Business Succession Planning: Keeping Your Business Alive With The Next Generation

September 1, 2023

Guide to Succession Planning |


In the dynamic world of business, one constant remains true: change is inevitable. While entrepreneurs and business owners are often focused on the day-to-day operations and growth of their enterprises, they frequently overlook the one crucial aspect that can have a significant impact on their legacy and the future of their businesses – business succession planning. Effective business succession planning is key to ensuring a business’s longevity even when the original founders of the business are no longer involved.

In this months’ family legacy planning article, we shall briefly explore business succession planning in the context of the handing over of a business to a successor when the founder(s) of the business has passed on/ loses mental capacity, what entails proper business succession planning in such a context and the legal ramifications on a business when a business owner fails to make take the necessary actions towards business succession planning.

Business Succession Planning for a situation when a Company Owner Passes On

Business Succession Planning in the above context, is the process of strategically preparing for the transfer of ownership and leadership of a business from one generation or owner to the next. It involves making deliberate decisions and creating a structured plan to ensure the smooth transition of a business’s control and assets to the successor(s), as well as the preservation of its values, mission, and long-term viability.

A structured plan would  include but is not limited to ensuring all legacy documents such as the wills, legacy letters and  the family constitution are consistent, perusing existing shareholders agreement (if any) of the company and identifying any succession issues that could possibly arise (for e.g. the transfer of shares to non-shareholders, the appointment of key position holders in the company, decision-making powers and rights of board members, etc), even having discussions and agreements between business partners and/or family members regarding the control of the company when the founder(s) has/have retired or passed on.

Naturally, where such high stakes are involved, legal consultants and other professionals in the legacy planning industry are engaged to ensure certainty in the steps taken by the business owners.

Potential Legal Issues Arising due to the lack of Business Succession Planning

A well-drafted business succession plan can establish clear guidelines for the transfer of ownership and decision-making authority, reducing the likelihood of conflicts arising. In a situation, however, where proper succession planning had not been made, the potential for disputes among family members, partners, or stakeholders over the control and ownership of the business increases exponentially and this will negatively impact the business. Other factors such as the lack of preparation of funds for a buy-out of exiting shareholders, the lack of a clear direction that would have been set out in a legacy letter or a family constitution, or a lack of a management plan will also negatively impact the business. The following is a non-exhaustive list of issues that could arise when the business owners fail to take the appropriate steps towards business succession planning:

  • Uncertainty and Ambiguity over Future of the Company

In the absence of a succession plan, there may be no clear process for making decisions regarding the shares and the future of the company. Shareholders may have differing interests when it comes to the future of the company – some may want to retain ownership and control, while others may prefer to cash out their shares. These conflicting objectives can ignite disputes over the direction and management of the business.

A clearly-worded will, setting out the distribution of the shareholdings, accompanied with a legacy letter of how the founder hopes and wishes for the business to be managed and conducted, will align the goals and direction of the successors of the business.

  • Disputes About Control and Management of the Business

Without a clear and documented plan for the transfer of shares, shareholders and potential heirs may be uncertain about who is entitled to what portion of the business. Shareholders may have different expectations and assumptions regarding transition, resulting in legal disputes over the control and management of the business.

Family businesses are particularly susceptible to shareholding disputes. Sibling rivalries, generational differences, and emotional attachments to the business can complicate matters and result in protracted legal battles.

Constant communications within the family and setting clear family rules via a Family Constitution has helped large family businesses survive the test of time. With rules in place, expectations managed, empathy promoted, and goals aligned, members of the family are less likely to allow personal feelings to ruin the family and business relations.

  • Lack of Buy-Sell Agreement and Valuation Disagreements

Even in situations where the parties are agreeable to buy-out the shares of the exiting shareholder(s), without a properly formulated Buy-Sell Agreement which predefines the valuation method or formula, shareholders may disagree on how to assess the worth of their shares and how to go about purchasing the shares from the exiting shareholders, leading to disputes over pricing and buyout terms.

It is thus important for the incumbent management to conduct proper housekeeping and set out the valuation methods for the business such that if and when such buy-outs do occur, parties can take the necessary steps to allow for an amicable parting of ways. Other risk management tools such key-man insurance could also be utilised to ensure minimal disruption to the cash flow of the party seeking to buy the shares of the exiting party.

  • Disruption to Business

 Many business owners fail to cater for the event which results in a sudden loss of their mental capacity (e.g. slipping into a coma from an accident, a botched surgery, etc). Having the head of the business suddenly becoming incapacitated could cripple an entire business. The sudden loss of a competent leader in an organisation would definitely impact a business in the short term (and potentially the long term if a competent successor cannot be found fast enough) and key business decisions would come to an immediate stand-still.

Having a well-drafted Lasting Power of Attorney that gives clear instructions on how the representatives of the incapacitated business owner shall make decisions and what they should do in such a situation will reduce the risk of any prolonged ‘down time’ of the business and ensure that the business continues to function.

 Concluding Thoughts

The lack of proper business succession planning will lead to a void in terms of ownership rights and decision-making processes, resulting in uncertainty and ambiguity among shareholders and potential heirs. These uncertainties often lead to disagreements, misunderstandings, and conflicts that can escalate into legal disputes, creating significant risks for the business’s stability and future success. To avoid these pitfalls, it is essential for business owners to establish a clear and legally sound succession plan that addresses the distribution of shares and management rights in a comprehensive manner.

How can SMTP Assist you?

Having an experienced hand guiding you through the intricacies of estate law is always helpful. Our team is well-equipped with the expertise and knowledge to provide you with the advice, recommendations and tools that would be essential to effective business succession planning. With our wealth of experience in estate law, our team is able to identify the potential issues that you may face in your business succession planning journey and assist with the drafting of the necessary documents such as wills, legacy letters and family constitutions, that would be essential towards ensuring a smooth transition of ownership and management of the business.

SMTP’s core philosophy is to provide bespoke legal advice based on our private clients’ specific needs and requirements, as cases always differ on their fine details. Our team of dedicated staff is ever eager and prepared to assist interested parties. Should you or your clients require any assistance in the drafting of your wills, legacy letters and assisting you and your family with the creation of a Family Constitution, please feel free to contact our Business Development Team to schedule a consultation. We look forward to working with you.