Recently, the critically acclaimed television show “Succession” aired its final episode. If the series accomplished anything, it was depicting the chaos and uncertainty that can take place if a long-time business owner fails to establish a clearly written and communicated succession plan.
While there are many aspects to succession planning, one way to put some clear steps in writing — particularly if your company has multiple owners — is to draft a buy-sell agreement.
A “buy-sell,” as it’s often called for short, is essentially a contract that lays out the terms and conditions under which the owners of a business, or the business itself, can buy out an owner’s interest if a “triggering event” occurs. Such events typically include an owner dying, becoming disabled, getting divorced or deciding to leave the company.
If an owner dies, for example, a buy-sell can help prevent conflicts — and even litigation — between surviving owners and a deceased owner’s heirs. In addition, it helps ensure that surviving owners don’t become unwitting co-owners with a deceased owner’s spouse who may have little knowledge of the business or interest in participating in it.
A buy-sell also spells out how ownership interests are valued. For instance, the agreement may set a predetermined share price or include a formula for valuing the company that’s used upon a triggering event, such as an owner’s death or disability. Or it may call for the remaining owners to engage a business valuation specialist to estimate fair market value.
By facilitating the orderly transition of a deceased, disabled or otherwise departing owner’s interest, a buy-sell helps ensure a smooth transfer of control to the remaining owners or an outside buyer.
This minimizes uncertainty for all parties involved. Remaining owners can rest assured that they’ll retain ownership control without outside interference. The departing owner, or in some cases that person’s spouse and heirs, know they’ll be fairly compensated for the ownership interest in question. And employees will feel better about the company’s long-term stability, which may boost morale and retention.
Funding the agreement
There are several ways to fund a buy-sell. The simplest approach is to create a “sinking fund” into which owners make contributions that can be used to buy a departing owner’s shares. Or remaining owners can simply borrow money to purchase ownership shares.
However, there are potential complications with both options. That’s why many companies turn to life insurance and disability buyout insurance as a funding mechanism. Upon a triggering event, such a policy will provide cash that can be used to buy the deceased owner’s interest. There are two main types of buy-sells funded by life insurance:
1. Cross-purchase agreements. Here, each owner buys life insurance on the others. The proceeds are used to purchase the departing owner’s interest.
2. Entity-purchase agreements. In this case, the business buys life insurance policies on each owner. Policy proceeds are then used to purchase an owner’s interest following a triggering event. With fewer ownership interests outstanding, the remaining owners effectively own a higher percentage of the company.
A cross-purchase agreement tends to work better for businesses with only two or three owners. Conversely, an entity-purchase agreement is often a good choice when there are more than three owners because of the cost and complexity of owners having to buy so many different life insurance policies.
Getting expert guidance
Creating, administering and executing a buy-sell agreement calls for expert assistance. Our firm can help you identify, gather and organize the relevant financial information involved.