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Co-owners of a Business

15 January, 2016 - 09:35

If what two or more people own is clearly a business—including capital assets, contracts with employees or agents, an income stream, and debts incurred on behalf of the operation—a partnership exists. A tougher question arises when two or more persons co-own property. Do they automatically become partners? The answer can be important: if one of the owners while doing business pertinent to the property injures a stranger, the latter could sue the other owners if there is a partnership.

Co-ownership comes in many guises. The four most common are joint tenancy, tenancy in common, tenancy by the entireties, and community property. In joint tenancy, the owners hold the property under a single instrument, such as a deed, and if one dies, the others automatically become owners of the deceased’s share, which does not descend to his heirs. Tenancy in common has the reverse rule: the survivor tenants do not take the deceased’s share. Each tenant in common has a distinct estate in the property. The tenancy by the entirety and community property (in community-property states) forms of ownership are limited to spouses, and their effects are similar to that of joint tenancy.

Suppose a husband and wife who own their home as tenants by the entirety (or community property) decide to spend the summer at the seashore and rent their home for three months. Is their co-ownership sufficient to establish that they are partners? The answer is no. By UPA Section 7(2) and RUPA Section 202(b)(1), the various forms of joint ownership by themselves do not establish partnership, whether or not the co-owners share profits made by the use of the property. To establish a partnership, the ownership must be of a business, not merely of property.