Business relationships fail for many different reasons: business partners may have long-term disagreements, a change in leadership, or simply a desire to go in different directions. Even successful businesses may have to deal with business divorce issues if business partners decide that the benefits of continuing their business relationship are outweighed by the costs accompanying their continued co-ownership of the business. Breakups are never easy, and business relationships are no different, but there are some things business owners can do to help prepare themselves for the eventual divorce.
Plan Ahead – Have a Written Agreement at Formation
Even if business partners don’t ultimately decide to part ways, some type of conflict is almost inevitable. For this reason, it is important to plan ahead and have some type of operating agreement or corporate shareholders agreement in place at the start of the business relationship to help guide the resolution of conflicts later on. A well-drafted agreement at the time of business formation can help to prevent a deadlock from occurring over disagreements about how to end the relationship.
Important provisions to consider including in these formation agreements include buy-sell agreements, provisions to forestall squeeze-outs, triggers for dividends, and non-compete agreements. A buy-sell agreement requires the company or remaining majority owners to purchase the minority’s stock in the case of agreed upon events. To ensure that a deadlock isn’t reached, an agreement can include a “shotgun” provision, requiring a mandatory sale in the case of disagreement and deadlock. While this ensures that the business isn’t left in limbo while business partners disagree, it also means that in the case of a disagreement over how to part ways, neither party is able to retain the business. Another option is including a provision that gives all shareholders the right to offer a specific price per share for the other shareholder’s shares. The other shareholder then has the option of accepting the offer or buying the offering shareholder’s shares at the agreed-upon price.
What Are My Options During a Business Divorce?
Many business disputes arise when there is a deadlock between the owners and the owners’ inability to agree results in the business being unable to make business decisions. There are a few different ways to deal with such deadlocks and a resulting business divorce. One option is to appoint a provisional director which serves on a corporation’s board of directors until a deadlock is broken. Another option is a buyout, where majority owners purchase minority owner’s remaining stock. Business owners can also consider complete dissolution of the company, selling all of the company’s assets and parting ways. Additionally, business partners may want to use mediation to allow a neutral third party to help resolve business disputes. If none of these alternatives are able to generate a resolution, parties can seek legal remedies in court, but that option is often costly, time-consuming, and not usually preferable.
Remember Your Fiduciary Duties
Even if it’s certain that a business will soon be dissolved, business owners must use caution to ensure they do not take any actions against the company in bad faith. Until the time when a dissolution is official, business owners may owe a fiduciary duty to the company, as well as to each other. If one co-owner plans on leaving the business to start his own competing business, he may be in violation of non-competition or non-solicitation agreements. The specific duties owed to the company and other business owners vary depending on the type of business entity involved.
For example, under the Virginia Uniform Partnership Act, partners owe the partnership and other partners a duty of loyalty and care. Under the Virginia Code, partners also must act in accordance with the obligation of good faith and fair dealing. These duties do not end until the partnership has dissolved, so partners must refrain from competing with the partnership and other partners before the dissolution is complete.
Additionally, business owners using company resources for their new businesses or asking clients to leave the business and instead go to the new business may face liability for tortious interference with contract expectancy, civil and statutory conspiracy, as well as other claims. A claim for statutory business conspiracy under the Virginia Code may be made if another owner suffers injury to his “reputation, trade, business or profession.” A claim for tortious interference with contract expectancy may be successful if a co-owner intentionally interferes with a business relationship or contract expectancy of the company’s and the interference results in a breach or termination of the relationship or expectancy.
Call General Counsel PC Today
Disengaging from a business relationship is a complicated matter. Having to decide what the best course of action is and not knowing what you can and can’t do just adds to an already stressful and difficult situation. Seeking help from experienced professionals who can help guide you throughout the process will help lessen the burden and make the process run more smoothly. Our attorneys are specialized in business law and have experience working with business owners across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William County. Call General Counsel P.C. at 703-556-0411 today to see how we can help you.