Understanding buy-sell agreements

Posted July 09, 2012, at 2:53 p.m.
Michael J. Chamberlain
Michael J. Chamberlain

What happens to your business if you or one of your partners suddenly dies or is disabled? What are your plans for the business when you retire? Or what if you become involved in an unresolvable disagreement with a partner about the future of the business?

As the owner of a small business, you can answer these questions and others by implementing a buy-sell agreement for your business. A buy-sell agreement is a fundamental component of your business succession plan, and can provide a smooth transition for your business when certain critical events occur. It can also ensure you preserve the wealth you have worked so hard to earn for you and your family.

What is a buy-sell agreement?

A buy-sell agreement is a contract among the owners of the business or between the owners of the business and the business entity itself. The agreement usually contains several standard provisions, including:

  1. Restrictions on the sale or transfer of ownership interests to others.
  2. Defining events that will “trigger” the sale or purchase of ownership interests.
  3. Setting the price, or a method for determining the price, and terms of payment if shares in the business are sold.

Buy-sell agreements allow business owners to decide proactively who may own and operate the business and when an owner may liquidate his or her interest in the business. Buy-sell agreements should be flexible and anticipate situations where one owner’s best interests deviate from those of a partner.

A well-drafted buy-sell agreement can accomplish several estate planning and business succession planning objectives, including:

  1. Allowing the transfer of business shares to children, grandchildren and trusts for family members.
  2. Ensuring business ownership remains in the family by forbidding ownership by in-laws or outsiders.
  3. Planning for an owner’s death, disability, divorce or retirement.
  4. Setting the price and terms of payment when a transfer of business shares occurs or when the company redeems an owner’s shares, helping minimize disputes between owners and families.
  5. Providing the business with liquid assets to purchases shares from owners or their estates at the owner’s death or disability.
  6. Creating a “market” for the business owner’s shares at death, providing liquidity to pay taxes and avoiding financial hardships for the family and business.

The cornerstone of estate planning for business owners

The buy-sell agreement is often the cornerstone of a business owner’s estate plan. It can provide for lifetime and testamentary transfers to family members of several generations either outright or in trust. Transfers or sales of business interests to irrevocable trusts — as a buy-sell agreement typically permits — may enhance a business owner’s asset protection and tax minimization goals.

However, most business owners do not want other owners to transfer their shares to anyone and everyone at their discretion. The relationship between the co-founders of a business, for example, is often unique, and the desire to work together in a business may not extend to the co-founder’s ex-spouse, brother-in-law or other relatives. Transfers that could jeopardize a company’s S corporation election should also be prohibited. Therefore, buy-sell agreements usually contain some reasonable restrictions on the transferability of the stock, particularly involving those outside the bloodlines.

Triggering events

One of the most important features of a buy-sell agreement is identifying the “triggers” that may cause provisions of the agreement to be implemented, such as death, disability or incapacity, divorce, departure or retirement, disputes, bankruptcy or insolvency and transfers to an unauthorized owner.

When a trigger occurs, the buy-sell agreement addresses how the company or other shareholders purchase the shares of the owner who has experienced the triggering event. The trigger may activate a mandatory or optional purchase of shares between parties, depending on the circumstances.

Purchase price and terms of payment

The purchase price and terms of payment are probably the most important features of a buy-sell agreement. The price — or the valuation methodology — should be established in the early years of the business before owners begin to identify themselves as likely buyers or likely sellers under particular trigger scenarios.

The three basic ways to determine the purchase price under a buy-sell agreement are:

  1. Periodic agreement to a fixed price by the owners.
  2. Some formula, usually tied to a capitalization of earnings, book value or a combination of these methods.
  3. A professional appraisal.

The buy-sell agreement should also establish the terms of the payment to the seller. It may be difficult or impractical given business cash flow to pay the purchase price in one lump sum, so some form of installment payments is often necessary. The ability of the company or continuing shareholders to make a down payment on the purchase of shares — let alone a lump sum payment — will depend on the available funding when a particular trigger occurs. For triggers such as death, disability or retirement, life insurance can play a critical role in funding the buyout of the exiting owner.

Recognizing and preparing for contingencies in your business before they occur can ensure a more harmonious business relationship among business owners, as well as a more secure financial future for you and your family.

Michael J. Chamberlain is the vice president, business banking senior relationship manager, for KeyBank. His office is located at 23 Water St. in Bangor. He can be reached at 262-5705 or at Michael_J_Chamberlain@KeyBank.com.

Editor’s note: The Bangor Daily News welcomes submissions for business columns. They should be 650-850 words and should be unique to the BDN and pertinent to the Maine business community. Columns, a head-and-shoulder photo and a short bio can be sent to business@bangordailynews.com.

Similar articles:

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business