Selling a business is never a decision that should be made lightly. A business is something that you’ve likely worked hard to build from the ground up into the entity that you always hoped it could be – you don’t want to sell yourself short now that you’re moving onto bigger and better things. When it comes to selling a business, one of the most important decisions that you’ll have to make has to do with how the sale itself will be structured. In this situation, there are two main types that you have to decide between – an asset sale and a stock sale. What is the difference between these two options? Who benefits the most from each type of scenario? Thankfully, the answers are relatively straightforward.

What is an Asset Sale?

When selling a business as an asset sale, the important thing to understand is that the seller actually retains possession of the legal entity that represents the business. What the buyer is purchasing are the individual assets that the company holds. Those can include things like equipment and fixtures, but also extends all the way up to trade secrets, telephone numbers of customers and business contacts, inventory items and more.

An asset sale usually does not include any cash-based assets and the seller actually retains any long-term debt obligations that the business holds along with the legal entity of the business itself. However, normalized net working capital is also usually one of the assets that is handed over from seller to buyer in this type of a sale. This can include certain elements like accounts receivable, accounts payable, accrued expenses and more.

What is a Stock Sale?

With a stock sale, on the other hand, the buyer is really purchasing the shareholder’s stock of the seller directly. Even though the assets and liabilities that are transferred as a result of this type of sale tend to be very similar to an asset sale, the seller is also getting the legal entity or stake in the business at the exact same time. In a stock sale, any particular asset or liability that the buyer doesn’t expressly want will either be distributed (in the case of assets) or paid off entirely (in the case of liabilities) prior to the sale being completed.

An important difference between an asset sale and a stock sale is that in a stock sale, no separate conveyance of individual assets is required for the sale itself to be completed. This is largely due to the fact that the original title of each asset rests within the corporation, meaning that both are transferred from seller to buyer at the exact same time.

Who Benefits From Each Type of Sale?

Once you understand a little more about the differences between an asset sale and a stock sale, you must also understand which benefits in each type of situation. As is common with most business decisions, the different parties involved will usually favor one or the other depending on which side of the fence they fall on. Buyers tend to prefer asset sales, for example, as it affords them certain tax benefits that they won’t get from a stock sale. Sellers, on the other hand, tend to prefer stock sales because it often makes them less responsible for certain future liabilities that may present themselves like product liability claims, employee lawsuits and even benefit plans.

Perhaps the biggest reason why an asset sale is preferred from the point of view of the buyer is because the company’s depreciable basis regarding its assets is highly accelerated. An asset sale typically gives a higher value for assets that depreciate quickly. A particular piece of equipment that the business owns, for example, likely has a three- to seven-year shelf life. At the same time, lower values are given to certain assets that amortize much more slowly. Goodwill, for example, is generally considered to have a 15-year shelf life. This generates additional tax benefits on behalf of the buyer, doing a lot to reduce taxes as quickly as possible and thus improving the overall cash flow of the company during the first few years of its life. Buyers also tend to prefer asset sales because it’s much, much easier to avoid any potential liabilities like contract disputes or product warranty issues as a result.

This doesn’t mean that asset sales are universally easier for buyers, however. Certain types of assets are inherently hard to transfer due to certain issues like legal ownership and any third party consent that may be required. Intellectual property, for example, would likely require the seller to obtain some type of consent that can slow down the process of a sale dramatically.

One of the major reasons why sellers tend to prefer stock sales is because all of the proceeds they get from the sale are taxed at a much lower capital gains rate. When dealing with C-corporations, corporate level taxes are avoided entirely. Also, in a stock sale the seller is usually less responsible for any future liabilities – a products liability claim officially becomes the problem of the buyer at that point.

The Popularity of Asset Sales versus Stock Sales

According to research, approximately 30 percent of all business sales in the last few years were stock sales. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that this number varies wildly based on the size of the company that is being sold. Larger companies have a much higher chance of being stock sales than asset sales.

Regardless of whether you’re a buyer or a seller, it is always important to consult with your business partners, your legal representatives and your accounting professionals throughout all points of the process to help make sure that you’re making the most informed decision possible. The need to understand exactly what you’re buying, how you’re buying it and what it means for the future is of paramount importance, regardless of which party you belong to.

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