as long as I can remember, and the name I use when I introduce myself. I recognized after the moment passed that the name I heard was my legal name, and customer service was just using the name the company should and did have on file for my account.

This moment got me thinking about the distinction between legal names and trade names. The legal name is the name of a business entity as it is appears in records with the state where the entity organized or incorporated, as well as on tax returns. For the sake of example, “Samuel J. Kavalier” might become “Samuel J. Kavalier, LLC.” That legal name is nice and serves a purpose, but there might be another name for branding purposes to help market the products and/or services the company provides. This different name for branding purposes is a trade name. It can also be referred to as a “DBA” (“doing business as”). To continue the example, Samuel J. Kavalier, LLC might choose to run its business under the name “Sam Co.”

For businesses that have both a legal name and a DBA, it is important to use the right name for the right situation to maximize value of each of them and avoid unnecessary risk. It’s probably not a good idea to use the legal name in marketing materials. The company chose the DBA because it wants customers and the public to associate the DBA with the business, and using both names in marketing runs counter to that goal. Similarly, it’s probably not a good idea to use the DBA in contracts and other legal documents. Legal documents should be as precise as possible. The business wants to be clear that rights or property created or transferred by contracts belong to the entity, and using the DBA makes that less clear. In fact, it can ruin those rights and property entirely. For example, the USPTO checks the entity name on a trademark application to make sure it exists in the state the application identifies. If the entity doesn’t exist, the application is rejected. If a business is intent on including the DBA in legal documents, it can get around these issues by listing the legal entity name followed by the DBA. Circling back to the example from earlier, this might look like “Samuel J. Kavalier, LLC DBA Sam Co.”

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