A person or entity can always operate a business under its legal name. However, many wish to operate under a fictitious name or a doing-business-as name. All states allow DBAs. The requirements for using a DBA differ among states, but there are generally few barriers to qualify to use one.
Why a DBA?
A DBA allows an entity to conduct business under a name other than its legal name. This could be a shorter version of the legal name. It can also give a clearer indication to the public what the entity does. For example, if a plumber named Harry Todd operates his business as a sole proprietorship, the legal name for his business is "Harry Todd." Using a DBA such as "Harry's Plumbing and Heating" or "Mid-State Plumbing" lets the public know what he does.
The ability to use a DBA is determined by state law. Every state has different requirements, including whether the DBA must be registered and with whom. Some states have different requirements for different types of entities. For example, Iowa requires sole proprietorships and general partnerships to register DBAs. Other types of entities do not need to register DBAs in Iowa. You can normally find the laws for your state on the Secretary of State's website and in the business formation sections of your state's statutes.
States Without Registration
In states that do not have registration requirements for DBAs, you can use any name that you want. However, be careful not to use a name that infringes someone else's trademark. For example, even though Kansas does not have any registration requirements for DBAs, Coca-Cola might still sue you for doing business as "Coke." Some states that do not require registration, such as Arizona, allow registration of DBAs. Registering prevents anyone else from using the same name in Arizona.
States With Registration
States that require registration of DBAs require that you register with different entities. Most states require registration with the Secretary of State. However, some, including Delaware, require registration with the clerk of the county court where the entity is located. Massachusetts requires registration with the town in which the entity is principally headquartered. Some states, such as Rhode Island, require registration with more than one agency, such as the Secretary of State and the town council. Registration requirements vary among states. In general, you need to ensure that no one else is using the name, complete the registration form, sign the form and pay a registration fee.