A Handshake Is Never Enough

A Handshake Is Never Enough

It’s such an attractive idea.  Doing business on a handshake.  A few people get along, like one another, trust one another, and help one another do great work.  Somebody’s got a great idea, and everyone sees dollar signs.  Together, they can achieve great things, better than any one of them could do on their own.  So they start a business together.  But nobody wants to get too formal about the arrangements.  That would ruin the mood, a formal agreement is overkill, and lawyers are so darn expensive.  And a handshake should be enough among friends.  Shake?  Shake.  Onward!  

Oops.  Unless you’re two kids with a lemonade stand (maybe), a handshake is never enough.  And don’t get sentimental and tell me that it used to be.  Decades ago, or even centuries ago, whenever you think it was that a handshake was enough, business arrangements were still documented.  Why?  To bring structure, clarity, and certainty to the relationship.  Not just in the present, but in the future too.

Consider this.  Two people go into business together.  They form a corporation, and they each own half the stock.  Oh, and they shake hands.  Not enough.  Why?  They haven’t planned for any future contingencies.  Suppose one of them dies.  Who owns his stock?  Most likely his spouse.  Probably not what the surviving partner had in mind.  Suppose one of them wants out.  Who gets his share?  Does the other partner buy him out, or can he sell it to someone else?  And what’s his share worth?  Tough issues to sort out when you’re breaking up.  

In each of these two situations, something is going to happen, but no one knows what will happen because it hasn’t been sorted out in advance.  And it’s not likely to go well.  These partners need what is commonly known as a buy-sell agreement, which provides specific arrangements for future contingencies like the ones I mentioned.  Such an agreement might require each partner to buy out the other partner’s estate when the latter passes away.  Or it might give a right of first refusal and a valuation methodology when one partner wants out.  Or both.  

See how that works?  The partners anticipate certain future events (like a partner’s death) or potential future problems (like a falling out) and agree now on how to proceed then.  Satisfaction and continued good relations are not assured, but at least the way forward will be clear.  Sound like a good idea?  Thought so.

And one more thing.  Most buy-sell agreements are absolutely useless unless they are funded.  But I’ll have to explain what that means in another article.

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