Law News and Tips
Business Planning – Part Dos
In the first part of this discussion on business planning, I focused on the planning that people need to do at the beginning of their business with a buy-sell agreement. Now I want to turn to the kind of planning that is more proper to estate planning at the end of one’s life.
The Big Transition
It has been estimated that over the next 30 years, an estimated $30 trillion (yes, that’s “trillion” with a “T”) will be passed from the baby-boom generation to the younger generations. For many people, that will consist of houses (some boats, and fewer airplanes), life insurance proceeds, investments, retirement assets, personal property items, and yes, their businesses.
About half of the US economy is made up of small businesses, however you define that. On just a numeric basis, the SBA estimates that 99.7% of all employees are employed by small businesses. That is a large number of small businesses. Now admittedly, a large portion of those businesses are businesses without employees, but that includes partnerships and LLCs. So there are still a lot of closely held businesses out there that could be passed down to the younger generation.
Beginning back in the 1990s, we began hearing a lot about how all of these family business owners were going to start planning to pass their businesses down to their children. Since those plans often involve life insurance, all of the life insurance agents were getting excited. The problem is I’m not seeing it.
I talk to a lot of small business owners. The first question in planning an estate with the business interest is whether any kids are in the business? If there are no kids, are there any key employees? If the client has neither, then they probably would just want to sell. If they enjoy running the business, then they may want to stay at the helm, die at the desk, and let others deal with the aftermath.
You might have a client who wants to stay involved, but also wants to travel or have more personal time. In that case, he or she may want to sell the business, but have a long term consulting contract that includes an office with the desk. These can be difficult arrangements, though. It’s hard for people to give up the reins. There can be a lot of tension between the new owner and the “consultant.” This kind of arrangement requires just the right people.
And then you might have a client who just wants out. That’s when you clearly sell. Selling a business is beyond the scope of this discussion, but it’s an option to consider. It’s the now versus later option.
But let’s say that there is a family member or a trusted employee in the mix. Then there is another analysis you need to consider.
I recently had a client business owner come in to see me regarding his estate planning. The 800 pound gorilla in his estate planning closet was his business. That’s the way it is with most small business owners.
In reviewing their assets, they have a house. They have some investments. But their principal asset is their business. They often don’t even have a 401(k), an IRA, or any other kind of retirement asset. Their business is their retirement plan.
This client who came in has a son in the business, but his son had some unrealistic ideas about what it took to run the business. So we had to ask some very basic questions:
What if the business fails?
Can your son get a loan on his own?
Is your son willing to guarantee 100% of the loan and is the client willing to take back a subordinated part of the purchase price?
In that situation, the client had to get value out of the business. He was dependent on it for his retirement. He was not willing to just sell it to his son because he wasn’t sure that his son would make it.
He did not think his son would be able to get a loan. His son had little collateral because he spent everything.
Even if the son qualified for an SBA loan, he didn’t think his son wanted to guarantee the loan and risk everything.
In addition, an SBA loan would only cover 90% of the appraised value. The parents really needed 100% of the appraised value to make their retirement work. They could take back a subordinated note for the difference, but that was not really good enough. So the SBA loan option would not work.
In the end, the couple just decided to put the business up for sale. Their son was not happy, so they gave him some time to work out financing, but he couldn’t get it … at least not on his terms. The business ended up getting sold, and the son had to get another job.
These are the kinds of real life issues business owners face in planning their estates. It’s always a risk to sell the business to a family member. One client sold his business to a child and took back a note and security agreement. In his wife then moved to Hawaii… for a while, at least.
The child was either overwhelmed by running the business or she just didn’t put in the time (there are two versions to this story), but in any event, she started having trouble making the payments to her parents. Mom and dad moved to Florida to be closer and give some guidance. That didn’t work either. So mom and dad moved back to St. Louis, declared a default, and took the business back. Dad had to rebuild the business and sell it to a third party for a reasonable price. Needless to say, relations with her daughter were a little chilly after that.
The Other Kids
And then there is the problem of the other children. As I mentioned above, many times the family business is the main asset in the estate. Typically small business owners don’t put money away into retirement plans, so the business is the retirement plan. That can actually work since the proceeds from the sale of the business will be taxable at capital gains rates and not ordinary income rates, but that assumes that mom and dad can get their money out of the business as I discussed above.
So if we assume that the little Johnny is going to get the business, then the $1,000,000 question is “What about the other kids?” If Johnny pays cash (either out of his own pocket or from a loan), then the other kids get cash, and that may be what they want. They never trusted little Johnny that much anyway.
But what if the company is a cash cow and is on autopilot so that even Johnny can’t screw it up? Maybe the kids want a piece of the action. Does Johnny want them meddling in “his” business?
In the alternative, what if Johnny can’t pay what the business is worth or mom and dad decide to just self-finance the sale? Then the other kids don’t get cash; they get a piece of a promissory note. Hopefully it is secured by the business, but do the other children really trust their inheritance with Johnny?
As with many estate plans, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. A lot depends on the many intangibles and variables in the family and the business itself. Do the children get along? Do they like and/or trust each other in the business setting? Is the business doing well with a bright future or is it struggling? If it is struggling, is this a temporary problem or long term? Once you answer some of these questions, you can begin to put together a real plan.
When I was young, my mother often told me, “Remember Fred: blood is thicker than money.” As a 10 year old, I had no idea what she was talking about. Now I wonder what happened in the family that had made such an impression on her. I’ll never know now.
But needless to say, she was right. As with most estate plans, I don’t think you know if it is successful until mom and dad have been dead for several years. Then you can ask, “Are the kids still celebrating holidays together?” If not and it is because of hurt feelings from the estate plan, then it wasn’t a good plan. If so, then the plan worked well … or at least as well as could be expected.
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