The Buy-Sell Agreement: No Business Should Be Without One

In the day-to-day activity of making a business work, many owners overlook the importance of the buy-sell agreement. This document (also referred to as a business continuity agreement) is like a will; no one thinks about it until it’s too late. However, it may just be the most important written agreement or document you ever create.

If your business has more than one owner, either partners or stockholders, what happens if one or more of them dies or “wants out”? The same thing holds true in family-owned and operated businesses. A buy-sell agreement can dictate the transfer of business ownership under certain events as described within its specifically-written language.

The well-drafted buy-sell agreement is designed to prevent the following:

  • The sale of the company because one of the partners or stockholders desires to exit the business and no one can agree on the price or the terms;
  • The necessity to sell or dissolve the business due to the lack of a written agreement determining ownership/management of the business in case of a partner’s, stockholder’s, or family member’s death; (Or, what might prove even worse than a precipitous sale, an heir might decide that he or she is going to get involved in the operation of the business.)
  • A lack of agreement on who should take control when an active partner, stockholder, or family member becomes disabled and can no longer run the business;
  • A serious dispute on any key issue among the partners, active family members, or stockholders that cannot be resolved; and,
  • Questions about business operations following a legally-complicated divorce (or other legal entanglement) involving one of the partners, family members, or stockholders.

The buy-sell agreement can help prevent these situations, as well as many other problems that can befall a business enterprise. In a small business, one of the areas frequently overlooked is the buy-out provision, in the event one of the active partners decides to exit. The buy-sell agreement normally, and properly, provides for the partner, family member, or stockholder to have the first right of refusal in this case. But at what price? If two partners are in disagreement over how to run the business, they will most likely never come to an agreement about its value. A method or formula for valuing the business should be included in the buy-sell agreement; otherwise, the first right of refusal would be no right at all.

In larger businesses, especially those that are incorporated, it is important that the buy-sell agreement specify how the stock of the business should be valued. The agreement should also specify whether the stock must be purchased by the company or its shareholders, or if it can be sold to an outsider. In many cases, life insurance coverage is used to purchase the interest or stock in the business, in the event that one of the partners or majority stock holders dies.

The buy-sell agreement is really the key to the continuation of the business. You can see that the buy-sell agreement, if executed properly, can solve problems surrounding retirement, disability, termination, divorce, bankruptcy, death, and business disputes. Given all the benefits of such an agreement, why doesn’t every business have one?

The answer is simple; most business owners are too busy trying to get the work done and the bills paid. Creating such a document means that the owners must stand back from the business and decide what should happen under a variety of serious situations. The process is time-consuming and also expensive. There are no pre-printed forms; it isn’t possible simply to fill in the blanks and come up with an instant agreement. A lawyer must do the drafting to get a document that will have legal authority in the event that it is ever challenged.

If your business already has a buy-sell agreement, perhaps it is time to review the document, checking for the need to update or amend it. If your business doesn’t have a buy-sell agreement, you should seriously consider creating one. It may be the most important business decision you ever make.

Buy-sell agreements, as well as all of the important documents pertaining to the sale of a business, should be handled by an attorney experienced in such matters. It may seem expensive in the short run, but the careful preparation of any agreement that can affect the rights of the buyer or seller will be a bargain in the long term.

Although business brokers cannot provide legal advice, they are familiar with the intricacies of the business sale. They are also familiar with local attorneys who specialize in the details of these transactions. These attorneys will usually be more efficient, and therefore more cost effective than the attorney who handles a general practice.

Business brokers–because of their knowledge and experience–are a good source of information concerning the buying and selling of businesses. They are conversant with the local marketplace, business prices, and terms. In sum, they are an excellent resource.