The reality and finality of death is uncomfortable to think about. However, people need to plan for death, unless they want to leave their families a mess instead of a blessing. In a family-owned business, this is especially vital, according to a recent article, “All in the Family—Transition Strategies for Family Businesses” from Bloomberg Law.
The family business is often the family’s largest financial asset. The business owner typically doesn’t have much liquidity outside of the business itself. Federal estate taxes upon death need special consideration. Every person has an estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer tax exemption of $12.06 million, although these historically high levels may revert to prior levels in 2026. The amount exceeding the exemption may be taxed at 40%, making planning critical.
Assuming an estate tax liability is created upon the death of the business owner, how will the family pay the tax? If the spouse survives the business owner, they can use the unlimited marital deduction to defer federal estate tax liabilities, until the survivor dies. If no advance planning has been done prior to the death of the first spouse to die, it would be wise to address it while the surviving spouse is still living.
Certain provisions in the tax code may mitigate or prevent the need to sell the business to raise funds to pay the estate tax. One law allows the executor to pay part or all of the estate tax due over 15 years (Section 6166), provided certain conditions are met. This may be appropriate. However, it is a weighty burden for an extended period of time. Planning in advance would be better.
Business owners with a charitable inclination could use charitable trusts or entities as part of a tax-efficient business transition plan. This includes the Charitable Remainder Trust, or CRT. If the business owner transfers equity interest in the business to a CRT before a liquidity event, no capital gains would be generated on the sale of the business, since the CRT is generally exempt from federal income tax. Income from the sale would be deferred and recognized, since the CRT made distributions to the business owner according to the terms of the trust.
At the end of the term, the CRT’s remaining assets would pass to the selected charitable remainderman, which might be a family-established and managed private foundation.
Family businesses usually appreciate over time, so owners need to plan to shift equity out of the taxable estate. One option is to use a combination of gifting and selling business interests to an intentionally defective grantor trust. Any appreciation after the date of transfer may be excluded from the taxable estate upon death for purposes of determining federal estate tax liabilities.
For some business owners, establishing their business as a family limited partnership or limited liability company makes the most sense. Over time, they may sell or gift part of the interest to the next generation, subject to the discounts available for a transfer. An appraiser will need to be hired to issue a valuation report on the transferred interests in order to claim any possible discounts after recapitalizing the ownership interest.
The ultimate disposition of the family business is one of the biggest decisions a business owner must make, and there’s only one chance to get it right. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney and don’t procrastinate. Succession planning takes time, so the sooner the process begins, the better.