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Estate Planning for Entrepreneurs and Business Owners

  • July 10th, 2024

Mother and son business owners of bakery stand behind counter of baked goods.Success in business requires planning, commitment, and a strategic approach. Many new businesses take at least two or three years to turn a profit and twice as long to truly hit their stride.

If you’ve created a business, you know that success doesn’t happen overnight. But do you know what will happen to your business if something unexpected impacts you or when you decide to step away?

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You will exit your business at some point. Planning for that moment now by incorporating the business into your estate plan can help to set up you and your family for a successful next chapter. Succession planning is more than contingency planning—it’s part of a growth strategy.

One-Third of Business Owners Not Ready for Succession in 2024

Entrepreneurs share certain characteristics. They tend to be motivated, creative, flexible, risk tolerant, and to have a longer time-horizon perspective than the average 9-to-5 worker.

But many business owners become focused on short-term priorities associated with their day-to-day operations at the expense of planning for future succession, according to a 2024 survey from Edward Jones.

More than half of U.S. business owners are over the age of 55, and the average age at which owners plan to pass on their business is 63. As they near retirement, these entrepreneurs are priming the country for what Edward Jones calls a “business succession boom” in the coming years.

Only two-thirds of business owners, however, have prepared a business succession plan. The one-third that have yet to create a succession plan say they don’t view it as a priority, citing uncertainty about the future of the business (32 percent), uncertainty about where to start the planning process (32 percent), and an inability to identity a successor (26 percent).

What Can Happen If You Fail to Plan

Despite the uncertainty behind why some business owners don’t create a succession plan, the Edward Jones survey also reveals that most owners (88 percent) are confident their business will grow in the next 10 years.

With a succession plan in place, those businesses could grow even more. Harvard Business Review cites research showing that proactive succession planning can increase company valuations and investor returns by 20 percent to 25 percent.

Whether you intend to sell your business to fund retirement or pass it on to heirs as part of a lasting financial legacy, the leadership pipelines and succession practices you put in place today should be thought of as part of a broader business strategy to create continuity and value.

Roughly one-third of entrepreneurs have no retirement savings plan. Around one in five plan to sell their business to fund their retirement. But executing a sale requires years of preparation.

A three-year minimum window is recommended when selling a business to lay the groundwork for things like fine-tuning revenue streams and expenses and putting your books and management plan in order.

Your business succession plan also needs to address the unexpected. Around half of all owner exits are involuntary due to one of the five “Ds”: Death, Disability, Divorce, Distress, or Disagreement.

If your estate plan does not incorporate succession planning and you unexpectedly pass away, for example, state law could dictate that the business is split equally between your spouse and children. While they may already figure into your business succession plan, they might not—or maybe not in equal parts.

There may also be a different person, like a current business partner or key employee, to whom you plan to hand over the keys. Your plan could also entail having an unrelated professional or ownership group in charge of running the business for the benefit of your loved ones.

Planning gives you the power to choose what happens to your business when you step away—either voluntarily or involuntarily. But not having a plan can make you a bystander in your own enterprise.

Risk in Business vs. Risk in Estate Planning

Although embracing risk may have been necessary for building your business, an estate plan is better suited to doing things by the book. And failing to protect your business with a comprehensive estate plan is a risk you can’t afford to take.

An estate plan should have clear operating instructions and accompanying legal documents that foster business continuity. Your individual talents are what made the business what it is, but a business that is based too much on your personality might not be built to stand the test of time.

Managing successor personalities and expectations are a crucial part of business estate planning. If your business is family-owned, family infighting and relatives placed in the wrong roles can jeopardize the company.

According to Edward Jones, about half of named successors are family members. You may be tempted to give a loved one the benefit of the doubt, or take a chance on them, when succession planning. In the long run, though, personal favors may not be doing anyone any favors if they lead to business failures. At the very least, your chosen successor—family or otherwise—should be involved with the business prior to taking the reins.

Good communication is just as critical for a seamless succession plan as it is for a well-run business. To help set expectations and avoid surprises that could disrupt operations, communicate your plans with family and nonfamily stakeholders, explain your decision-making process, give them a chance to provide input, and get everyone working toward the same goal.

Estate Planning Documents for Your Business Succession Plan

Start with the basics and create your will, durable power of attorney, and a health care directive. You can also place the business in a trust for estate planning purposes.

Think carefully about who you give power of attorney to, because this individual will have the authority to transact business for you if you lose capacity. They need to understand not only how to run the business in your absence, but also the connections between your personal and business finances. If your business is organized as an LLC, for instance, comingling personal and business expenses can open you up to liability.

A family member who’s currently involved in the business may be a good choice for power of attorney, but a trusted professional who can grasp your nuanced financial position and make informed, unbiased choices might be best.

Buy-sell agreements also need to be incorporated into your business estate plan. A typical buy-sell agreement takes effect at the time of an owner’s death, incapacity, or some other circumstance that requires transferring a business ownership interest. It is intended to provide a clear, orderly process for transferring business interests by identifying things like how the company’s value is determined, what events trigger the buyout, and how the buyout is funded.

Financial Advisors and Estate Planning Attorneys

In addition to an estate planning attorney, an entrepreneur should include a financial advisor in their business planning. The Edward Jones succession survey found that just 37 percent of business owners are utilizing a financial advisor as a business succession resource.

Combined financial and legal strategies may be superior for developing a succession plan. Even if a business owner has a solid succession plan, a financial advisor can help them with the specifics of implementing it.

The Importance of Tax Planning for Entrepreneurs

Tax law and planning for tax efficiencies comprise a key part of estate planning, particularly when an estate contains business interests and assets.

Charitable contributions or creating a charitable entity can reduce estate taxes and benefit your heirs. Philanthropy is also an opportunity to extend your legacy to the wider community.

Many tax-related legislative proposals are considered each year, but which laws will be enacted and how they will affect business and personal assets can be hard to predict. Tax legislation, which could be introduced under the next presidential administration and Congress in 2025, is one of the top reasons for revisiting an estate plan.

Life and Disability Insurance

Use life and disability insurance to your business advantage. Life insurance can provide your family or other named beneficiary with an income source after you die. It can also guarantee an income stream for your business, allowing your company to continue operations in your absence. Life insurance is used to fund buy-sell agreements as well.

Disability insurance provides coverage in the event of short- or long-term disability. Carry separate policies for family beneficiaries and the business. The latter should identify a key business partner or employee as a beneficiary.

Maximize Business Value With Estate Planning

Estate planning attorneys work with tax and financial advisors to help business owners plan for an expected ownership transition as well as unexpected events like business breakups and bankruptcy.

Keeping your estate plan up to date is no less important than creating an initial plan. Business plans need to be adjusted from time to time as things change, and so do business succession and estate plans.

Don’t delay your succession plan another day: Contact a qualified attorney near you today to start planning.


Created date: 07/10/2024
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