Exiting From A Business You Own
Owning a business often beats working for someone else, but ownership can complicate important personal
decisions. An employee who is retirement age can simply decide to retire and do it. It's not so easy with
a business of your own. Preserving the value of your business takes careful planning, whether you want
to continue working until your heirs succeed you or you want to retire.
Some owners aren't interested in retiring. They want to continue with their business as long as they
possibly can and then leave it to their heirs. That's an option with both an income-tax and an estate-tax
impact. For your heirs, it means an income-tax advantage. For your estate, it means an estate-tax disadvantage.
The advantage comes from the step-up that the law allows in the tax basis of inherited assets. Your
heirs' tax basis in your business will be its value at the time of your death. This eliminates any potential
capital gains tax liability on the growth in the business's value during your lifetime.
That growth becomes an estate-tax disadvantage because the entire value of your business will be included
in your estate for estate-tax purposes. Paying the estate tax can be a problem for your heirs if they
won't have life insurance proceeds or other liquid assets to draw on. They may have to sell the entire
business, or part of it, to raise cash.
If you plan to stay in control of your business while you live, you'll need a financially sound business
succession plan to assure the least overall tax impact from transferring your ownership upon your death.
Taking Your Cash Out
If you would rather retire, you'll need a way to "cash out" of your business. Arranging a
direct sale is one possibility. However, it may be difficult to find a willing and ready buyer. Frequently,
buyers are only willing if you are part of the deal. To close the sale, you may have to agree to remain
on the job for a while to help the business continue to prosper. Other times, a willing buyer is short
of the cash for an immediate buyout. You may have to accept the risk of an installment sale: relying on
a business that you no longer control to generate your retirement funds.
Alternatives to an outright sale include using an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and taking your
An ESOP lets you take your cash out of your business by selling it to the employees who helped you
build it. You effect the sale by setting up an ESOP, a type of tax-qualified retirement plan, which borrows
the capital to buy your shares in your company. The ESOP then uses the business's retirement plan contributions
to gradually repay the loan. As that occurs, the ESOP trustee releases the stock to the ESOP plan accounts
of the participating employees. The employees receive their vested shares upon retiring or in other circumstances,
and the company must offer to buy the shares back at a fair market price.
When your company goes public, you give outside investors the opportunity to buy new stock in your
company. After completion of the initial offering, you can sell your shares (following the securities
regulations) to convert your ownership interest to cash as you leave the company.
Giving Your Interest Away
It may be possible to avoid the taxes that can make transferring your business on your death costly
and difficult. If you are more concerned with transferring your business than with taking your money out,
you can use a series of gifts during your lifetime to give away shares in your business. The tax law allows
an annual gift-tax exclusion for small gifts. That lets you give an unlimited number of individuals up
to $10,000 worth of stock (or other assets) each year, free of gift tax. (This amount is indexed for inflation.)
The annual amount rises to $20,000 if your spouse joins you in making the gift. By giving to a number
of family members, you can make a tax-free transfer over time of a large part of your shares.
Consult Before You Act
Planning to transfer a business interest takes specialized skills. It's important to consult with your
professional advisors before you act on any business transfer or estate plan.