If you’re considering going into business as a partnership, then you’ll need to be prepared to split the profits. But what’s the best basis for doing so, especially if one partner contributes more man hours or injects more money into the business?

Here’s what you need to know to plan your profit sharing strategy in a small business partnership, plus some other steps you can take to make that partnership airtight.

Formally Structure Your Small Business

Before you make any decisions about splitting profits, talk to a lawyer about the best way to legally structure your business.

There are a few options to consider. The simplest route is to form a “general partnership”, simply register your “doing business as (DBA)” name and open a bank account in the business’ name. This structure assumes that all profits, liability and management duties are equally divided among the partners. If the partnership is unequal, such as a 30-70 ratio, then you’d need to document the percentages assigned to each partner in the partnership agreement (more on that later).

Another option is a “limited liability partnership (LLP)”. Professional partners, such as lawyers or accountants,are often advised to go this route since it protects the business owners from personal liability for the debts or liabilities incurred by the partnership. For example, if you run into a cash flow issue and your business fails neither partner will be personally liable for any debts owed to creditors. Another option is a “limited partnership (LP)” in which one partner invests in the business but doesn’t manage it, leaving that task to one or more of the other partners. Read more about each of these structures on NOLO.com.

Decide on How You’ll Split Profits

In a business partnership you can split the profits any way you want – as long as everyone is in agreement. You could split the profits equally, or each partner could receive a base salary and then split any remaining profits.  (Remember, in an equal partnership (50-50) neither partner can make a decision without the other’s approval, whereas in a 51-49 ratio, for example, one partner has final authority).

If you know ahead of time that one or more partner will only play a minor role in income generating activities you might agree to pay the more active partner a higher salary.  Another variation is to pay partners only for work performed based on pre-agreed rates for certain projects.

Whatever you decide put in place a profit-sharing agreement and make it part of your larger partnership agreement.

Put Everything in Writing with a Partnership Agreement

A partnership agreement is the business version of a prenuptial agreement and should be completed before you start operations and any profits are made (the division of profits is a critical part of this process). Although an agreement is not legally required, it can protect your interests as one half of the partnership for the duration of your partnership and through its dissolution.

Things to include in the agreement include the following:

  • Division of profits – This includes both the division of profits and losses and how and when each partner will get paid.
  • Contributions to the partnership – If either partner contributes any assets to the business, whether it’s cash, property, or equipment, you’ll need to ensure these are documented.
  • Business decision-making – What authority does each partner have to make business decisions? How will you handle disputes? How will you handle the dissolution of the partnership when that time comes?
  • Who does what – Divide up your management duties and document them here. For example, who handles media relations, payroll, etc.

Work with a lawyer and your accountant to develop and formalize the agreement, there are many factors that require consideration when forming any kind of partnership and getting legal and financial advice now will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

How Business Partnerships are Taxed

As you structure your profit sharing agreement you’ll also need to be aware of how the IRS taxes partnerships. In a partnership the business “passes through” any profits or losses to its partners. Partners include their respective share of the partnership’s income or loss on their personal tax returns. Partnerships do, however, need to file an annual ‘information return’ to report income, deductions, gains, losses, etc. with the IRS.

Read more about a partnerships tax obligation on SBA.gov.

Plan Ahead for a Happy and Profitable Partnership

Protecting yourself before you start a business partnership is your best strategy for ensuring the union is a happy one. Profit sharing is an important consideration but there are many moving parts to a business that need to be considered and included in the partnership agreement. For more complete information on business partnerships check out these guides from the IRS, About.com, and FindLaw.com.

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Caron is a small business owner, writer, and marketing communications consultant. She has blogged for the U.S. Small Business Administration, SCORE, and other organizations on all matters relating to small business management and growth. Connect with Caron on Twitter and at April Marketing.