Do I Need a Written Partnership Agreement?

Last revision: Last revision:7th May 2020

The thought of starting a new business can be both exciting and overwhelming. There are many things to deal with and it can be hard to know where to start.

If you have one or more business partners on board, you are probably all very excited to get started. It is tempting to dive straight in and start doing business, without pausing to think about the legal formalities. This is fraught with risk, and is a common way to damage relationships, lose money, and incur significant legal liabilities.

If you've decided on a partnership structure, then a Partnership Agreement is a very important document for you to think about. This guide will give you an overview of what it does, and why you might need it.

Is a partnership right for you?

This guide assumes that you have already decided that a partnership is the appropriate legal structure for you.

However, there are several other common legal structures in Australia. If you are not certain about which structure to use, have a look at our guide How to Choose the Best Legal Structure for your Business. The most common structures in Australia are sole trader, partnership, company and trust. These are also discussed in more detail in that same guide. Take some time to go through that guide and consider your own situation. For an overview of some things to consider when first starting your business, see our guide How to Start a Business in Australia.

If you have any uncertainties about how to proceed at this stage, it may be necessary to seek legal assistance.

What is a partnership?

A partnership is a common business structure in Australia, involving two or more people. The partners distribute income or losses between themselves, and control the business.

A partnership is fairly cheap and easy to set up, and to operate. It has minimal reporting requirements (unlike, for example, a company structure). It is a popular structure in Australia for small businesses and family businesses.

However, unlike some company or trust structures, a partnership does not offer protection from liability. In fact, a partnership goes further than this, and makes all partners liable for the liabilities of all of the other partners. This means it is very important to choose your partners carefully, as you may be liable for losses which they cause.

A partnership needs to have a Tax File Number and to lodge annual partnership tax returns that show all business income and deductions. However, the partnership does not actually pay tax. It distributes income to the partners, and they pay tax on that income at their individual tax rates.

A partnership is required to have its own Australian Business Number, and to use it for all business dealings. It must register for Goods and Services Tax if its turnover is $75,000 or more.

The partners in a partnership are not employees, although the partnership can hire employees as well.

Can I have a verbal partnership agreement?

Yes, but it is usually a bad idea.

There is no legal requirement to have a written partnership agreement. Instead, it is possible to come to some kind of verbal agreement with your partner(s), about how your partnership will be run.

However, there are a lot of matters to be considered, discussed, and agreed, in relation to how the partnership will be run. If you fail to address these upfront, then they can cause significant problems down the track.

In addition, if you fail to keep a written record of each partner's contributions, rights and obligations, then memories can fade, and this can cause well-meaning partners to come to a serious misunderstanding years later.

The process of working through a written Partnership Agreement together will help to guide your discussions and will ensure that you cover the important matters. Furthermore, in many cases, it can help you realise that you and your partner were not actually in agreement on a particular matter. You might have both interpreted different things from the conversation, and might have assumed you were in agreement without having fully fleshed the matter out.

But my partners and I all get along, we'll work it out

This is a common sentiment among new business partners. Naturally, if you have reached the point that you are ready to go into business with someone, you are likely to have the same ideas in regards to how the business should be developed. And of course, since you are seeing eye to eye, you feel that if problems arise down the track, you will be able to deal with them in a fair and reasonable manner.

However, it is impossible to anticipate all of the types of obstacles that might arise in future. In addition, people and circumstances can change, and memories can fade. Unfortunately, for these reasons (and many others), it is all too common for business partners, all with the best of intentions, to find themselves entangled in stressful and expensive disagreements over what has been agreed, or how a matter should be handled.

Won't it offend my partners? Insisting on a written agreement suggests that I don't trust them

You and your partners should not think of it that way.

A written agreement is not just there to prevent somebody from "ripping off" their partners. It is a helpful checklist for guiding your conversation, so you can make sure that you've discussed all of the important matters. It is also a helpful point of reference, so that, for example, in several years time, you can come back and double check what you had decided about how certain matters should be handled.

Finally, it is valuable for when third parties enter the picture. For example, if one of the partners passes away, and their children are trying to work out what to do about their share of the partnership, a written agreement will make life a lot easier. It will help to clarify what the deceased partner actually owned, and what procedures should be followed in order to deal with their share of the partnership.

So what does a written Partnership Agreement cover?

A written Partnership Agreement will usually cover the following matters at a minimum:

  • Partnership name: the legal name under which the partnership will do business
  • Purpose of the partnership: a brief description of the business that the partnership will conduct
  • Partner information: the legal names and addresses of all of the partners currently involved in the partnership
  • Capital contributions: a description of the cash, property, services, and other resources initially contributed to the partnership by each of the partners
  • Ownership interest: a description of the percent of the partnership owned by each of the partners
  • Profit/Loss distribution: a description of how the profits and losses of the partnership will be distributed between the partners, often based on capital contributions and/or ownership interest, and how often distribution will take place
  • Management and voting requirements: a description of how the partnership will be managed, how voting weight will be determined, and whether unanimous or majority votes will be required to make important decisions about the finances and operations of the partnership
  • Partner addition and withdrawal: the guidelines for how the partnership will handle the addition of partners, the voluntary withdrawal of partners, and the involuntary withdrawal of partners
  • Partnership dissolution: an outline of the circumstances under which the partnership can be dissolved and a description of how the remaining assets of the partnership will be divided between the partnership if the partnership is dissolved.
  • Management roles within the partnership (if the partners are taking on specific roles).

As you can imagine, it is difficult to address all of this without a written agreement to guide you. It is also difficult to keep track of all of the details of what has been agreed, particularly with the passage of time.

What laws apply?

Each state and territory in Australia has a Partnership Act.

A Partnership Agreement is a contract between the partners, so general principles of contract law, as provided by the common law, may also apply.

In conclusion

Among the buzz and excitement that surrounds a new business, getting the legal documents in order is usually the last thing that people want to do.

Unfortunately, it is a very important step in order to set you up for success, and to ensure that you avoid problems down the track.

Our website is designed to make this as easy as possible - with simple questions and plain English explanations to help you through. Use these to guide your discussion with your partners, and to make sure that all of the important matters are addressed upfront.

As with any legal matters, if you have any doubts or concerns, seek legal advice.

Templates and examples to download in Word and PDF formats

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