How to Plan a Business Succession

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How to Plan a Business Succession

Winter is a slower season for farmers and ranchers. It offers family business leaders time to plan for the future. A recent article from Progressive Farmer, “Family Business Matters: Eight Practical Succession Ideas,” lists ideas to improve succession and estate planning efforts.

Update balance sheets. Families who own land passed through generations don’t always like to show the land at its current fair market value. Even if you intend to never sell the land, creating an estate plan requires an accurate valuation of all assets to minimize the consequences of estate and income taxes.

Chart ownership for the future. Family members often have no understanding of how they will achieve ownership of the business and its assets. Will it be a gift? Will there be taxes to pay? Or will it be a sale? Will they need to buy out non-farming family members? Without clear answers to these and related questions, people may find themselves operating on assumptions, which almost always leads to conflict or family fractures.

Start handing off management tasks sooner, not later. Plan for the transition by starting with discrete business functions. This could be as straightforward as making decisions about equipment, purchasing crop insurance, or enrolling in a Farm Service Agency. This gives the senior generation the ability to delegate and observe, while empowering and more fully engaging the next generation.

Refresh estate planning documents. People often neglect to update estate documents. Review wills, trusts, trustees, beneficiary designations, advance medical directives and power of attorney documents. Are the people named in various roles still appropriate? Does your estate still work, in light of changing tax laws? This should happen at least every three to five years.

Assess tax consequences of exiting the business. Part of retirement funding is the tax liability of leaving the family business. Deferred income, prepaid expenses and fully depreciated equipment can lead to significant tax exposure. Three to five years ahead of your departure, start mapping out a plan with your accountant, estate planning attorney and financial advisor.

Create a relationship between family members and landowners. If you rent property from an absentee landowner, those relationships will be vital to continuing the business. You may not be able to influence the landowner at the time of transition to the next generation. However, establishing relationships with family members who will take over for you can reduce friction.

Communicate the benefits family members will get from working together to maintain the business. Passing land from one generation to the next often means siblings or cousins become business partners, with undivided interests in the land or as shareholders or members of some legal entity. Family members who may not get along will benefit from having a “buy-sell agreement” in place. This spells out how partners can buy out each other’s interest if one or more family members want to sell. Talk with your estate planning attorney to establish an agreement in advance of anyone leaving the business to reduce the potential of family conflict.

Reference: Progressive Farmer (Jan. 1, 2023) “Family Business Matters: Eight Practical Succession Ideas”

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