A partnership (or general partnership) is a business owned jointly by two or more people. About 10 percent of U.S. businesses are partnerships (IRS, 2015) and though the vast majority are small, some are quite large. For example, the big four public accounting firms are partnerships. Setting up a partnership is more complex than setting up a sole proprietorship, but it’s still relatively easy and inexpensive. The cost varies according to size and complexity. It’s possible to form a simple partnership without the help of a lawyer or an accountant, though it’s usually a good idea to get professional advice.
Professionals can help you identify and resolve issues that may later create disputes among partners.
The Partnership Agreement
The impact of disputes can be lessened if the partners have executed a well-planned partnership agreement that specifies everyone’s rights and responsibilities. The agreement might provide such details as the following:
- Amount of cash and other contributions to be made by each partner
- Division of partnership income (or loss)
- Partner responsibilities—who does what
- Conditions under which a partner can sell an interest in the company
- Conditions for dissolving the partnership
- Conditions for settling disputes
Unlimited Liability and the Partnership
A major problem with partnerships, as with sole proprietorships, is unlimited liability: in this case, each partner is personally liable not only for his or her own actions but also for the actions of all the partners. If your partner in an architectural firm makes a mistake that causes a structure to collapse, the loss your business incurs impacts you just as much as it would him or her. And here’s the really bad news: if the business doesn’t have the cash or other assets to cover losses, you can be personally sued for the amount owed. In other words, the party who suffered a loss because of the error can sue you for your personal assets. Many people are understandably reluctant to enter into partnerships because of unlimited liability. Certain forms of businesses allow owners to limit their liability. These include limited partnerships and corporations.
The law permits business owners to form a limited partnership which has two types of partners: a single general partner who runs the business and is responsible for its liabilities, and any number of limited partners who have limited involvement in the business and whose losses are limited to the amount of their investment.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Partnerships
The partnership has several advantages over the sole proprietorship. First, it brings together a diverse group of talented individuals who share responsibility for running the business. Second, it makes financing easier: the business can draw on the financial resources of a number of individuals. The partners not only contribute funds to the business but can also use personal resources to secure bank loans. Finally, continuity needn’t be an issue because partners can agree legally to allow the partnership to survive if one or more partners die.
Still, there are some negatives. First, as discussed earlier, partners are subject to unlimited liability. Second, being a partner means that you have to share decision making, and many people aren’t comfortable with that situation. Not surprisingly, partners often have differences of opinion on how to run a business, and disagreements can escalate to the point of jeopardizing the continuance of the business. Third, in addition to sharing ideas, partners also share profits. This arrangement can work as long as all partners feel that they’re being rewarded according to their efforts and accomplishments, but that isn’t always the case. While the partnership form of ownership is viewed negatively by some, it was particularly appealing to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. Starting their ice cream business as a partnership was inexpensive and let them combine their limited financial resources and use their diverse skills and talents. As friends they trusted each other and welcomed shared decision making and profit sharing. They were also not reluctant to be held personally liable for each other’s actions.
- A general partnership is a business owned jointly by two or more people, and accounts for about 10% of all U.S. businesses.
- Advantages include: more resources and talents come with an increase in partners, and the business can continue even after the death of a partner.
- Disadvantages include: partnership disputes, unlimited liability, and shared profits.
- A limited partnership has a single general partner who runs the business and is responsible for its liabilities, plus any number of limited partners who have limited involvement in the business and whose losses are limited to the amount of their investment.