Courtesy navigation

Family businesses FAQs

22 FAQs people ask about family businesses.

  1. What are the most common problems with family businesses?
  2. How can we minimise the risk of disputes over the running of the business?
  3. What can I do if family members who work for the business don't get on well together?
  4. What can be done if a family shareholder is using their shares as a weapon in a family feud?
  5. Can we stop a family shareholder giving shares to the 'black sheep' of the family?
  6. What sort of issues should we cover in a shareholders' agreement for a family business?
  7. Are there any restrictions on employing family members?
  8. Can we favour family members over non-family employees?
  9. Should we encourage our children to work for the business?
  10. Are there any restrictions on appointing family members to the board of directors?
  11. Should we have directors from outside the family?
  12. How can I get the advice and support I need?
  13. Can I give my spouse a salary so that we take money from the business in a more tax-efficient way?
  14. Can I give my spouse shares so that we take dividends from the business in a more tax-efficient way?
  15. Can we pay dividends instead of salaries to reduce our tax bill?
  16. How can we attract additional financing into a family-controlled business?
  17. How can we bring in outside investors but still retain control?
  18. Do we have to take account of minority shareholders' interests and wishes?
  19. Can I reinvest profits in the business as a way of building up a retirement fund?
  20. How do I protect my family against the possibility of the business collapsing?
  21. How can I make sure I will keep control of the business if I get divorced?
  22. If there is a divorce in the family, can we get shares back from an ex-spouse who is no longer a family member?

1. What are the most common problems with family businesses?

Personal conflicts often cause problems in family businesses. For example, one family member may feel that another isn't pulling their weight, family members who work for the business may resent interference from other family members who don't, or two family members may simply dislike each other.

Brothers and sisters may feel that they are being unfairly treated, particularly when a younger sibling is more senior than an older one. There can also be tensions between different generations. Problems can include a parent wanting unwilling children to take over the business, or a 'retired' parent continuing to interfere.

Other employees, who are not members of the family, can resent any favouritism (real or imagined) shown to members of the family.

Of course, family businesses also face all the commercial challenges of any business. These can be made more difficult if the business has become set in its ways, or simply lacks the management expertise needed. Family businesses can find it difficult to grow if the family are unwilling to involve external investors or management.

Back to top

2. How can we minimise the risk of disputes over the running of the business?

As with any private company, you should have a shareholders' agreement (see 6). This (together with the company's articles of association) establishes the ground rules for how the business will be run. The process of preparing the agreement allows you to talk over major issues and agree how they will be approached. (If your business trades as a partnership, you can achieve the same effect with a partnership agreement.)

You may also want to have some form of 'family charter'. Preparing this can be a good way of talking over issues that do not fit as comfortably within the more formal framework of a shareholders' agreement. For example, discussions can include talking about what family members expect from each other. The family charter can also involve members of the family who do not take an active role in the business or who do not own shares in it. Regularly reviewing the family charter can be a part of promoting good communication between family members.

Two general approaches often seem to reduce the likelihood and intensity of disputes:

  • Family members who work in the business are treated without favouritism.
  • The family makes a conscious effort to keep some distance between 'business' and their private lives.

Back to top

3. What can I do if family members who work for the business don't get on well together?

In principle, you would hope to be able to deal with the problem in the same way as with any two employees who don't get on together. You may be able to talk through the problems with the individuals concerned and negotiate an agreement. If one individual is clearly behaving inappropriately - for example, deliberately sabotaging the other's work - you could invoke your disciplinary procedures. It may be possible to organise for the two individuals to work in separate areas of the business, minimising the opportunities for conflict. Or you may decide that the best solution is to ask one individual to resign.

In practice, solutions like these may not be easy when you are dealing with members of your own family. One option is to use an independent mediator to negotiate a resolution of the dispute. Where mediation fails, it may be possible to use an arbitrator - who can impose a solution if the parties cannot agree among themselves. Ideally, you will have planned ahead and family members will have agreed to dispute resolution procedures as part of your shareholders' agreement or family charter (see 2).

