John, Alexandria, Mary, Martin, and Yvette, formed the Jammy Sleepwear Company over thirty-five (35) years ago. They were equal partners and formed a corporation. On the advice of their attorneys, the entered into a shareholders’ agreement that contained buy-sell provisions. This type of agreement is sometimes referred to as a “buy-sell agreement”.
Their buy-sell agreement contained various provisions, including under what circumstances a departing shareholder’s shares would be purchased, what the purchase price of those shares would be, and the terms of payment. Since the business was in its infancy, they agreed it would be valued at its “book value”, meaning that the value of the assets on its financial statements, less all obligations, would be the business’s value. There was no adjustment for good will or other intangible assets. Also, the increase in value of any assets would not be taken into consideration. The purchase price to a departing shareholder was to be paid in twelve (12) months, in equal monthly payments. The business was required to purchase a departing shareholders shares.
Since they formed the business in 1980, they acquired other businesses and purchased real estate through a separate LLC. They did not think to have a buy-sell for the LLC.
John has announced he would like to retire, but he has objected to the purchase price as being “unfairly” low. He has advised the other owners that he will keep his interest in the real estate, since it will provide him with a “good stipend” during his retirement. Shortly thereafter, Mary announced her retirement.
The remaining owners are concerned that the business will not be able to support payments to John and to Mary. Also, the remaining owners would prefer that John and Mary also sell their interests in the LLC.
Unfortunately, the shareholders (and LLC members) did not regularly review their buy-sell agreement. As the value of the business grew, the amount of the payments increased and would put a strain on the cash flow of the business. If more than one owner were to retire, it would cause a bigger strain. Either the business would have to borrow money, the owners would have to make capital infusions, new investors would be needed, or the business would need to be sold.
Some buy-sell agreements address these types of situations, by limiting the amounts that must be paid out to departing owners on an annual basis. For example, the payments cannot exceed a specific dollar amount or a percentage of gross profits. Also, when the owners buy real estate to be used by the business, they might consider including the real estate as a part of the buy-sell process.
Buy-sell agreements should be reviewed periodically to ensure they continue to meet the needs of the business and its owners. Levin Ginsburg has been advising business owners regarding legal aspects of their businesses, including buy-sell agreements for almost forty years.
Please contact us with any questions you have regarding your business (including any buy-sell issues) at 312-368-0100 or Morris Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Part 1, we explored doing business as a sole proprietor or in a partnership. A problem with those types of business entities was that they did not shield the sole proprietor or the general partner from the claims of creditors of the business. This installment will briefly discuss the operation of a business through a corporation or a limited liability company, two forms which, if established and operated correctly, can provide the owners with limited liability.
In a corporation, the owners (“shareholders”) generally have limited liability for the corporation’s conduct of the business. This liability is “limited” to the shareholder’s investment in the corporation. This is applicable, even if there is only one shareholder. While generally the liability is limited, the corporation must observe all the corporate formalities, such as having regular meetings of its directors and shareholders, documenting all action taken (leasing property, setting up a bank account, paying compensation and dividends to the shareholders), and owning or leasing its own property, and treat the business as a separate entity. If they fail to do so, creditors may be able to “pierce the corporate veil” and assert the liability of the corporation against the shareholders.
In a limited liability company (”LLC”) as in a corporation, the owners (“members”) generally have limited liability for the LLC’s conduct of the business. Unlike a corporation, an LLC does not have to observe formalities, such as conducting meetings and documenting the actions of the LLC. However, the members must treat the LLC as a separate entity with its own assets, including bank accounts, and liabilities.
Note that other issues may arise when selecting your choice of entity. A corporation may be either a “C-corporation” or an “S-corporation.” An LLC can be ignored for income tax purposes if there is only one member; if there is more than one member, it may be treated as a partnership. If the member(s) otherwise elect, an LLC could be treated as a corporation (C-corporation, or S-corporation). No matter what the income tax election or consequences, the income tax treatment has no effect on liability issues.
This article and Part 1 have each addressed, in general terms, the types of business entities available to the business owner. No decision should be made without considering all of the issues. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you have regarding this or any other legal issues confronting your business.
If you are starting a business or have any questions regarding the legal alternatives available to your business, please contact:
312-368-0100 or email@example.com.