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You Need a Buy-Sell Agreement for Your Business

Every business should have a buy-sell agreement to protect the owners, their families, employees and the company. Without a buy-sell agreement or succession plan, any company is at risk, notes a recent article titled “Why does your business need a buy-sell agreement?” from the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Many business owners are reluctant to recognize the possibility of their becoming disabled or dying, so they put off creating a buy sell agreement. However, as we all know, unexpected events happen and it’s always better to be prepared.

A buy-sell agreement offers protection first by establishing what type of triggering events could happen and defining the terms and conditions for how shareholders will enter and exit their ownership of the business.

Companies often have a buy-sell agreement stuck in a file drawer from ten or twenty years ago. Chances are that big changes have taken place in the business and the old agreement is no longer relevant. The day-to-day operations of a business are pressing, and there’s never enough time to get around to it. However, when the unexpected occurs, shareholders are left to negotiate among themselves during the worst possible time.

A well-drafted buy-sell agreement should address the most common events: death, disability, divorce, personal bankruptcy, voluntary termination, retirement and involuntary separation. The agreement should clearly state the percentage and type of ownership, how shares are valued and how any insurance proceeds are to be handled. Without knowledge of the value and terms of payment, there’s no way to provide protection for a triggering event.

Once the value of the company and its shareholders is defined, it may become clear that a business needs to close a valuation gap.

The intentions for the future of the business can also be clarified through this process. Some provisions to consider are:

  • How to notify other shareholders, in the event of a voluntary termination.
  • Trailer provisions to protect exiting shareholders, in the event of a subsequent liquidity event.
  • Discounts on value or extended payment terms for non-compliance of notification provisions.
  • Insurance portability provisions to allow existing shareholders to reassign beneficiary designations (once payments owed to the exiting shareholder have been made).

Businesses are dynamic entities with frequent changes, so buy-sell agreements should be reviewed and updated in the same way that an estate plan needs to be updated—every three or four years.

Reference: Philadelphia Business Journal (Sep. 1, 2021) “Why does your business need a buy-sell agreement?”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

Many family-owned businesses have had to scramble to maintain ownership, when owners or heirs were struck by COVID-19. Lacking a succession plan may have led to disastrous results, or at best, less than optimal corporate structures and large tax bills. This difficult lesson is a wake-up call, says the article “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’” from Bloomberg Tax.

Another factor putting family-owned businesses at risk is divorce. Contemplating the best way to transfer ownership to the next generation requires a candid examination of family dynamics and acknowledgment of outsiders (i.e., in-laws) and the possibility of divorce.

Before documents can be created, a number of issues need to be discussed:

Transfer timing. When will the ownership of the business transfer to the next generation? There are some who use life-events as prompts: births, marriages and/or the death of the owners.

How will the transfer take place? Corporate structures and estate planning tools provide many options limited only by the tax liabilities and wishes of the family. Be wary, since each decision for the structure may have unintended consequences. Short and long-term strategic planning is needed.

To whom will the business be transferred? Who will receive an ownership interest and what will be the rights of ownership? Will there be different levels of ownership, and will those levels depend upon the level of activity in the business? Will percentages be used, or shares, or another form?

In drafting a succession plan, it is wise to assume that the future owners will either marry or divorce—perhaps multiple times. The succession plan should address these issues to prevent an ex-spouse from becoming a shareholder, whose interest in the business needs to be bought out.

The operating agreement/partnership agreement should require all future owners to enter into a prenuptial agreement before marriage specifically excluding their interest in the family business from being distributed, valued, or deemed marital property subject to distribution, if there is a divorce.

An owner may even exact a penalty for a subsequent owner who fails to enter into a prenup prior to a marriage. The same corporate document should specifically bar an owner’s spouse from receiving an ownership interest under any circumstance.

A prenup is intended to remove the future value of the owner’s interest from the marital asset pool. This typically requires the owner to buy-out the future spouse’s legal claim to future value. This could be a costly issue, since the value of the future ownership interest cannot be predicted at the time of the marriage.

Many different strategies can be used to develop a succession plan that ideally works alongside the business owner’s estate plan. These are used to ensure that the business remains in the family and the family interests are protected.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 5,2021) “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’”

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