3 Critical Legal Tips When Buying a Business

Every buyer of a small business should consider the following three key legal issues when acquiring a business.

1. Buy Assets and Not Liabilities.

Most small business purchases are done as what are called “Asset Purchases”. In an Asset Purchase the buyer of the business acquires the assets of the business only. The assets include the goodwill, name, equipment, supplies, inventory, customers, etc. According to the terms of a properly drafted Asset Purchase Agreement, the assets do not include the prior owner’s business liabilities (the known or unknown). Under an Asset Purchase the buyer typically establishes a new company which will operate the business. This new company is free from the prior company’s liabilities and actions.

A “Stock Purchase” on the other hand occurs when the buyer acquires the stock or LLC units of the existing business. There are a few downsides to acquiring a business under a stock purchase. First, if you buy the stock or units of an existing company then you get the existing assets AND the existing liabilities of the acquired company. Since a new buyer hasn’t operated the business it is impossible for them to accurately quantify the existing liabilities. The second downside to a Stock Purchase is that the new owner of the company takes the current tax position of the departing owner when it comes to writing off equipment and other items in the company at the time of purchase. The downside to this is that the seller of the business may have already fully written off these items leaving the new business owner with little business assets to depreciate (despite a significant financial investment). If, on the other hand, the buyer acquired the “assets” in an Asset Purchase the buyer would depreciate and expense those assets as the new business owner chooses and in the most aggressive manner possible. Bottom line, an Asset Purchase has less liability risk and has better tax benefits that will allow the buyer to generate better tax write-offs and deductions over the life of the business.

2. Negotiate For Some Seller Financed Terms.

Many small business purchases include some form of seller financed terms whereby the seller agrees to be paid a portion of the purchase price over time via a promissory note. Seller financing terms are excellent for the buyer because they keep the seller interested and motivated in the buyer’s success since business failure typically means that the buyer wont be able to fully pay the seller. If the seller gets all of their money at closing then the seller is typically less interested in helping transition the business to the new owner as the seller has already been paid in full. Also, if the seller misrepresented something in the business during the sale that results in financial loss to the buyer, the buyer can offset the loss or costs incurred by amounts the buyer owes the seller on the note. In sum, the seller financed note gives the buyer some leverage to make sure the value in the business is properly and fairly transferred.

3. Conduct Adequate Due Diligence.

While it may go without saying that a buyer of a business should conduct adequate due diligence, you would be surprised at how many business purchases occur simply based on the statements or e-mails of a seller as opposed to actual tax returns or third party financials showing the financial condition of the business. A few due diligence items to consider are; get copies of the prior tax returns for the company, get copies of third party financials, make the seller complete a due diligence questionnaire where the seller represents the condition of the business to the buyer (similar to what you complete when you sell a house to someone). A lawyer with experience in business transactions can help significantly in conducting the due diligence and in drafting the final documents.

Buying an existing business is not only a significant financial commitment but is also a significant time commitment. Make sure the business is something worth your time and money before you sign. Oh, and make sure you get a well drafted set of purchase documents to sign.

Three Instances of When You Need a New Subsidiary Entity for Your Business

Photo of an empty, minimalist boardroom overlooking an empty field.Are you growing your business? Adding new products or services? New locations? Adding partners or owners? If so, these are all instances when you should consider setting up a subsidiary or other new entity for your existing company. While you can run multiple streams of business through one entity, there are tax, asset protection, and partnership reasons why you may want to open up a new subsidiary entity for your new activity.

Let’s run through a few common situations when it makes sense to open up a subsidiary entity. And by subsidiary, I mean “a new entity which is owned wholly or partly by your primary business entity or by a common holding company.” Your new subsidiary could result in a parent and child relationship where your primary entity (parent) owns the new subsidiary entity (child), or it could be a brother and sister type structure where the primary business is a separate entity (brother) to the new entity (sister) and the two are only connected by you or your holding company that owns each separately and distinctly. (See the diagrams below to view the differences.)

I. Adding a New Product or Service

You may want a new entity to separate and differentiate services or products for liability purposes. For example, let’s say you are a real estate broker providing services of buying and selling properties and you decide to start providing property management services. Because the property management service entails more liability risk, a new entity owned wholly by your existing business could be utilized. The benefit of the new subsidiary is that if anything occurs in the new property management business, then that liability is contained in the new subsidiary and does not go down and affect your existing purchase and sale business. On the other hand, if you ran the property management services directly from the existing company without a new subsidiary and a liability arose, then your purchase and sale business that is running through the same entity would be effected and subject to the liability.

For tax purposes, in this instance, the income from the new subsidiary entity (child) will flow down to the parent entity without a federal tax return, and as a result, there is no benefit or disadvantage from a tax planning standpoint.

