First, unless you are planning on going public or have hundreds of stockholders do not form a C Corp to begin with. Use an S Corp or an LLC. If you currently are a C Corp ask your attorney or tax advisor about converting to an S Corp. If you sell your company within a 10 year period of converting to an S Corp the sale can be taxed as if you were still a C Corp.
Here is what happens when there is an asset sale of a C Corp. The assets that are sold are compared to their depreciated basis and the difference is treated as ordinary income to the C Corp. Any good will is a 100% gain and again is treated as ordinary income. This new found income drives up your corporate tax rate, often to the maximum rate of around 34%. You are not done yet. The corporation pays this tax bill and then there is a distribution of the remaining funds to the shareholders. They are taxed a second time at their long term capital gains rate.
Compare this to a C Corp stock sale. The stock is sold and there is no tax to the corporation. The distribution is made to the shareholders and they pay only their long term capital gain on the change in value over their basis. The difference can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Secondly, keep all assets that may appreciate in value outside the C Corp and in an LLC. Your real estate, patents, intellectual property, etc. should be held in a pass through entity so you avoid the potential high C Corp corporate tax rate and the double taxation if you do an asset sale.
Let's say that you are a C Corp and the buyer refuses to do a stock sale. If you can get the buyer to move as much of the transaction value to a covenant not to compete, you will be much better off. That will be taxed to you personally at the long term capital gains rate and not the corporate tax rate and the gain can be spread out over the non-compete period.
Another approach you can use is "Personal Good Will". This is where the seller's reputation, expertise, and relationships are in effect separated from the assets of the company and account for as much of the good will value as possible from the business. So let's say that the company sells for $8 million dollars and the amount allocated to the hard assets is $6 million. That leaves $2 million that can be classified as good will. If that good will is assigned to the C Corp, it will be taxed at the 34% rate and then taxed again when it is distributed to the shareholders at 15%.
If you can move that amount to personal goodwill for the owner, it is paid directly to him and he gets taxed at the 15% rate only. The calculation looks like this: If the good will is $2 million and is allocated to the C Corp. They pay $680,000 in corporate income taxes. The $1,320,000 remaining gets distributed to the shareholders and an additional 15% tax is paid or $198,000 for a total tax on that $2 million of $878,000. Moving it all to personal goodwill results in a total tax on that $2 million of $300,000, a savings of $578,000. This approach was pioneered in a classic IRS case called the Martin Ice Cream Case.
There is a built in bias on the part of buyers with the advice of their attorneys to avoid doing stock sales because you buy everything including any hidden liabilities. You as the seller want to convince the buyer to do a stock sale by demonstrating that there are no hidden liabilities. Another argument you can use is that most contracts are not assignable without the consent of the other party. In an asset sale it could be problematic to get assignments of a large quantity of contracts. An example is if your company is in a favorable long-term property lease the landlord will never agree to an assignment of that lease. If you have a long-term contract with a government entity, a change in ownership can trigger a contract end. In a stock sale these are not issues.
There are many variables in a business sale negotiation. Price, Cash at close, Stock versus Asset Sale, and allocation of purchase price. The IRS does not allow the buyer's allocation of purchase price to be different than the seller's. It also must be noted that from a tax standpoint, something favorable for the seller is correspondingly less favorable for the buyer. An experienced buyer will structure the deal in the most favorable way for himself. Sellers must get good advisors to help them negotiate to achieve the maximum after tax proceeds.
About the Author About the Author Dave Kauppi is a Merger and Acquisition Advisor and President of MidMarket Capital, representing owners in the sale of privately held businesses. We provide Wall Street style investment banking services to lower mid market companies at a size appropriate fee structure.