What Are Buy and Sell Agreements?


A buy and sell agreement, also known as a buy-sell agreement, is a legally binding contract that outlines the process of transferring a partner’s share of a business in the event of their death or departure. It helps ensure a smooth transition of ownership and business continuity. This article delves into the various aspects of buy and sell agreements, including their types, benefits, working mechanisms, and key considerations.

What is a buy and sell agreement?

A buy and sell agreement is a contract that dictates how a partner’s ownership stake in a business will be reassigned if they pass away or leave the company. It is commonly used by sole proprietorships, partnerships, and closed corporations to facilitate smooth transitions in ownership during such circumstances. These agreements often incorporate life insurance policies to fund potential buyouts upon a partner’s demise. Additionally, buy and sell agreements may be termed buyout agreements, business wills, or business prenups.

How a buy and sell agreement works

When a partner in a business dies, retires, or decides to leave, a buy-and-sell agreement comes into play. It mandates that the departing partner’s ownership share be sold to the remaining partners or to the business itself based on a predetermined formula. For instance, in case of a partner’s death, the estate must consent to the sale. To facilitate the purchase of the shares, partners commonly take out life insurance policies on each other, and the business often covers the associated costs as a business expense. This ensures that surviving partners receive life insurance death benefits, which are then used to buy out the deceased partner’s shares, maintaining business continuity and ownership structure.

Types of buy-sell agreements

Two primary types of buy-sell agreements exist cross-purchase agreements and entity-purchase agreements. In a cross-purchase agreement, surviving partners collectively buy the deceased partner’s share. Conversely, the business entity acquires the departed partner’s ownership stake in an entity-purchase agreement. Some variations combine both approaches, with individual partners purchasing a portion of the shares and the partnership acquiring the remainder.

Key considerations in buy-sell agreements

Buy and sell agreements offer protection for business interests in various scenarios. They can prevent owners from selling their shares to external parties without approval from remaining partners, and they often ensure that the estate cannot sell shares to outsiders upon a partner’s death. Furthermore, these agreements establish methods for valuing a partner’s share, which can prove invaluable in disputes or in determining company value.

How do you establish a buy and sell agreement?

A buy-sell agreement is a legally binding contract that mandates how a partner’s shares will be transferred in case of their death or departure. This agreement often involves purchasing life insurance policies on each partner to ensure funds are available for buyouts. Working with an experienced attorney, along with a certified public accountant and a life insurance professional, is recommended when crafting a buy and sell agreement.

What should be included in a buy and sell agreement?

A comprehensive buy and sell agreement should detail:

  • Events triggering a buyout, such as death, disability, bankruptcy, or retirement
  • List of involved partners and their current equity stakes
  • Recent company equity valuation
  • Funding mechanisms, like life insurance policies
  • Tax and estate planning considerations for partners and beneficiaries

Benefits of a buy and sell agreement

A buy and sell agreement ensures a seamless ownership transition and business continuity in the event of a partner’s departure or death. It establishes a clear plan for distributing departed owners’ shares to remaining partners, avoiding potential legal disputes. Automatic share transfers to spouses or outsiders could lead to complications without this agreement.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about buy and sell agreements

1. What is the purpose of a buy and sell agreement?

A buy and sell agreement serves as a safeguard for business partners, ensuring a well-defined plan for ownership transitions in case of death, retirement, or departure. It prevents potential conflicts among partners, their families, and surviving spouses by specifying the terms under which ownership shares are transferred.

2. Are buy and sell agreements only for partnerships?

No, buy and sell agreements are not limited to partnerships. While partnerships commonly use them, other business structures like limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations can also benefit from these agreements to manage ownership changes smoothly.

3. What triggers a buyout in a buy and sell agreement?

Buy-sell agreements specify trigger events, such as a partner’s death, retirement, disability, bankruptcy, or decision to exit the business. When any of these events occur, the agreement outlines the process for transferring the departing partner’s ownership share.

4. How is the value of a partner’s share determined?

The value of a partner’s share can be determined using various methods, such as a predetermined formula, independent business valuation, or a combination of both. The agreement should detail the approach to be used, ensuring fairness and transparency in valuations.

5. Can buy and sell agreements address disagreements among partners?

Yes, buy and sell agreements can include provisions to handle disagreements and disputes among partners. These provisions might outline mediation or arbitration processes to resolve conflicts and ensure the business remains stable during disputes.

6. Can the terms of a buy-sell agreement be amended?

Yes, the terms of a buy-sell agreement can be amended if all parties involved agree to the changes. Regular reviews of the agreement are recommended to ensure it remains relevant and aligned with the business’s current circumstances.

7. Are there tax implications associated with buy-sell agreements?

Yes, buy-sell agreements can have tax implications. The agreement’s terms can impact capital gains, estate, and gift taxes. It’s essential to consult with tax professionals to understand and plan for these implications.

8. What happens if a partner wants to sell their shares to an outsider?

Some buy and sell agreements restrict partners from selling their shares to outsiders without the approval of the remaining partners. If a partner wishes to sell to an external party, the agreement might give the remaining partners a right of first refusal, allowing them to buy the shares under the same terms.

9. Can buy and sell agreements be funded without life insurance?

While life insurance is a common funding mechanism for buyouts, other funding sources can be considered. For instance, partners might set up a sinking fund or arrange for loans to finance buyouts. The funding method should align with the agreement’s provisions and the partners’ financial capacities.

10. What happens if a partner becomes incapacitated?

If a partner becomes incapacitated due to disability or illness, the buy-sell agreement should outline the process for handling the situation. This may include triggering a buyout or allowing for temporary management until the partner’s status changes.

11. Should buy and sell agreements include a valuation update schedule?

Yes, including a valuation update schedule in the agreement is advisable. Regular updates ensure that the value of the business remains current and prevents disputes arising from outdated valuations.

12. Can a buy and sell agreement be enforced on a partner’s heirs?

Yes, buy and sell agreements are legally binding contracts, and their terms are typically enforceable on a partner’s heirs or estate. This ensures that the business’s ownership remains consistent and aligned with the agreement.

Key takeaways

  • A buy and sell agreement defines the process of transferring a partner’s ownership share upon their death or departure, ensuring business continuity.
  • Types of buy-sell agreements include cross-purchase and entity-purchase agreements, which determine how shares are bought out.
  • Key considerations include protecting ownership, valuing shares, and addressing triggering events.
  • Partners should work with legal, financial, and insurance professionals when establishing a buy and sell agreement.
View Article Sources

  1. Buy and Sell Agreement Definition
    – Investopedia

  2. Buy-Sell Agreements for the Family Owned Business
    – William and Mary Law School

  3. Buy Sell Agreements – Options to Purchase
    – North Carolina State University