Back to top

4. What can be done if a family shareholder is using their shares as a weapon in a family feud?

You can take steps to minimise the risk of a problem like this arising in the first place. One option may be to retain majority ownership of the shares yourself (though this might not suit your tax planning) or to issue family members with shares that do not carry voting rights.

Another is to ensure that the company's articles of association, or a separate shareholders' agreement, include appropriate dispute resolution procedures. Commonly, these include some form of 'buy-sell' arrangement that provides a mechanism for feuding shareholders to either sell their shares, or buy the shares of their opponent, at a fair price.

You can also try to build a consensus that business decisions will be taken on the basis of what is best for the business, rather than to pursue private agendas. This can be done informally or as part of agreeing a family charter (see 2).

The problem is more difficult when a feud arises without any prior agreement on how to deal with it. You may be able to negotiate a resolution by appealing to individuals’ self-interest: pointing out that the damage to the business is hurting everybody. It may also be worth reminding people of their legal responsibilities. Decisions — and feuds — often take place between individuals acting as directors rather than shareholders. As directors, they have legal responsibilities to their company, such as to promote its long-term success, not to get into situations where their interests could conflict with the company’s interests without board or shareholder approval, and to act with reasonable skill, care and diligence. Overall, these mean they should put the company’s interests before their own, including in family quarrels.

Ultimately, the best solution is often to encourage one individual to sell their shares. Even without articles or a shareholders' agreement specifying how this should be done, you can make an offer and negotiate a price. Where existing shareholders don't want to pay for the shares (for example, because of insufficient personal funds) but are unwilling to allow outsiders to buy them, it may be possible to arrange for the company to buy the shares back.

Back to top 

5. Can we stop a family shareholder giving shares to the 'black sheep' of the family?

The company's articles of association, or a shareholders' agreement, can include restrictions on share transfers. For example, share transfers might require the approval of the board, or existing shareholders might have the right of first refusal on any shares being offered by another shareholder.

Back to top

6. What sort of issues should we cover in a shareholders' agreement for a family business?

Issues that should be covered in a shareholders' agreement include:

  • how directors are appointed and how the board will take decisions
  • dispute resolution procedures
  • how the business will be financed and how profits will be distributed
  • rules on transferring shares, including what happens when a shareholder dies
  • rules on employment of family members (see 7)
  • rules restricting shareholders from competing with the business
  • rules protecting confidential information
  • agreements protecting external shareholders (see 16)

Back to top

7. Are there any restrictions on employing family members?

In general, no, unless employees are legally required to have specific qualifications or experience.

In practice, even if you wish to encourage your children (for example) to work for the business, you should require them to at least meet the entry requirements you place on other recruits. Otherwise you risk having incompetent family employees who do not feel the need to apply themselves and are resented by other employees. Other shareholders, particularly from outside the family, may also object if you employ unsuitable family members.

You may wish to include a requirement like this in your shareholders' agreement. Not only does this make the position clear, but it also makes it easier for you to refuse to recruit unsuitable family members.

Back to top

8. Can we favour family members over non-family employees?

Favouring family members might indirectly discriminate against other employees (for example, of a particular race or gender). You could therefore face a claim of discrimination from an employee who feels unfairly treated.

In any case, it makes business sense to treat all employees equally. Favouring family employees unreasonably is likely to lead to a less effective workforce and resentful employees. Other shareholders may also object to excessive promotion or remuneration for family members.

Back to top

9. Should we encourage our children to work for the business?

Having your children work for the business can have advantages: often, the children share your values and your commitment to the business. However, employing your children in senior roles may also lead to a narrow-minded outlook compared to employing outsiders. Many families encourage their children to join the business, but only after working elsewhere for at least a couple of years.

Of course, if your children have other ambitions, it may not be a good idea to pressure them into working for your business. Where you have more than one child, you will also need to consider how well they get on together and what roles each could have in the business. Pre-empt trouble by making it clear that younger children may be promoted over the heads of their older siblings.

