Your business name is the first thing your customers learn about you. Customers use it to recommend you to others, and you use it to promote your business. In Wisconsin, unincorporated businesses need to register their name with both the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions and the county Register of Deeds in which they do business. Incorporated businesses register their name as part of the incorporation process.
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Before attempting to register your name, you should determine whether it would infringe on any existing name, registered or unregistered. The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions maintains a searchable database of registered names that can serve as a starting point for making sure the name you want to set up is not already taken. The Department of Financial Institutions also recommends checking the Internet, telephone books, trade journals and other publications available at the public library to make sure you aren't infringing on another party's name.
Corporations, LLPs, and LLCs
If you plan to operate your business as a corporation, including an S corporation, limited liability corporation or limited liability partnership, your name will be set up when you incorporate or organize the business. For these business entities, you need to file articles of incorporation, or articles of organization, with the Department of Financial Institutions. Generally, it takes about five working days to approve charter documents in Wisconsin. If you have a name that you want to use, but aren't quite ready to start your business, you can reserve the business name for up to 120 days -- or 60 days for limited partnerships -- for a small fee.
Unincorporated Registration with Counties
If you plan to have a sole proprietorship or regular partnership, you should first register your business name with each county in which you plan to do business. If you do business in multiple counties, you must register with each register of deeds, but the form is the same for each county. In the county registration form, you need to specify the county in which you want to register, your name, your business name, and the names of your associates in the business, if any. You also have to specify whether you are operating as a sole proprietorship, partnership or association. This form must be notarized.
Unincorporated Registration with the State
You should also register your business name at the state level with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. Registering with the state, while optional, gives notice of your business name throughout the entire state. The Department of Financial Institutions application requires your identifying information, your type of entity if you are not registering the name as an individual, and the name you want to register. You also have to specify the first date on which you used the name so that in the event of a conflict, you have a record of when you started using the name. All applications must be notarized and include a fee.
In Wisconsin, using the business name, not just registering the name, grants a party rights to the name. For example, if another business has been using the name you want for a number of years without registering it, that business could have rights to the name even if you register it first. Therefore, just because the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions accepts your name, that does not mean you have exclusive rights to the name.