Succession Planning: How to Successfully Transition a Family Owned Business

Guide to successfully transitioning a family owned business, Carosella & Associates


Family businesses play a substantial role in the American economy and culture. According to the Harvard Business Review, private and publicly held family-owned businesses are responsible for 60 percent of total U.S. employment, and generate 78 percent of all new jobs. Nearly 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies are family-owned. Although family businesses account for the majority of jobs in this country, approximately 70 percent of family businesses last just one generation.


If you run a family owned business, you may have dreams about passing your business on to your children or grandchildren to cultivate and continue a much-loved legacy. Owning and running a family business can be a rewarding endeavor, but careful planning is essential to ensure that these dreams become a reality.


In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world, many business owners get caught up in the minutiae of day-to-day operations. It is easy to forget some of the most vital elements that can facilitate success for the next generation. If you overlook these important matters, the legacy of your life’s work may not endure.

The Importance of Business Succession Planning


Business owners often neglect to prioritize the legal and financial aspects of protecting and transferring a business. In order to avoid mistakes when transferring a family business from one generation to another, an effective business succession plan needs to be crafted and put in place. The business succession planning process can be very complex and personal, especially when those who are very close to you are involved.


As the founder or current owner of a family business, it is your responsibility to make sure that you have a formal succession plan that outlines how the business will be passed down. Without a plan in place, an unforeseen event such as death or disability can have drastic financial and emotional consequences. Planning ahead can ensure that you, your business and family are protected.


Legal, personal and tax implications of the various options that are available for succession must be considered before the plan is developed. Family dynamics can present unique challenges in many businesses, and should be frankly discussed and taken into account. Have a candid discussion with your attorney about your needs, goals, concerns and expectations. Family squabbles and infighting can quickly erode and destroy the cherished legacy of a family business. A carefully designed process and timeline can help everyone involved understand the process and avoid conflict or confusion down the road.


Making sure your personal finances are in order upon your passing or retirement is integral to the succession process as well. There are a few things you can do to ensure your family legacy remains intact during a transition to the next generation. For starters, seek the counsel of skilled estate planning lawyers to provide a more objective and less emotional perspective, and craft a specialized plan that will benefit both you and your successors.


Seasoned attorneys can also help you create a plan that will allow you to pass your business on while minimizing tax liability for you and your loved ones. A variety of strategies can be used for this, including:


  • Putting assets into various types of trusts

There are a variety of revocable and irrevocable trusts that can help you and your family protect your business and assets and limit tax liability.


  • Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT)

A GRAT is a special type of irrevocable trust that allows the Grantor to pass wealth to the next generation without having to pay estate or gift tax. The Grantor transfers assets into the name of the GRAT and receives a yearly annuity payment for a certain period of time. When the term of the GRAT ends, the assets remaining in the GRAT are distributed to the trust beneficiaries. If the Grantor dies before the period ends, all assets in the GRAT are automatically put into the Grantor’s estate.


  • Gifting stocks or other rapidly appreciating assets

You can avoid paying the capital gains tax by giving stock as a gift. Recipients of these gifted stocks won’t owe taxes until they sell them. Another way to gift stock is to transfer assets directly to your beneficiaries at the time of your death with a Transfer on Death Agreement (TOD).


Other assets that are expected to appreciate rapidly can also be given as annual gifts to make use of the annual gift tax exclusion. Gifting strategies can be complex, so it is best to consult with your lawyers to figure out which strategy will work best for you and your family.


  • Family Limited Partnerships

A Family Limited Partnership is a type of partnership that is formed to consolidate family business or investment accounts. In an FLP, a family’s assets are pooled into one family-owned business partnership of which family members own shares. Shares in an FLP can be passed down to future generations at taxation rates that are lower than those that would be applied to a traditional partnership’s or corporation’s holdings.

Identifying Skills and Defining Roles in a Family Business


Working together and establishing a shared sense of goals and a strong work ethic can solidify the success of your family business. Whether someone is a family member or long-time employee, every person who works in your company should hold a position that provides the most benefit to your business. It may seem like common sense, but this step is often overlooked when family is involved.


Make roles and responsibilities clear and defined so there is an expectation of who is in charge of what. Once roles are defined, create a job description of each role to share with all of those involved. This creates a sense of accountability and can help to set people up for success.


In order to build and maintain the trust required to sustain the company’s long-term vision, it is also important to provide insight about the inner workings of the business to different family members who have varying levels of education, experience, and knowledge. Make sure that people’s jobs fit their skill sets, work styles and personalities. For example, if your daughter excels at sales but is ineffective at managing others, don’t make the mistake of putting her in charge of Human Resources.


It is also prudent to avoid over- or underpaying family members. This can create dissent and divisiveness, which can negatively affect employee morale and the success of your business.


Create an Advisory Board

Many family-owned businesses are reluctant to enlist the help of outsiders due to concerns about whether the family’s vision for the business will be truly understood and honored. Your company’s board of advisors should be comprised of non-family members such as your attorney, accountant, and/or colleagues you can trust.

At the very least, the board should meet annually to review how the business is doing and discuss family roles as part of the succession plan. This is an effective way to get invaluable outside guidance and can impact decisions that affect not only your bottom line, but familial relationships. Outside expertise in areas you may not be familiar with can prove to be significantly beneficial to the growth of your company. If you’re not sure where to start, ask people you know who have a history of working in a family business about their experiences with creating an advisory board.


Enjoy Working Together


In an ideal world, family businesses should have a shared vision and value system that can be passed down through generations. Communication is key. Talk openly about issues before they become conflicts. While there will be skirmishes and challenges, when you and your loved ones are working together toward a common goal, ultimately bonds may be strengthened and relationships can be improved. Look for the strengths in one another and work to support and cultivate those strengths. Remember why and how the business was started, as well as the importance of keeping and growing the business for the next generation.


A family business not only provides financial and professional success, it can teach your children the value of a dollar and help them to become financially savvy. Working in a family business also requires them to strategize, solve problems, and resolve conflicts together. Having a shared goal that may ultimately lead to resounding success or unfortunately, failure, can embolden them to be persistent and instill the value of working toward something greater than themselves.


While your visions of your loved ones’ future may be bright, thinking about passing your business on to your family and what may happen when you’re gone can be stressful and overwhelming. Carosella & Associates’ experienced lawyers can help to ensure a smooth transition, allay your fears and put your mind at ease. Feel free to reach our capable and conscientious attorneys in West Chester and Montgomery & Delaware counties for guidance every step of the way.