This summer I am posting the "best of" The Blunt Bean Counter blog while I work on my golf game. Today, I am re-posting a June, 2014 blog post on Estate Freezes. If this topic interests you, there were two follow-up posts based on noted author Tom Deans, that suggest an Estate Freeze could be the wrong solution for family succession and a discussion of some vital issues when transferring a family business.
Estate Freeze – A Tax Solution for the Succession of a Small Business
Winston Churchill once said, “Let our advance worrying, become advance thinking and planning.” Small business owners often worry about their exit strategy and/or succession plan. They may also be concerned about what would happen to their business if they have a health scare or receive an ultimatum from a child working in their business. Often a small business owner’s worry becomes their anxiety, instead of their advanced planning.
As a small business owner, at the end of the day, there are essentially only two exit strategy/succession options you need to plan and/or consider:
(1) A sale of your business, typically to a competitor, sometimes to current management or very infrequently, an actual sale to a child or other family member; or
(2) A transfer of the business to your children without a sale (for purposes of this article I will refer to this option as an “estate freeze”).
My blog post today discusses estate freezes. How you can transfer your business tax-free to a successor (typically your children, sometimes to existing management) while continuing to control and receive remuneration from your business.
As noted in the links in the first paragraph, Tom Deans the author of Every Family's Business (the bestselling family business book of all-time) believes a business should in most cases be sold and never handed over to the next generation (such as done with an estate freeze) without the parent(s) adequately being compensated for the business, including their children.
What is an Estate Freeze?
The key risk in any estate freeze is that your children may partially or fully devalue these shares and your company. So while an estate freeze may be the most tax efficient way to transfer your business, it may not be the best decision from an economic or monetization perspective.
In a typical estate freeze, you exchange your common shares of your corporation on a tax-free basis for preferred shares that have a permanent value (“frozen value”) equal to the common shares’ fair market value (“FMV”) at the time of the freeze. Subsequently, a successor or successors, say your children or family trust can subscribe for new common shares of the corporation for a nominal amount.
This concept is best explained with an example. Assume Mr. A has an incorporated business worth $3,000,000 and wants to undertake an estate freeze. In the course of the freeze, Mr. A is issued new preferred shares worth $3,000,000 and his children or a family trust subscribes for new common shares for nominal consideration. Mr. A’s tax liability in relation to these shares on death, is now fixed at approximately $750,000 in Ontario at the high rate. Often, a key aspect of an estate freeze is a plan to reduce the tax liability by redeeming the preferred shares on a year by year basis as discussed below.
If you have access to your lifetime capital gains exemption (currently at $813,600 but indexed for inflation), your income tax liability may be reduced when the shares are eventually sold or upon your death if you still own them at that time. Finally, you may choose to crystallize your exemption when you freeze the shares.
The preferred shares received on the freeze can be created such that they allow you to maintain voting control of your corporation until you are satisfied your child(ren), is(are) running the company in the manner you desire. This maybe a double-edged sword, as you may tend to hold onto control long after your successors have proven themselves. This may become a contentious issue.
The Benefits of an Estate Freeze
1. On death (something we should all be planning for), an individual is subject to a deemed disposition (i.e. a sale) on all of his/her assets at FMV, which would include his/her shares of the business. An estate freeze sets your maximum income tax liability upon this deemed sale and as discussed above, this liability can be lowered over the years by redeeming the shares.
2. Family members will be able to become shareholders of the business at a minimal cost and be motivated to build the business (although Tom Deans would dispute this assertion).
3. Instead of having children directly subscribe for new common shares, you can create a discretionary family trust to hold the common shares. Every year, the corporation can pay dividends to the family trust which can then allocate the dividends to family members with lower marginal tax rates. This mechanism allows for great income splitting opportunities.
One of the more critical aspects of an estate freeze is the determination of the fair market value ("FMV") of your business. In order to ensure that an estate freeze proceeds as smoothly as possible, the FMV of the company must be calculated. In the event that the FMV determined is challenged by the Canada Revenue Agency (the “CRA”) the attributes of the preferred shares will have a purchase price adjustment clause that will let the freezer reset the FMV. The CRA has stated in the past that they will generally accept the use of a purchase price adjustment clause if a “reasonable attempt” has been made in valuing the company. Engaging a third party independent Chartered Business Valuator to prepare a valuation report is generally accepted as a “reasonable attempt” in estimating the FMV.
Issues to Consider Before Implementing an Estate Freeze
An estate freeze does not make sense for all business owners. While the above benefits do sound very enticing, it depends on each owner’s personal circumstances. Issues to be considered include:
1. Are you relying on the value of the company to fund your retirement? If so, it may be best to sell and ensure you have a secure retirement.
2. Do you have an identified successor, i.e. child, able and willing to work in your business?
3. Can you bring one child into the business without creating a dispute amongst your children?
4. Are your children married and how may a divorce or separation impact the business?
Long-time readers of my blog will know that I am a proponent of family discussions and getting over the money taboo. I cannot overstate the importance of having a detailed discussion with your family if you plan to hand your business over to one or more of your children. If you pass that hurdle, you must speak with your accountant and lawyer to ensure you understand the implications of the freeze and how to properly implement the corporate restructuring. Finally, your tax advisor will want to structure the freeze such that it can be “thawed” if the business suffers a setback due to the economy, or your child(ren) prove incapable of running the company.
This site provides general information on various tax issues and other matters. The information is not intended to constitute professional advice and may not be appropriate for a specific individual or fact situation. It is written by the author solely in their personal capacity and cannot be attributed to the accounting firm with which they are affiliated. It is not intended to constitute professional advice, and neither the author nor the firm with which the author is associated shall accept any liability in respect of any reliance on the information contained herein. Readers should always consult with their professional advisors in respect of their particular situation.