Why Every Small Business Partnership Should Have a Buy-Sell Agreement

When most small business owners think about risk, they tend to consider the things that impact the physical security of the business (fire, flooding, wind damage, etc.) and the financial security of the business (receivables, demand, professional liability, etc.). Given the immediacy of these risks, it is easy to forget issues relating to business continuation. The reality is that if you buy a business or start one with a partner, you are both at risk for losing everything. Without a buy-sell agreement, Forbes warns you and your partner are facing a world of hurt from the financial and tax problems following “an owner’s death, incapacitation, divorce, bankruptcy, sale or retirement.”

What Is A Buy-Sell Agreement?

A typical buy-sell agreement will protect business owners in the event a co-owner wants out of the business voluntarily or otherwise. A partner may want to retire, to sell his/her shares, or to settle a divorce. On the other hand, the partner may die or become incapacitated and unable to participate. Once a buy-sell agreement sets up a price and terms for a buyout, you have assured the business’s continuation and seamless transition.

Benefits Of A Buy-Sell Agreement

There are several reasons to consider putting a buy-sell agreement in place:

  1. Protect the Business: You and your partner may agree on keeping an unwanted third party from acquiring the business. The contract facilitates a hassle-free shift in control or ownership, it can provide the protocol for fixing or calculating the buy-price to the selling partner or deceased owner’s interest, and it can assure the mandatory arbitration required to settle any arising disputes. Finally, it may define the rights of remaining owners to purchase the interest of the departing owner to resolve or avoid the disputes that often arise among family members.
  2. Structure Tax Treatment: A buy-sell agreement may be used to protect a company’s status as an S-corporation, professional LLC, or professional corporation identity. And, it may want to avoid the termination of its status as a partnership for tax purposes. In addition, under the Internal Revenue Code, there are prohibited shareholders. The IRS will tax the business as a C-corporation if and when a share of the business is transferred to a prohibited shareholder and its status S election will be terminated.
  3. Protect the Remaining Interests: Great peace of mind comes with certainty of the terms enabling you to purchase the departing partner’s interest through a predetermined long-term financing arrangement that allows, for example, payments to be made from the business’s cash flow according to specific formulas. This allows the current owners to fix the price and terms of purchase, thereby reducing or eliminating the personal conflicts that could otherwise arise.
  4. Protect the Withdrawing Partner: The buy-sell protects the deceased partner’s estate from negotiating price and share from a disadvantage. By requiring the surviving partner(s) to buy back the deceased’s interest, it provides a source of income for payment of estate taxes and forestalls disputes with surviving spouses and heirs. In another situation, the agreement guarantees the disabled or retired owner a needed source of cash or a lump sum that fits a financial plan with tax treatment favorable to the withdrawing partner.

Designing Buy-Sell Agreements

There are a variety of ways that a buy-sell agreement can be structured. Typical formats include:

  • A Cross Purchase Agreement works best with four or fewer partners. The owners each own life insurance policies on the lives of each of the others, and in the event one of them dies, the surviving owners use the proceeds of the life insurance policy to buy the deceased owner’s share of the business.
  • A Trusteed Cross-Purchase Agreement creates a revocable or irrevocable trust with a third party owner-administrator and fewer insurance policies. The agreement contractually obligates the trustee to buy the interest of the deceased or departing owner, and the departing owner (or the estate) to sell the interest to the trustee. When using life insurance, the owner(s) can be confident that some or all of the money needed to complete the purchase will be available at the death of an owner.
  • A Partnership Among Shareholders transfers the funding from life insurance policies into a partnership.

It is never wise to enter into a buy-sell agreement without professional advice and assistance. Before you and your partners hang out your “business open” sign, have your lawyers and insurance professionals design the plan that best serves all your interests.

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