Back to top

10. Are there any restrictions on appointing family members to the board of directors?

Your shareholders' agreement (or the company's articles of association) may contain restrictions, but that would be very unusual. A few specific types of business, such as investment companies, also require directors to have particular qualifications.

Apart from that, family members can be directors (as long as they are not under 16, the company’s auditor or an undischarged bankrupt, and have not been disqualified from being a director). They are, however, expected to exercise a degree of skill and diligence in carrying out their duties — the standard that could reasonably be expected of anyone carrying out their job in the same circumstances. It would not, for example, be appropriate to appoint a family member with no financial training to be finance director.

Back to top

11. Should we have directors from outside the family?

You want to ensure that your board of directors has the skills and experience needed to run the business effectively and to meet their legal obligations. This includes having a board of directors which keeps up to date and is open to new ideas.

Achieving this with a board of directors composed entirely of family members is almost impossible. Family businesses often look for several non-family directors:

  • Someone with legal experience to deal with legal and administrative matters, such as filings at Companies House, premises, insurances, trade marks and domain names, etc.
  • A qualified accountant to act as finance director.
  • One or more individuals with industry experience to act as non-executive directors. This may include someone who acts as non-executive chairman.

It is worth remembering that having external directors does not mean that you give up control of your business. You will, however, want to ensure that you are in a position to easily remove external directors should you feel the need to do so. You will therefore want to ensure that external directors have suitable service contracts, and that you (or your family together) retain a majority at both board and general (shareholder) meetings.

Back to top

12. How can I get the advice and support I need?

The right board of directors (see 11) will have a mix of skills and experience to help you run the business.

You will also need professional support in specific areas. It is often effective to arrange legal and accountancy services on a retainer basis (and sometimes by employing suitably qualified individuals or appointing them to the board). In other areas you may simply use professional advice as and when it is needed: for example, using a chartered surveyor when you are considering relocating.

Many chief executives also find it helpful to have a mentor to talk over ideas and problems with. This relationship usually works best if the mentor is not associated with the family or the business. A typical mentor might be an experienced business advisor or a retired chief executive who has seen it all before.

Back to top

13. Can I give my spouse a salary so that we take money from the business in a more tax-efficient way?

Paying your spouse a salary can be a cost-effective way of reducing your overall tax bill if your spouse pays tax at a lower marginal tax rate than you. However, there are restrictions to prevent you artificially reducing your tax bill in this way:

  • you can only pay your spouse if he or she actually works in the business
  • the salary you pay must be commercially justifiable - in other words, not excessive for the work your spouse does
  • you must actually pay the salary (rather than merely making a book entry for a notional salary)

It should be noted that these rules apply to paying any family member. The rules also apply to offering perks such as a company car or contributions to a pension fund.

Back to top

14. Can I give my spouse shares so that we take dividends from the business in a more tax-efficient way?

You can transfer shares to your spouse without any liability for capital gains tax, and your spouse will then receive the dividends due on those shares. If your spouse pays tax at a lower marginal rate, this will reduce your overall tax bill.

However, paying a dividend has implications for the amount of corporation tax you pay (see 15). This may mean that paying dividends - instead of salaries - offers insufficient tax savings to warrant it.

In the past, companies have been set up with articles of association that allow different dividends to be paid to different shareholders, irrespective of the number of shares each holds, in order to ensure that each can use their personal allowances for income tax purposes - particularly in the case of businesses owned and run by spouses or civil partners.

Another variation is for one shareholder to waive their dividends in favour of another - usually their spouse or civil partner who has yet to 'use up' their personal allowance, or who is taxed at a lower rate - with the net result that less tax is payable by the couple overall.

Where the shareholders are spouses or civil partners, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have attacked such arrangements using what is called 'settlements' legislation. This legislation was not actually introduced with such arrangements in mind, but HMRC are applying it to them. If a waiver is treated as a settlement, the waived dividend is still treated as the taxable income of the shareholder making the waiver.

