Starting General Partnerships

If a business is going to be owned by more than one owner, the simplest business form to create and operate is a general partnership. Although a partnership is more complicated to form than a sole proprietorship, it is not as complicated as a corporation.

Forming a partnership entails an agreement between two or more prospective partners. The agreement can be oral, but should be written and signed by all partners to avoid later conflicts. Virtually anyone can be a partner. A partner can be an individual, a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, or a trust.

The flexibility of a partnership allows the business to operate in a manner that best suits the business needs at the time the business starts and later when the business has matured. For example, when the business is just beginning, one partner may have skills that are valuable to the business, but little capital. Another partner may have capital, but not the requisite skills. The partner with skills can contribute services to the partnership while the other partner contributes capital. Later, when the business has grown, new partners can be admitted, yet their management capacity can be limited to prevent the new partners from usurping the original partners. When a partner contributes capital to a partnership, the partner receives an ownership percentage in all assets of the partnership, not just in the property contributed.

Partner's liability. All partners are jointly and severally liable for the obligations of the partnership. Joint and several liability means that each individual partner can be held responsible for all obligations of the partnership. A partner who pays an entire obligation can collect the other partners' pro rata share of the debt. Of course, the other partners may not be in a position to repay the partner.

Did You Know?

Any partner can enter into a contract on behalf of the partnership. By doing so, a partner can bind all partners in an unfavorable contract, since all partners are jointly and severally liable for the obligations of the partnership.

Protective measures. A partnership of two or more individuals may require the efforts of all the partners to succeed, especially in the early life of the business. If one of the partners withdraws or dies, the existence of the partnership may be threatened. To protect the partnership and the remaining partners, consider buy/sell agreements and key man life insurance policies on the partners.

A buy/sell agreement specifies how the value of a partner's interest will be determined if a partner wants to leave the partnership. Having a buy/sell agreement in place minimizes disputes over value and smoothes out the purchase of the withdrawing partner's interest by the partnership or other partners.

Key man life insurance is a life insurance policy on the life of key members of an organization to provide cash in the event of the death of a key member. The beneficiaries of a key man policy are the organization or the organization members. In a partnership, key man life insurance can be purchased for all partners or on some designated class of partners such as senior partners. The life insurance proceeds can be used by the partnership to keep the business going in the absence of the key partner. The proceeds can also be used to buy out the deceased partner's interest pursuant to a buy/sell agreement.

Forms needed. A partnership should obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number. Obtain the Federal Employer Identification Number by filing a Form SS-4, Application for Employer Identification Number.

Business Tools

Among the Business Tools is Form SS-4. It is in Adobe Acrobat .pdf format, and you will need Acrobat Reader 4.0 to view the file and print it. A free version of Acrobat 4.0 is available in the Business Tools area as well.

A partnership may also have to file a business certificate with the jurisdiction in which it is going to do business. If the business will operate under a name that is different from the owner's name, most jurisdictions will require that a fictitious owner affidavit be filed. A fictitious owner affidavit informs the jurisdiction that the business is operating under an assumed name and indicates who the owner is.

To find out what the requirements are in your jurisdiction, call the county clerk's office, which will be located at the courthouse in the county seat.

Agreement contents. The partnership agreement is a complicated document that should be drafted by an attorney. At a minimum, address the following subjects in the partnership agreement:

Additional topics to be included in a partnership agreement, if applicable:

Advantages of a general partnership:

Disadvantages of a general partnership: