Asset Purchases May Come With Hidden Liabilities

One of my clients is a medium sized manufacturing plant here in San Jose. Although not a high-tech business, they have extensive capital assets and specialized skills. The business is being run by the second generation of family members, and the third generation is now being trained to take the reins someday. The family has recognized that many of their competitors are still being run by the first generation of owners, and it does not look like those businesses are likely to transition to other family members. As the owners of the competitive businesses age and want to retire, they will be looking to sell their manufacturing plants. My client wants to buy them. We recently sat down and discussed acquisition strategies. I explained that there are two common ways to buy a business – either you buy the stock, or you buy the assets. What most people do not realize, is that even when you are only buying the assets, you could be liable for up to three times the purchase price in state taxes that should have been paid by the seller.

Most people know that when you buy the stock of a corporation (or membership interests in an LLC), you get all of the assets as well as all of the liabilities in that company. As a result, many of my clients want to buy only the assets of a company as a strategy to avoid the liabilities (known and unknown) that come with a business with history behind it. To accomplish this, we draft an asset purchase agreement that includes lists of which assets we are buying, which liabilities we are buying, and which liabilities we are not taking on. For example, when you buy the stock of a company, you get all of its employees including their accrued and unpaid vacation time. When you buy the assets of a company, we ask the selling business to terminate all of its employees so that we can start over by hiring them in the acquiring company as new employees, without any potential claims for what came before. However, many people do not realize that certain tax liabilities may follow the business of the company rather than the company itself. So, if you buy enough of the assets to be considered as having purchased the company, you could be buying tax liabilities… even if they are on your list of items excluded from the sale.

Each of the Franchise Tax Board (state franchise and income taxes), the Board of Equalization (sales taxes) and the Employer Development Department (employment taxes) has the right to come after the buyer of a business for unpaid taxes in an amount up to the entire purchase price. So, if you pay $100,000 for the assets of a company, you could be liable for unpaid taxes of up to $100,000 to each of those three government entities. Your $100,000 purchase price just became $400,000!

Most asset purchase agreements deal with this concern in two ways: First, they request a representation and warranty from the seller that there are no unpaid taxes. Second, the agreement includes an indemnification provision whereby the seller has to indemnify the buyer if any claim for unpaid taxes is made against the buyer for the time period before the company’s assets were purchased. However, an indemnification provision is not enough protection. All it does is provide a contractual claim against the seller. The buyer still has to sue the seller and get a judgment and then collect that judgment.

A much better way to protect yourself as a buyer of a business is not to rush into things. In only 60 days, you can get tax clearance certificates from all three entities showing you exactly how much unpaid taxes, if any, are outstanding. Each agency has its own requirements for submitting such a request. If the agency does not return a tax clearance certificate within 60 days (30 days for the EDD), then the buyer may not be held liable for outstanding taxes of the seller’s business. So, take your time, open an escrow, and get tax clearance certificates prior to closing escrow on the purchase. And of course, consult with an attorney if you need help with an acquisition. Otherwise that $100,000 business may cost you $400,000 in the end.

The information appearing in this article does not constitute legal advice or opinion. Such advice and opinion are provided by the firm only upon engagement with respect to specific factual situations. Specific questions relating to this article should be addressed directly to the author.

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