Families now have the chance to pass a substantial stake in their businesses to the next generation—even before handing over the reins. But transferring ownership can raise complicated succession and estate-planning issues that families need to address before giving away so much as a share of stock.
The new estate tax law, in effect this year and next, offers a unique opportunity to family business owners wanting to pass their business to the next generation. As a recent Wall Street Journal Article points out, taking advantage of the low gift tax levels (while you still can) could save your family business a hefty amount in potential estate taxes. But transferring ownership can raise complicated succession and estate planning issues you should consider carefully before giving away any stock.
The recent tax law changes brought the gift tax threshold up to $5 million for an individual and to $10 million for couples in 2011 and 2012. Yes, that means you can give away that much now, without incurring a penny in gift tax. However, since this law is in effect for only two years, you'll have a narrow window of opportunity (and some thorny decisions to make quickly).
While you can transfer ownership without necessarily giving up control, you will have to make some difficult decisions, including: who will eventually lead the business, how to treat non-business family members fairly, and how to fund your own retirement.
The answers to those questions will help determine which estate planning techniques make the most sense for your family, and your family business. Whatever your ultimate goals, now is the time to start exploring your options. There are large sums of money at stake, and only a short time to seize this opportunity.