I Always Thought the Business Would Go To My Children, But Now I’m Not So Sure

Joan M. Ridley, CEPA, CBI, CFP®

See if This Sounds Familiar…  
You have labored long and hard in your business for decades, and, to your credit the business is thriving.  Your son or daughter has worked in the business and you have paid him a fair wage. (I will use the male gender only for the sake of simplicity.)  Somewhere along the line you might have mentioned or insinuated that someday “he could or would take over the business”, or, that “the business would be his”.    If you are like most business owners, you probably did not give much thought at the time about what this meant to your son, to you, or how you would make this happen.  

You might also have overlooked the impact such a transfer could have on the rest of your family, your employees, and the business – not to mention the impact it would have on your personal financial situation.  As the years slipped by, maybe you did not prepare for such an important transfer of power or wealth.  Now you are thinking about leaving the business and spending your days doing the things you always dreamed about doing.  But, the reality of the situation is keeping you up at night.  Maybe you try to think through the situation, but you keep going around in circles.  

Maybe you are wondering:

  • Should you transfer your business to your children
  • How to transfer the business to those children who are active in the business and what to do for those who are not
  • How to provide for your family’s financial security
  • How to keep the business in the family and still be able to pay estate tax
  • How to avoid having to resume control if your kids prove unable meet the demands of ownership
  • Should you gift the business to them or should they pay for it, and if so, how much

How to Get Off the Merry-Go-Round
Before you can begin to deal with the situation, you will need more facts.  You need to know: what your business is worth; how much cash you need to walk away with after tax; the facts about estate, gift, income, capital gains, and state tax; community property law; how long the transfer process will take; if it is feasible to gift part or all of the business to your offspring; and, if you will sell it to him, how much you should finance. Other areas need to be explored such as what is the future for your business, your industry; and the economy.  You also need to assess those aspects of your business that add or detract from the value, and, if your son or daughter is capable of developing strategies to deal with those issues, especially if you plan to finance the sale.  This is a lot to think about all at once.  No wonder you are having difficulty sleeping at night, much less making decisions. The key to getting off the merry-go-round of indecision is to know how and where to gather the facts, how they all fit together for your benefit, and what advisors to retain to help you make sense of it all.  

You Need to Know

  • Your needs, capabilities, and desires
  • Your offspring’s needs, capabilities, and desires
  • The current and future position of your business
  • Federal and state tax issues and other laws

Does Your Kids Have What It Takes?
Once you have determined that transferring the business (either selling or gifting) to your offspring makes sense for you, the next step is to assess his natural ability and preparedness for ownership.  An independent viewpoint would be helpful here since a parent’s viewpoint is understandably biased.  In order to assess the situation, answer the following questions:

Family Succession Check-List

  • Does your child really want to own the business, or is he just trying to please you?  
  • Has he been groomed to successfully run all aspects of the business?
  • If he is lacking in specific skills, is there enough cash flow in the organization to hire someone to perform those tasks?
  • Does he have the passion and entrepreneurial gene to drive the business forward and deal with inevitable changing conditions?  
  • Does he voluntarily work the necessary hours now to get the job done?
  • Does he identify issues in the organization that need to be addressed, even if you don‘t agree with his views?
  • Does he take the initiative to seek solutions?
  • Do the employees and key people look to him as a leader?
  • Does he maintain a lifestyle free of addictions and one that commands respect?
  • Does he have a home life that accommodates the demands of a business owner?
  • Is he insurable?
  • Will you sleep at night if he takes over?    

Can Your Child Lead the Company as Well as Run It?
Just because your adult child is good at “running” the business in your absence, this does not necessarily indicate that he could step into an ownership role and be successful.   Running the company and leading it require two entirely different skill sets.  Effective leadership requires vision and courage. It also requires the ability to: develop systems; to delegate; and to select and command respect from the right talent. When your children were young you left them with a capable baby sitter, but would you have wanted that same person to be totally responsible for raising them?       

Beware the Position of Entitlement and Other Issues
Have a serious discussion with your child about his position.  Once you determine that he is qualified to lead and run the business, determine if he really wants to step into that role.  Does he have other career aspirations? Would he be willing to forsake a personal relationship now or in the future that would require that he relocate?  Is he assuming that he will receive the business as a gift?  Does he think he already has an equity or legal interest in the business?  This discussion might be more productive if you have some outside help from a professional such as a family business counselor.  If you are not absolutely positive that your offspring would be successful at running and leading the business, or if he is too young for you to even consider such a move at this time, consider hiring a CEO and others to groom him for ownership.   This will buy you time to delay this important decision until you can properly assess the situation while allowing you to spend more time on your own outside interests.

Current and Future Position of the Company
The next step is to position the company for success.  A written strategic business plan is important.  Without it, you might be setting your successor son or daughter up for failure. Test the waters by involving him or her with the professionals who are developing and drafting the plan.  It is an excellent way to further assess his or her abilities. 

Assess Your Options
Invest the necessary dollars to work with quality trusted advisors to help you examine the options and issues, and then develop and implement strategies.  You might find that there are solutions that you had not considered.  At this point you need to address the various tax-saving strategies involved with both gifting and selling to your offspring.

Time is An Important Issue
Transferring the business to your family member will take longer than you think.  Start several years before you wish for the transfer to take place.   There are several reasons to give yourself plenty of time.  One important reason is that it could take a few years to come to the conclusion that a third party sale is a more attractive option for you than a family transfer.  This does not necessarily mean that your son or daughter would leave the business, or that he or she could not remain in a key position.  Although a third party sale can usually be accomplished in a shorter period of time than transferring to a family member, you want to be sure that you are selling in a strong market.  That means you need to give yourself plenty of time to assess the feasibility of a family transfer so that if you abandon the idea, you are able to offer the business for sale to a third party before the market weakens, insuring you an opportunity to receive maximum value in a reasonable amount of time.   


Joan M. Ridley (CEPA, CBI, CFP™) is an author, speaker and President of Business Wealth Solutions, LLC. She leads design and implementation of strategies to help business owners exceed their goals before and after retirement. She has more than 30 years of experience advising business owners and managing their business and non-business wealth.   

Copyright 2015Joan M. Ridley

Posted on January 20, 2016 .