Why You Need an Estate Plan to Protect Your Business—and Your Family

Why You Need an Estate Plan to Protect Your Business—and Your Family

by Jane Haskins, Esq., August 2016

Almost no one likes to contemplate their own death, and maybe that's why so many small business owners don't have an estate plan.

But avoiding estate planning is a mistake that can have devastating consequences for both your business and your family.

An estate plan empowers you to choose what will happen when you are no longer able to run your business. It protects your family from being blindsided by taxes or business debts that could have been avoided.

With the right estate plan in place, you minimize the chance that your business will cause family conflicts after your death, or that its value will be destroyed by a family member who is ill-equipped to run it.

What Estate Planning Documents Will I Need?

Common estate planning documents for small business owners include:

  • A will that describes who will receive your money and property after you die. If you die without a will, your assets will automatically go to family members, in an order of priority established by your state's laws, which may not align with your desires.
  • A trust holds assets for the trust's beneficiaries. Trusts are commonly set up to protect assets, avoid probate, or minimize taxes.
  • Powers of attorney allow someone else to make decisions, handle finances, and/or sign documents on your behalf if you become incapacitated.
  • In a buy-sell agreement, a company's owners agree to buy out the interest of a deceased or incapacitated owner. The buyout may be funded by owner life insurance.

A simple set of documents may be sufficient for a small business. But as your business grows in size and complexity, your estate planning needs may become more complex as well.

How to Get Started with an Estate Plan

Here's what you need to do to establish an estate plan that protects your business and your family:

Step 1: Define your goals.

What should happen to your business after you are gone?

  • If you are single or have a young family, you might want to close it down, sell it, or have your business partners buy out your share.
  • If you have grown children, you might want one or more of them to take it over.
  • Try to be realistic about family dynamics and family members' capabilities, and establish a goal that is good for both your family and your business.

Step 2: Meet with an estate planning lawyer.

Explain your goals to an estate planning lawyer. The lawyer can advise you on the best estate planning strategies for your situation. The lawyer will also ask you about your family, your other assets, and to whom you should grant powers of attorney.

Step 3: Talk to your family or business partners.

Once you have some guidance, talk to your family and business partners if you have them. Explain what you want to do and see if they are on board, or if they have legitimate concerns. This avoids surprises and conflicts later, and helps you see if there are problems with your plan that you hadn't thought of.

Step 4: Have a lawyer prepare your estate planning documents, and review and sign them.

Estate planning documents are worthless if they're not signed, and some documents, such as wills, must be signed in the presence of a witness to be valid. Follow your lawyer's instructions for signing, witnessing, or notarizing the documents.

Step 5: Take care of loose ends.

Good estate planning means taking care of everything that will be triggered by your death. You may need to get life insurance, update beneficiary designations on IRAs or insurance policies, or transfer assets into a trust. Your lawyer can advise you on additional steps you should take.

It's easy to put off estate planning, but when you create an estate plan—that includes both your family and your business—you gain peace of mind that you've done the best you can for your business and for your loved ones.