A buy-sell agreement is a written agreement between business owners. The purpose of the agreement is to ensure that the current owners are protected from ending up owning a business with an unwanted partner (or shareholder). It restricts the owners’ rights to sell or transfer their interest in the business to a third party. The agreement dictates what will happen in the event of the death of an owner, the disability of an owner, the retirement of an owner, the withdrawal of an owner, the bankruptcy of an owner, the divorce of an owner, or one owner’s desire to sell her share of the business.
A buy-sell agreement is the most effective mechanism to ensure for: the smooth transfer of ownership of the business in the event of death, divorce, bankruptcy or retirement of one of its owners; or an agreed upon method for valuation of the business; payment terms and method of funding the payment for the business interest of one of the owners for the buyout of a departing owner; eliminating or minimizing disputes between owners who are retaining ownership and those leaving the business, or between owners and heirs of a deceased owner or other possible unwanted business partners; ensuring that the remaining owners retain control over who their future partners may be; and ensuring that upon the death or disability of an owner, their family is financially secure.
It is crucial that each year after a buy-sell agreement has been finalized and signed that the owners review certain key provisions of the agreement to ensure they still reflect their wishes and changed circumstances:
- The valuation formula – the owners should ensure that it continues to reflect the value of the business and their own intent;
- The effect of any changes in tax laws upon the terms of the agreement;
- The funding mechanisms of the agreement – regardless of the funding scheme contemplated, be it through insurance maintained by the business on the lives of the owners, or through payments over time from the earnings of the business, it is crucial to review and ensure that the funding will be available to effectuate the terms of the agreement;
- The structure of the agreement – a redemption agreement, a cross purchase or a hybrid; and
- The triggering event – while buy-sell agreements typically include various potential scenarios including death, divorce, disability, voluntary termination, involuntary termination or bankruptcy of an owner, it is important to consider the specific circumstances of the owners of the closely held business and ensure that each triggering event is addressed in a way that is satisfactory to all owner’s actual needs.