Is Your Buy-Sell Agreement Properly Funded?

Are you an owner in a privately held business? If so, you’ve likely spent years building a valuable financial interest in your company. Understandably, you may want to ensure that your family’s interest in the business will be protected, should something happen to you — and perhaps you also want to ensure the interest is purchased at a fair price, without negotiation or hassle.

With some guidance from your advisory team, you (and your business partners) likely have considered — or have already implemented — what is commonly referred to as a “buy-sell” agreement (also known as a “business continuation plan,” “stock purchase agreement” or “buyout agreement”). A buy-sell agreement is a contract among owners that establishes under what conditions, to whom and at what price an owner (or an owner’s estate) can or must sell his or her interest in a business.

Understanding the Why

Let’s back up: what are the benefits of having a buy-sell agreement in place? First, a buy-sell agreement allows the business and remaining owners to protect themselves from major disruption to the company in the event of the death or incapacitation of an owner. Second, the agreement ensures that the family of a deceased or incapacitated shareholder has a means for monetizing the interest in the business, without needing to seek buyers on the market or negotiate a sale.

With these factors considered, setting up a buy-sell agreement is obviously an important step for business owners, but there’s also an additional — and equally important — next step to take: determining how to “fund” the agreement. Without a funding plan in place, those obligated under the agreement to buy a business interest might be forced to sell assets — or worse, file for bankruptcy.

When did you last review your buy-sell agreement

The Funding Plan: Key Considerations & Pitfalls to Avoid

Life and disability insurance are very common components of the funding plans for buy-sell agreements, and for good reason: both provide tax-free assets at the very time they’re needed, and can be structured to ensure that those assets are used for their intended purpose. And compared to the most common alternative — borrowing and paying interest on debt to fund the equity purchase — premium payments can be very cost efficient.

Over the years, I have worked with other professional advisors — CPAs, attorneys and financial planners — to review dozens of buy-sell agreements for business-owner clients, along with the funding plans that accompany them. Based on those experiences, I’ve compiled a list of the most common mistakes you should avoid when developing your own funding plan:

1. Improperly structuring ownership and beneficiary arrangements: If they’re not set up correctly, life insurance death benefits could be taxable income to your beneficiary, which could mean hundreds of thousands — or even millions — in lost benefit. In addition, improperly structured arrangements could cost remaining owners the opportunity to fully increase their tax basis in the company, which could cost similar amounts if they subsequently sell the company.

2. Using the wrong form of life insurance: If the composition of the ownership group is likely to change substantially over the next 10 years, term life insurance is often the best and most efficient way to fund the plan in the event of an owner’s death. If the business is owned by family members, and is likely to remain in the hands of family members for decades, cash value insurance is often a more cost-efficient choice.

3. Overlooking important “triggering” events: Most owners understand the need for an agreement to cover the possibility of the sudden death, incapacitation or retirement of an owner. But there are other events that may trigger a sale or purchase, including the potential transfer of ownership in a divorce or judgement against an owner. Be as thorough as possible in preparing for triggering events to ensure your funding plan can cover a host of different possibilities.

4. Failing to review the agreement periodically: Businesses naturally change over time — the ownership group changes, the value of the business changes and the risks to the business change, as well. Each of those changes could impact a buy-sell agreement, so it’s critical for owners to review the document and funding plan every two to three years.

Your family, your customers, your fellow owners…numerous people depend on the continued growth of your business. Reviewing and properly funding your buy-sell agreement can instill confidence and peace of mind in knowing that the right protections are in place to keep the company moving forward.

Need help reviewing your business’s buy-sell agreement, or the funding plan you’ve put in place for it? Our Buy-Sell Agreement Review Program addresses the seven most important components of the plan, and gives you a punch list of issues to address.

Contact our team to learn more about the program or set up a consultation.

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Hewins Financial Advisors, LLC d/b/a Wipfli Hewins Investment Advisors, LLC (“Hewins”) is an investment advisor registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. Hewins is a proud affiliate of Wipfli LLP. Information pertaining to Hewins’ advisory operations, services and fees is set forth in Hewins’ current Form ADV Part 2A brochure, copies of which are available upon request at no cost or at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov. The views expressed by the author are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Hewins or its affiliates. The information contained in any third-party resource cited herein is not owned or controlled by Hewins, and Hewins does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of any information that may be found in such resources. Links to any third-party resource are provided as a courtesy for reference only and are not intended to be, and do not act as, an endorsement by Hewins of the third party or any of its content or use of its content. The standard information provided in this blog is for general purposes only and should not be construed as, or used as a substitute for, financial, investment or other professional advice. If you have questions regarding your financial situation, you should consult your financial planner, investment advisor, attorney or other professional. Hewins does not provide tax, accounting or legal services.
Brad Mueller
Brad Mueller

CLU®, ChFC® | Principal, Chief Practice Officer

Brad Mueller, CLU®, is a Principal and the Chief Practice Officer of Wipfli Hewins Investment Advisors, based in Madison, WI. Brad specializes in insurance and risk-management consulting for business owners and family offices.

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Is Your Buy-Sell Agreement Properly Funded?

time to read: 3 min