 

Diagram displaying the Parent-Child Subsidiary structure

 

II. Opening a New Location

What if you’re establishing a new retail or office location for your business? Let’s say you are a restaurant opening up your second location. For asset protection purposes, you should consider setting up a second entity for the new location. This can limit your risk on the lease (don’t sign a personal guarantee) for the new location or for any liability that may occur at the new location. In this instance, if one location fails or has liability, it won’t affect the other location as they are held in separate entities. The saying goes, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” In this case, the basket is the same entity and the locations are your eggs.  In the multiple location scenario, you should consider the brother-sister subsidiary structure such that each location is owned in a brother-sister relationship (e.g. neither owns the other) and their common connection is simply the underlying company (or person) who owns each entity for each location. Because both locations have risk it is useful for each to have their own entity and not to own each other (as can occur in the parent-child subsidiary). When structured in a brother-sister relationship, the liability for each location is contained in each subsidiary entity and cannot run over into the other subsidiary entity (the sibling entity) or down to the owner (which may be you personally or your operational holding company).

For tax purposes, the brother and sister subsidiary income (usually single member LLCs) flows down to the parent or primary entity where a tax return is filed (usually an S-Corp). (See the diagram below for an illustration.)Diagram displaying the Brother-Sister Subsidiary structure

III. Adding a New Partner

Maybe you’re starting a new business or operation where you have a new partner involved. If this partner isn’t involved in your other business activities or your existing company, it is critical that a new entity be established to operate the new partnership business. If you have an existing entity where you run business operational income (e.g., an S-Corporation), then this entity may own your share of the new partnership entity (e.g., an LLC) with your new partner. Your share of the new partnership income flows through the partnership to your existing business entity where you will recognize the income and pay yourself. In this instance, your existing entity is the parent and the new partnership is a partial-child subsidiary. The new partnership entity will typically file a partnership tax return.

IV. California Caveat

Because of gross receipts taxes in California, you may use a Q-Sub entity model where the subsidiary entity is actually another S-Corporation and is called a Q-Sub. This is available only when the parent entity is an S-Corporation and can avoid double gross receipts tax at the subsidiary and parent entity level.

Make sure you speak to your tax attorney for specific planning considerations as there are asset protection and tax considerations unique to each business and subsidiary structure.

Self-Directed IRA Versus Solo 401(k)

Photo of a crossroad in a forest with the text "Self-Directed IRA Versus Solo 401(k)."Many self-directed investors have the option of choosing between a self-directed IRA or a self-directed solo 401k. Both accounts can be self-directed so that you can invest into any investment allowed by law such as real estate, LLCs, precious metals, or private company stock. However, depending on your situation, you may choose one account type over the other. What are the differences? When should you choose one over the other?

 IRASolo 401K
QualificationMust be an individual with earned income or funds in a retirement account to rollover.Must be self-employed with no other employees besides the business owner and family/partners.
Contribution Max$5,500 max annual contribution. Additional $1,000 if over 50.$53,000 max annual contribution (it takes $140K of wage/se income to max out). Contributions are employee and employer.
Traditional & RothYou can have a Roth IRA and/or a Traditional IRA. The amount you contribute to each is added together in determining total contributions.A solo 401(k) can have a traditional account and a roth account within the same plan. You can convert traditional sums over to Roth as well.
Cost and Set-UpYou will work with a self-directed IRA custodian who will receive the IRA contributions in a SDIRA account. Most of the custodians we work with have an annual fee of $300-$350 a year for a self-directed IRA.You must use an IRS preapproved document when establishing a solo 401k. This adds additional cost over an IRA. Our fee for a self-directed and self-trusteed solo 401(k) is $1,200.
Custodian RequirementAn IRA must have a third party custodian involved on the account (e.g. bank. Credit union, trust company) who is the trustee of the IRA.A 401(k) can be self trustee’d, meaning the business owner can be the trustee of the 401(k). This provides for greater control but also greater responsibility.
Investment DetailsA self-directed IRA is invested through the self directed IRA custodian. A self-directed IRA can be subject to a tax called UDFI/UBIT on income from debt leveraged real estate.A Solo 401(k) is invested by the trustee of the 401(k) which could be the business owner. A solo 401(k) is exempt from UDFI/UBIT on income from debt leveraged real estate.

Keep in mind that the solo 401(k) is only available to self-employed persons while the self-directed IRA is available to everyone who has earned income or who has funds in an existing retirement account that can be rolled over to an IRA.

Conclusion

Based on the differences outlined above, a solo 401(k) is generally a better option for someone who is self-employed and still trying to maximize contributions as the solo 401(k) has much higher contribution amounts. On the other hand, a self-directed IRA is a better option for someone who has already saved for retirement and who has enough funds in their retirement accounts that can be rolled over and invested via a self-directed IRA as the self-directed IRA is easier to and cheaper to establish.

Another major consideration in deciding between a solo 401(k) and self-directed IRA is whether there will be debt on real estate investments. If there is debt and if the account owner is self-employed, they are much better off choosing a solo 401(k) over an IRA as solo 401(k)s are exempt from UDFI tax on leveraged real estate.

Choosing between a self-directed IRA and a solo 401(k) is a critical decision when you start self-directing your retirement. Make sure you consider all of the differences before you establish your new account.