Could your business last if your business associate died?

The death of your business associate is a terrible thought to contemplate, but all business co-ownerships face this risk and need to plan for it. Failure to plan can affect the ongoing viability of your business and the family of the deceased owner, as well as that of the surviving owner.

Before you can create any plan to accommodate such an event, owners need to understand the business implications of a co-owner’s death (e.g., Can the business continue without the talents of any one co-owner? Will suppliers, creditors, and customers continue to view the business the same? Will employees leave?)

Only after you and your business associate have come to a consensus on these important questions can you begin developing an agreement that will lay out an action plan in the event of a co-owner’s death. While you may want to engage a professional business professional to help you work through developing the appropriate framework, you will have several basic choices.

You could liquidate the business and distribute the remaining assets among the owners and the family of the deceased owner. This will, of course, result in the loss of steady income and forfeit any sale value that a competitor may find in buying the business.

The surviving owners can take on the heirs (e.g., the surviving spouse) as a new business associate, understanding that there is a possibility that the surviving spouse has less experience or knowledge about the business, or may not share a passion for the business.

A practical course of action is to agree to a buy-out of the deceased owner’s share of the business. This agreement (known as a buy-sell agreement) should set a purchase price, or at least a methodology, for determining a fair and reasonable price. Setting a price can help make sure heirs receive a fair price, but the challenge with setting a price is that the value of the business may change over time. Recognizing this, the agreement can either: 1) call for a price to be negotiated should an owner pass away (though that may leave owners wondering how fair of a price the surviving spouse may get), 2) have the price updated annually, or 3) indicate a formula in the agreement for determining the buy-out price. Annual updates, or a formula, often work well, particularly when established by a professional business valuation firm.

One of the biggest obstacles to buying out the deceased owner’s spouse or heirs is finding the cash to make the purchase of that owner’s interest in the business. There are some common strategies to do this. One way is to use a bank loan to cover the purchase, but that may be difficult to obtain in view of the uncertainty of the business following the loss of an owner. It may also take considerable time to effect. Another way may be to simply pay the buy-out in installments, but that could put pressure on the business and/or the other owners because the buy-out is done with after-tax profits.

Alternatively, the owners could agree to buy life insurance on the life of each owner in an amount equal to the purchase price of each of their interests. Life insurance has the advantage of providing immediate cash that can be generally income tax-free to pay for this buy-out. It also can help avoid the cost of interest associated with the loan option. The funding could be obtained at a discounted cost (i.e., the premiums for the insurance versus the actual buyout price) and planned for in advance.

Owners should periodically review the value of the business and the buy-sell agreement, and ensure that life insurance coverage is equal to the growing value of the business. Other important events that may cause a buy-sell agreement to be implemented include an owner’s prolonged illness, injury, or disability, bankruptcy, divorce, and other life events. These events should also be planned for in the buy-sell agreement.

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2022-140796 Exp. 7/24

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Material discussed is meant for general informational purposes only and is not to be construed as tax, legal, or investment advice. Although the information has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, please note that individual situations can vary. Therefore, the information should be relied upon only when coordinated with individual professional advice. Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents, and employees do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. Consult your tax, legal, or accounting professional regarding your individual situation.