Should I start a SRL or Association, and can I pay myself?

When deciding whether to open a Società a Responsabilità Limitata (SRL, basically a LLC) or an Associazione (Association which is basically a non-profit organization) in Italy, there are significant differences and implications that must be carefully considered. Although many argue that forming an association is advantageous, particularly for non-profit activities, it’s important to scrutinize the limitations and benefits of each structure to make an informed decision.

Understanding Associations

Associations are typically favored for their perceived simplicity and tax benefits, especially for non-profit activities. However, there are critical constraints that can affect their long-term sustainability and operational flexibility.

Key Constraints of Associations

One of the primary constraints of associations is the salary cap, which limits any individual from receiving more than €100,000 annually. This is a major difference from American non-profits where hundreds of thousands in salaries are not uncommon. This limit can be restrictive for attracting and retaining top talent, especially in competitive fields where higher compensation is necessary. Another significant restriction is the prohibition on profit distribution. Associations cannot distribute profits to their members or founders. Any surplus generated must be reinvested into the association’s activities or reserved for future projects. This restriction ensures that associations remain true to their non-profit nature but limits the financial incentives for stakeholders. Additionally, upon dissolution, any remaining assets must be donated to another non-profit entity. This ensures that the resources of the association continue to serve public or community interests, but it also means that founders and members cannot reclaim any invested capital or accumulated assets.

Circoli: The Non-Profit Concept

Circoli, or social clubs, represent a particular type of association in Italy. They are designed to promote social, recreational, and cultural activities for their members. However, they operate under strict non-profit principles. All generated revenue must be used to cover operational costs or to further the club’s social aims. The benefits and services provided by circoli are primarily for members, and any profit-making activities are secondary and tightly regulated. While circoli can foster strong community engagement and provide valuable social services, their non-profit status restricts the ability to generate and distribute profits, thereby limiting financial growth and flexibility.

The Case for SRLs

In contrast, forming a Società a Responsabilità Limitata (SRL), which is the Italian equivalent of a Limited Liability Company (LLC), offers greater flexibility and fewer restrictions regarding profit generation and distribution.

Advantages of SRLs

One of the major advantages of SRLs is that they are not restricted by a salary cap, allowing them to attract and retain high-level employees with competitive compensation packages. This can be crucial for businesses requiring specialized skills and expertise. SRLs can also distribute profits to their owners and shareholders, making them an attractive option for entrepreneurs and investors looking to gain financial returns from their investments. Furthermore, SRLs are subject to a flat corporate tax rate of 24%. This straightforward taxation system can simplify financial planning and reporting. When SRLs distribute profits, they must withhold a 26% withholding tax. The combined tax burden on profits, therefore, totals a maximum of 50% (24% corporate tax + 26% withholding tax). While this may seem high, it ensures that profits are taxed comprehensively, providing clarity and predictability for business owners.

Tax Considerations for High-Level Employees

For both SRLs and associations, the total tax cost of compensating high-level employees can be significant. This includes IRPEF (Personal Income Tax), which is a progressive tax that can reach up to 43% for higher income brackets. Additionally, INPS (Social Security Contributions), which includes employer and employee contributions, can total approximately 35%. Thus, the total effective tax rate on high salaries can approach 70%. This high taxation rate applies regardless of the entity type, making it a critical factor in compensation planning for both SRLs and associations.

Comparing the Two Structures

When deciding between an SRL and an association, it’s crucial to consider the intended purpose and financial goals of the organization. Associations are best suited for non-profit activities where reinvesting in social, cultural, or recreational missions is paramount. The inability to pay high salaries, distribute profits, or reclaim assets upon dissolution reflects the association’s dedication to its non-profit status. These restrictions ensure that the organization’s resources are used to benefit the community rather than individual members. On the other hand, SRLs offer more flexibility and are better suited for for-profit ventures. The lack of salary caps and the ability to distribute profits provide greater incentives for growth and investment. Although the combined tax rate on profits can reach 50%, this structure provides clear financial benefits and allows for the accumulation and distribution of wealth among owners and shareholders.

Imortant note of Impatriarti Tax Payers

For Lavoro Impatriati taxpayers, it is particularly important to avoid overbooking SRL profits as salary. A precedent-setting case, Interpellation 407 of 16 June 2021, highlights the consequences of misclassifying profits as salaries to reduce taxable income. In this case, the court ruled that excessive compensation disguised as salary was not allowable, thereby reinforcing the need for transparent and reasonable compensation practices. This ruling underscores that while SRLs can distribute profits and offer higher salaries, they must do so within regulatory guidelines. Overcompensating executives through salaries, especially under impatriati tax regimes, can attract scrutiny and potential penalties. Additionally, it’s important to remember that distributing profits from an association is impossible, further emphasizing the necessity of compliance within SRLs to avoid similar pitfalls and maintain tax benefits.

Additional Considerations

Regulatory compliance is another critical consideration when deciding between an SRL and an association. Both SRLs and associations must adhere to stringent regulatory requirements, but the nature and extent of these requirements differ. SRLs are subject to corporate governance standards, including financial reporting and shareholder meetings. Associations must ensure compliance with non-profit regulations, including restrictions on profit usage and asset disposition. Additionally, SRLs offer limited liability protection to their owners, meaning personal assets are generally shielded from business liabilities. Associations, depending on their specific structure, may offer varying degrees of liability protection to their members.

Operational flexibility is another factor to consider. SRLs typically enjoy greater operational flexibility, particularly in terms of funding options, including equity investment and debt financing. Associations may face limitations in accessing capital, relying primarily on membership fees, donations, and grants. Lastly, public perception and funding can differ significantly between the two structures. Associations may benefit from favorable public perception, particularly for charitable and community-focused activities, potentially attracting more donations and grants. SRLs, while more business-oriented, might not receive the same level of public or philanthropic support.


The decision to open an SRL or an association in Italy hinges on the organization’s goals, the desired financial flexibility, and the regulatory environment. While associations are often praised for their simplicity and tax benefits in the non-profit sector, their restrictions on salaries, profit distribution, and asset disposition can limit their attractiveness for certain ventures. SRLs, with their flexibility in compensation, profit distribution, and a clear taxation structure, provide a viable alternative for for-profit activities and long-term growth objectives.

Entrepreneurs and business owners must weigh these factors carefully, considering both immediate operational needs and long-term strategic goals, to determine the most suitable structure for their enterprise.

Read More