Small Business Succession Planning Strategies

There are more than 27 million small business owners in the United States. At some point during the life of the business, many business owners will have to decide when the right time to step out of the business will be, and the best way to do it. There are many tools business owners can use to transfer their business. Selecting the right one will depend on the circumstances -- whether business owners plan to retire from the business or keep it until they die. If the business owner has partners, it can be one of the most important decisions a business owner will make.

Strategy 1: Selling your business interest outright.

When you sell your business interest to a family member or someone else, you receive cash (or assets you can convert to cash) that can be used to maintain your lifestyle or pay your estate taxes. You choose when to sell -- now, at your retirement, at your death, or anytime in between. As long as the sale is for the full fair market value (FMV) of the business, it is not subject to gift tax or estate tax. But if the sale occurs before your death, it may be subject to capital gains tax.

Strategy 2: Transferring your business interest with a buy-sell agreement.

A buy-sell agreement is a legal contract that prearranges the sale of your business interest between you and a willing buyer.

A buy-sell agreement lets you keep control of your interest until the occurrence of an event that the agreement specifies, such as your retirement, disability, or death. Other events like divorce can also be included as triggering events under a buy-sell agreement. When the triggering event occurs, the buyer is obligated to buy your interest from you or your estate at the FMV. The buyer can be a person, a group (such as co-owners), or the business itself. Price and sale terms are prearranged, which eliminates the need for a fire sale if you become ill or when you die.

Remember, you are bound under a buy-sell agreement: You can't sell or give your business to anyone except the buyer named in the agreement without the buyer's consent. This could restrict your ability to reduce the size of your estate through lifetime gifts of your business interest, unless you carefully coordinate your estate planning goals with the terms of your buy-sell agreement.

Strategy 3: Grantor retained annuity trusts or grantor retained unitrusts.

A more sophisticated business succession tool is a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT) or a grantor retained unitrust (GRUT). GRAT/GRUTs are irrevocable trusts to which you transfer appreciating assets while retaining an income payment for a set period of time. At either the end of the payment period or your death, the assets in the trust pass to the other trust beneficiaries (the remainder beneficiaries). The value of the retained income is subtracted from the value of the property transferred to the trust (i.e., a share of the business), so if you live beyond the specified income period, the business may be ultimately transferred to the next generation at a reduced value for estate tax or gift tax purposes.

Strategy 4: Private annuities.

A private annuity is the sale of property in exchange for a promise to make payments to you for the rest of your life. Here, you transfer complete ownership of the business to family members or another party (the buyer). The buyer in turn makes an unsecured promise to make periodic payments to you for the rest of your life (a single life annuity) or for your life and the life of a second person (a joint and survivor annuity). A joint and survivor annuity provides payments until the death of the last survivor; that is, payments continue as long as either the husband or wife is still alive. Again, because a private annuity is a sale and not a gift, it allows you to remove assets from your estate without incurring gift tax or estate tax.

Until recently, exchanging property for an unsecured private annuity allowed you to spread out any capital gain realized, deferring capital gains tax. However, this tax benefit has generally been eliminated. If you're considering a private annuity, be sure to talk to a tax professional.

Strategy 5: Self-canceling installment notes.

A self-canceling installment note (SCIN) allows you to transfer the business to the buyer in exchange for a promissory note. The buyer must make a series of payments to you under that note. A provision in the note states that at your death, the remaining payments will be canceled. SCINs provide for a lifetime income stream and avoidance of gift tax and estate tax similar to private annuities. Unlike private annuities, SCINs give you a security interest in the transferred business.

Strategy 6: Family limited partnerships.

A family limited partnership can also assist in transferring your business interest to family members. First, you establish a partnership with both general and limited partnership interests. Then, you transfer the business to this partnership. You retain the general partnership interest for yourself, allowing you to maintain control over the day-to-day operation of the business. Over time, you gift the limited partnership interest to family members. The value of the gifts may be eligible for valuation discounts as a minority interest and for lack of marketability. If so, you may successfully transfer much of your business to your heirs at significant transfer tax savings.

Strategy 7: Do additional research.

Not all options will appropriate for your particular circumstances. It is important to conduct additional research and seek professional advice to ensure the best strategy for your situation, and consult professionals as necessary. Several additional sources on this topic include: