“One Day, Lad, All This Will Be Yours.”

Many a closely-held business was created before its founder became a parent or when the founder’s children were still very young. As the business grew, and as the founder’s children matured, the founder may have entertained the notion of eventually having her children take over the business. In some cases, after finishing school, one or more of the children may have decided to join the business, to the delight of the founder.

From that point on, however, the children and the founder become engaged in a very delicate dance, of which they may not be fully cognizant. One child may be more capable than another; the founder may favor one child over the other. Depending upon the personalities involved, this situation can get ugly, and will sometimes raise unexpected tax issues, as was illustrated in a recent decision of the Tax Court.

 The Business

Father started the Business and, years later, his younger son (Number Two) joined him, followed later by Father’s elder son (Number One). The Business grew to cover many locations, each operated out of a separate corporation. Father, Number One and Number Two eventually came to own various percentages of these various corporations, with Father’s aggregate share being the largest.

In order to consolidate their interests in a single entity, Holding Co was incorporated with Father and his two sons as the original directors and officers.

Upon the incorporation of Holding Co, Father, Number One and Number Two each contributed to it their stock in the pre-existing corporations, in exchange for which each of them received100 shares of voting common stock. This was in keeping with Father’s decision to divide the shares evenly. The stock certificates indicated that they were each registered owners of 100 unrestricted shares of Holding Co common stock.

As it turned out, “[t]he decisions taken at [Holding Co’s] organizational meeting contained the seeds of the problem that would blossom into the tax dispute now before us.” Although Father, Number One and Number Two were each registered owners of 33.33% of Holding Co stock, the values of their capital contributions to Holding Co were disproportionate to their shareholdings, with Father making a disproportionately larger contribution.

The Dispute

As Holding Co continued to prosper, Father gave Number One more public and “glamorous” jobs, while Number Two had principal responsibility for operational and back-office functions. At the same time, Father and Number Two had a falling out as a result of certain non-Business related matters.

Number Two began to feel marginalized within the family business. He became dissatisfied with his role at Holding Co, with certain business decisions that Father and Number One had made, and with what he regarded as a lack of respect for his views. He began to discuss, in general terms, the possibility that he might leave the Business. This possibility became more concrete when Number One, without first discussing the matter with Number Two, hired Outsider to take over part of Number Two’s responsibilities in Holding Co. When Number Two learned of this, he quit the Business.

Upon leaving, Number Two demanded, but did not receive, possession of the 100 shares of stock registered in his name. He took the position that he was legally entitled to, and had an unrestricted right to sell, the shares registered in his name. He threatened to sell the shares to an outsider if Holding Co did not redeem them at an appropriate price.

Vintage Stock Certificate

Number Two’s threat to sell his shares to an outsider irked Father and Number One because they wished to keep control of the Business within the family. Father refused to give Number Two his stock certificates, contending that Holding Co had a right of first refusal to repurchase the shares. Father and his attorneys also developed an argument that a portion of Number Two’s stock, though registered in his name, had actually been held since Holding Co’s inception in an “oral trust” for the benefit of Number Two’s children.

This argument was built on the fact that Father had contributed a disproportionately larger portion of Holding Co’s capital yet had received only 33.33% of its stock. In effect, he contended that he had gratuitously accorded Number Two more stock than he was entitled to, and that, to effectuate Father’s intent, the “extra” shares should be regarded as being held in trust for Number Two’s children.

The parties negotiated for six months in search of a resolution. They explored, without success, various options whereby Number Two would remain in the business as an employee or consultant. Number Two offered to sell his 100 shares back to Holding Co, and the parties explored various pricing scenarios under which this might occur. As the family patriarch, however, Father had most of the leverage, and he insisted that Number Two acknowledge the existence of an oral trust for the benefit of Number Two ‘s children. Father’s insistence on an oral trust was a “line in the sand.”

Upon reaching an impasse, Number Two filed lawsuits against Father, Number One and Holding Co. The actions alleged that Number Two owned 100 shares of voting common stock, that these shares were “unencumbered and unrestricted as to their transferability,” and that the 100 shares should be delivered immediately to Number Two. Father answered that he had possession of all the stock registered in Number Two’s name and that a portion of the shares so registered were “held in trust for the benefit of * * * [Number Two’s] children.”

The Settlement

This litigation became nasty, and its public nature was extremely distressing to the family. In the course of negotiations, it became apparent to Number Two’s attorney that Number Two had to separate completely from Holding Co and that Father would not be placated unless Number Two acknowledged the supposed “oral trust” and placed some of the disputed shares in trust for his children.

Number Two firmly believed he was entitled to all 100 shares of Holding Co stock that were originally registered in his name, and that he had never held any shares under an oral trust for his children. He believed that he was being forced to renounce his ownership interest in the 33 1/3 shares and to acknowledge the existence of an oral trust in order to placate Father and obtain payment for the remaining 66 2/3 shares. However, he accepted his attorney’s advice that it was in his best interest to compromise and settle the litigation.

The parties ultimately reached a settlement along these lines. The parties agreed that Holding Co would purchase from Number Two the 66 2/3 shares of stock that he was deemed to own. They further agreed that his “2/3 stock interest was to be valued at Five Million Dollars for purposes of a settlement agreement” (Settlement Agreement). Number Two transferred these shares to Holding Co in exchange for $5 million.

The Settlement Agreement required Number Two to execute irrevocable declarations of trust for the benefit of his children, with Number One named as the sole trustee of each trust. Number Two assigned 33 1/3 shares of Holding Co stock to these trusts.

Finally, the Settlement Agreement required the parties to execute mutual releases respecting claims concerning Number Two’s ownership interests in Holding Co, and Number Two resigned from all positions he had held in the Business.

The IRS Gets Involved . . .

Number Two did not file a Federal gift tax return for the year of the Settlement Agreement. He did not believe that the Holding Co shares he transferred to the trusts constituted a taxable gift.

Almost thirty – yes, thirty – years later, as a result of some unrelated litigation, Number Two’s transfer of the Holding Co stock came to the attention of the IRS and, after an examination (and shortly after Number Two’s death), the IRS issued a timely notice of deficiency to Number Two’s estate asserting a deficiency of almost $740,000 in Federal gift tax.  The estate filed a petition with the Tax Court.  Tomorrow’s post will review the Court’s decision.