A recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision is a good example of how the courts can grant relief to minority shareholders of a family business where there has been unfair conduct denying reasonable expectations.
The relevant facts of Tannenbaum v. Tanjo Investments Ltd. are quite simple. There were seven shareholders in a family business. One shareholder (the Applicant in the case) owned 1/3rd of the shares. The other shareholders each owned 1/7th of the shares. The Company paid dividends equally to each shareholder regardless of the fact that the Applicant owned three times the shares of the others. The Applicant applied to court under the oppression remedy.
The Court ruled that the reasonable expectation of a shareholder is to receive dividends proportional to their holdings. As a result the company was Ordered to compensate the Applicant accordingly.
Connolly Nichols Allan & Snelling is an Ottawa law firm. We are Ottawa Lawyers who regularly represent minority shareholders in family business disputes. We have succeeded in using the oppression remedy to enable our clients to assert their rights to their just entitlements time and again.
To read the full reasons in Tannenbaum v. Tanjo Investments Ltd. click here: http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2009/2009canlii48526/2009canlii48526.html
“I’ve been told I need a Shareholder’s Agreement - do you have a standard agreement I can use” is something we hear with frequency. It reflects an understanding by the client that a Shareholder’s Agreement is a “good thing”, but without an understanding of what that good thing is. Generally the response of legal counsel to this question is that there is no such thing as a “standard” Shareholder’s Agreement, let’s meet and talk. So what is it about Shareholder’s Agreements that are so valuable and why isn’t there a standard form, like a real estate agreement?
At a high level of abstraction, a Shareholder’s Agreement is a document that expresses the expectations of shareholders in respect of a corporation through legal obligations and rights. The task of the Lawyer in preparing the Shareholder’s Agreement is threefold - discerning what the expectations are (and those expectations are often not fully formed) – providing counsel on the legal and tax implication on the various alternatives by which those expectations may be realized - and expressing those expectations in the form of contractual terms that bind the parties.
For example, shareholders in a narrowly held private corporation may have an expectation that on death the shares will be purchased. In the absence of a Shareholder’s Agreement, this expectation may not be realized. There is no statute or common law requiring or obligating a purchase. If the remaining shareholders are unwilling to agree to a purchase, the estate is left with the shares and a tax bill. Nothing of course prevents the parties from negotiating a purchase, but the relative bargaining power may have shifted in unpredictable ways, and planning opportunities, such as insurance funding, may have been missed. A Shareholder’s Agreement that addresses these expectations will reflect the parties prior expectations for fairness, and will create certainty. Legal counsel will discuss alternatives including the corporate purchase of the shares, purchase by the remaining shareholders, and hybrids including spousal rollovers, the tax implications under the alternatives to the estate and to the remaining shareholders, the use of insurance funding, payment terms, security and so forth.
In family held corporations, expectations for succession (how management is succeeded) and liquidation (how the shareholding interests are turned into cash) are particularly difficult and require unique and sometimes innovative solutions. A Shareholder’s Agreement is a valuable tool in estate planning for resolving how competing expectations for liquidation and succession are accommodated.
I have a corporation the shares of which are held only by me and members of my immediate family. Do I really need to have annual minutes?
If your corporation is audited by the CRA and matters, such as the declaration of dividends, have not been formally documented by a written resolution of the directors or in annual minutes, the consequence can be severe. There are other risks that may be avoided by having minutes prepared annually. This is analogous to your dentist who encourages you to have good dental hygiene and periodic check-ups so that small problems do not become big problems. Practicing good corporate hygiene just makes good sense.
The minimum legal obligation of a corporation is to hold an annual meeting of shareholders to consider the financial statements, elect directors and to appoint (or dispense with the appointment of) the auditor. In practice, and as permitted by statute, narrowly held corporations often dispense with an annual meeting in favor of signed resolution of all of the shareholders. The failure to hold annual resolutions, or obtain written resolutions in lieu, can lead to legal action from disgruntled shareholders.
The practice of holding annual meetings (or resolutions in lieu) also tends to ensure that corporate matters requiring attention are addressed, such as share transfers, changes to directors, and address changes, which if left unaddressed could become significant problems.
An effective method of ensuring good “corporate hygiene” is for the corporation to instruct its accounting advisors to provide legal counsel with an annual letter of instructions to document applicable financial matters.
It is not uncommon that a new client brings us a minute book that has not been properly organized, or that has not been updated for many years. It is not a cause for embarrassment. We strongly encourage that the minute books be updated before an issue arises, such as a CRA audit.
My husband and I are the sole shareholders and directors of an incorporated retail business. We have been quite successful and are generating cash excess to business requirements. We do not want to pay the cash out to ourselves now, and pay high rates of tax, but at the same time this cash is a significant part of a retirement fund. We have no creditors, other than trade creditors payable in the ordinary course. How do we protect this cash for our retirement?
You are asking a good question. In the event of an unexpected economic downturn or legal claim against your active business corporation, the excess cash generated in the business could be exposed to potential creditors. Once the liability is crystalized, it may be too late to take action that will protect the cash. You have also correctly identified that the simplest solution –payment of the cash out to yourselves – attracts undesirable tax consequences.
A cost efficient solution is the creation of a holding corporation. The holding corporation structure, when designed properly, allows excess money from your active business corporation to be paid by dividend to the holding corporation, tax free. The holding corporation is a separate legal entity, and is generally insulated from claims against your active business corporation.
Care is required that the desired tax treatment is achieved in the structuring of the holding corporation. There are other financial planning considerations, such as ensuring the availability of the lifetime capital gains exemption, which must be addressed by the new structure. This type of corporate structuring may also be implemented as part of a broader strategy for business succession and included as part of your estate planning.