The same legislation has also been used to attack situations where shares have been issued to shareholders' children who are under 18, so that dividends could be paid to them - the intention being that they would then be free of tax - rather than to their parents.

The government's proposed 'income-shifting' legislation, which would have specifically dealt with such arrangements, was deferred in 2009 and is unlikely to be resurrected in the foreseeable future.

However, it is clearly still vital to take specialist advice before entering into any arrangement designed to reduce overall taxation payable on dividends within a family company.

Back to top

15. Can we pay dividends instead of salaries to reduce our tax bill?

You can pay dividends instead of salaries. Paying dividends can offer tax advantages, as dividends are not subject to employers' and employees' National Insurance.

However, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) keeps a close eye on companies that sell the services of the shareholders (or partners). Special rules apply if, had you worked for a client personally, rather than through your company, you would have been considered an employee of the client you did the work for. If that is the case, you can be treated as a ‘personal service company’ (although this is not a technical term) and these rules can mean that you are required to pay tax and National Insurance contributions (NICs) on a ‘deemed’ payment as if you had been paid a larger salary rather than dividends.

There is also legislation covering workers who provide their personal services to end clients through a company (a 'Managed Service Company') set up and controlled by a third party. If the legislation applies, any direct or indirect payments to the worker from the MSC are taxed as employment income - that is, PAYE and NICs must be deducted.

These new rules mean it is vital to take advice on the most tax-efficient way to take an income from your business.

Back to top

16. How can we attract additional financing into a family-controlled business?

As with any business, you need to convince external investors or lenders that the business has good prospects.

If you are seeking a loan, you also need to convince the lender that they will be repaid. Commonly you will offer the lender security such as a mortgage over a property. Where your company does not have sufficient assets to provide adequate security, a lender may ask you for a personal guarantee.

If you are asking outsiders to invest in shares, you need to convince them that they will be treated fairly. Although company law provides some protection for minority shareholders, this alone will not be enough for many investors. They may also insist that you enter into an appropriate shareholders' agreement that gives them additional, contractual protections, over and above their company law rights.

The shareholders' agreement is likely to include restrictions preventing you from 'milking' the business for your own benefit. For example, the shareholders' agreement might include limits on family members' salaries. It is also likely to include a mechanism allowing shareholders to sell their shares to the company or to other shareholders if they feel unfairly treated, and specifying how the shares will be valued.

Back to top

17. How can we bring in outside investors but still retain control?

To retain control of your business, you need to control decisions taken at general (shareholder) meetings and decisions taken at board meetings.

If you are only raising a limited amount of external investment, keeping control of general meetings may be straightforward. If you own more than 50 per cent of the shares - and voting rights - you are usually in control. It may also be possible to retain control while owning less than 50 per cent of the shares: for example, by offering external investors non-voting shares.

As long as you control shareholder meetings (so you can stop shareholders using their power to sack directors), and have an existing majority of the board of directors, you should also be able to keep control of the board.

However, you may have to accept limitations on your control in order to attract outside investors in the first place. Typically, you would negotiate a shareholders' agreement that protects their interests (see 16). Even so, it should not be necessary to accept conditions that restrict your ability to take legitimate commercial decisions.

Commonly, any shareholders' agreement will also include restrictions on external investors. In particular, other (eg family) shareholders may have the right of first refusal should an external investor wish to sell their shares.

Back to top

18. Do we have to take account of minority shareholders' interests and wishes?

You are required to take account of them to the extent laid down by company law and by any shareholders' agreement.

As far as general company law is concerned, the two key requirements are that the directors should promote the long-term success of the company, and that shareholders should be treated equitably. Using the company for the private benefit of the family is therefore prohibited, though in practice it can be very difficult for a minority shareholder to do anything about it.

