What would happen if I’m not here tomorrow?

The primary purpose of a succession plan is to accomplish the client’s goal of transferring ownership and management responsibility to the successor during the owner’s lifetime. However, a sound succession plan must also provide a contingency plan in the event an owner’s premature death or disability forces a transfer before the intended successors are ready.

The contingency plan answers the question “What would happen to my family and the business if I am not there tomorrow?” Because it is planning for the present, it must be monitored and updated as the owner’s situation changes. For example, the contingency plan for an owner with very young children and a wife uninterested in the business might be to sell the business at the maximum possible amount to provide funds for the family. As that owner’s children grow older and show interest in the business, the contingency plan may evolve into transferring management responsibility to a key employee and ownership into a trust until the children are ready and able to take over.

As far as the operation is concerned, the contingency plan must identify the person(s) who would assume management responsibility if the owner were suddenly unavailable. Often this is a key employee who is already very familiar with and involved in making management decisions. If the owner has a child that may someday be able to assume management responsibility, the plan may call for an interim manager until that child is ready. In that case, the plan should also include a way to objectively determine if and when the family member is ready to take over.

The contingency plan should also provide for the owner’s family in the event he or she dies or becomes disabled. In a comprehensive succession plan, this is part of the estate plan and includes deciding whether or not the business should be sold, and who is to become the owner if it is not sold. It also includes providing liquidity to the estate, financial support for the dependents, and a legacy for the heirs. This is usually accomplished by planning to reduce or defer estate tax and may include purchasing life insurance.

The Critical steps for designing a contingency might include:

  • Reviewing an owner’s trust or will to ensure that ownership is transferred appropriately in the event of his untimely death.
  • Determining the family’s living expenses and debt load in the event of the owner’s untimely death or disability.
  • Identifying potential interim management solution if the plan is to wait until children (or other designated successors) are prepared to assume management responsibility.
  • If the business has multiple successors, consider a buy/sell agreement that addresses ownership succession in the event of any of the owner’s deaths.
  • Review any existing agreements to ensure that the result of a triggering event fits the goals of the owner and the needs of the family.