A shareholders' agreement may grant minority shareholders additional rights. For example, a minority shareholder might be entitled to nominate one or more directors to the board. This would at least ensure that the minority shareholder could express their views at board meetings.

Back to top

19. Can I reinvest profits in the business as a way of building up a retirement fund?

Retaining profits in the business can make sense, both in terms of financing a growing business and as a tax-efficient way of building capital to fund your retirement.

However, this can be a high-risk strategy, particularly as you near your retirement age: problems with the business could destroy the capital on which you planned to retire. Where you plan to draw capital from the business to fund your retirement, you will also need to consider how the business will replace that capital.

Alternatives you should consider include making contributions to a pension fund. Suitable schemes can, if you wish, be used to support the business. For example, part of your pension fund might be used to acquire premises that the business can use.

Back to top

20. How do I protect my family against the possibility of the business collapsing?

Establish your business as a limited company so that business assets and liabilities are separate from your personal assets. Try to avoid, or limit the extent of, any personal guarantees you are asked to give for business borrowings.

Avoid concentrating all your and your family's wealth in the business. The consequences of a business collapse can be particularly severe if several family members work for the business, or if all your savings (and your pension fund) are invested in the business.

Ensure that your spouse has some clearly defined personal assets, including a separate bank account from you.

If you need to ask family members to invest in your business, only ask for amounts they can afford to lose. Where possible, ask for secured loans or investment in preference shares, so that family members will rank (marginally) higher in your list of creditors if the business collapses.

Be aware that for these steps to be effective, you need to take action in advance. Once your business is in trouble, paying off family creditors or granting them extra security is likely to be ineffective: steps like this can be overturned by the court. Similarly, you cannot simply withdraw capital, or sell assets to family members at discounted values: in the worst case, you might be charged with fraud and the directors made personally liable for the business debts.

You should also note that protecting your family's interests might limit your options for financing the business. For example, external lenders are likely to be reluctant to lend to a company with limited equity and where all available security has already been pledged against family loans. If your business is struggling, but you feel future prospects are good, your only alternative to insolvency may be to ask family members for unsecured investment.

Back to top

21. How can I make sure I will keep control of the business if I get divorced?

In general, your spouse is likely to have a claim to a share in any assets. This applies even if you have worked to build up your business while your spouse has been a 'homemaker': the courts may well decide that you each contributed equally (though in different ways).

Once divorce proceedings are underway, you are unlikely to be able to remove your spouse's claim to a share of the business. You may be able to negotiate an agreement where you retain, say, the business, but your spouse gets a correspondingly large share of other assets (such as the house or your pension fund).

If the business constitutes the majority of your assets, this approach becomes more difficult. You may be able to retain the business by borrowing to pay your spouse. Ultimately, you might be forced to split the business or to sell it to a third party. This may itself cause extra problems if you create a tax liability.

There are steps that may help to protect your business against the possibility of a divorce in future. Suitable terms in the shareholders' agreement may help, as might appropriate terms in a pre-nuptial agreement. However, in the event of a divorce, a pre-nuptial agreement might be overridden to reach a fair financial settlement. A more effective option may be to hold shares in trust, for the benefit of the family, rather than directly; you may be able to include this as part of a tax-planning exercise. This is a complex area where you will need to take advice.

Back to top

22. If there is a divorce in the family, can we get shares back from an ex-spouse who is no longer a family member?

You can include terms in the shareholders' agreement requiring anyone who ceases to be a family member to offer their shares back to the company, at a pre-determined price. However, this could have consequences for the way a divorce court orders assets to be divided: if the requirement to sell the shares back reduces their value, the spouse may be entitled to a correspondingly large share of other assets.

An alternative may be to grant family members and their spouses shares that carry the same right to dividends but are non-voting. A former spouse who retains non-voting shares after a divorce is likely to welcome a fair offer for them, and in any case will at least be unable to interfere in the running of the business.

Or you might choose to put shares in an appropriate trust - for the benefit of your family - rather than transferring them directly to family members.

Back to top