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    Should My Company Issue Stock Appreciation Rights (SAR)?

    Why Should I Offer Stock Appreciation Rights?

    Two of the most common benefit plans companies offer their employees are employee stock option plans (ESOP) and stock appreciation rights (SAR). While both have unique benefits, for the employer and its employees, there are differences and financial considerations that must be addressed before choosing the right benefit incentive plan for your company. Whichever plan you choose, each method motivates employees to increase shareholder wealth and offers compensation for their hard work and commitment. In this article, we will focus on SAR. Read our article on ESOP to compare options and follow up with business startup expert, attorney, Matthew Rossetti. 

    In the know – key terms

    • Grant date is the date that the employer and employee agree to the terms and conditions of a stock option, or equity-based award. Once agreed upon the stock appreciation right is granted to the employee and the date is recorded as such. The grant date also determines the exercise price.
    • Vesting date is the date an employee is eligible to exercise a specific number of options. Typically, starting on the date of vesting to the ending on the SAR’s expiration date, a vested SAR may be exercised, in whole or partially. Prior to this date, no payout will be granted. Note, exercising your rights may be dependent on how long an employee works for the company, employee performance, or based on the overall performance of the company.
    • Expiration date refers to the last day an employee can exercise stock appreciation rights, and only if the market price exceeds the exercise price. However, if the SAR’s market price is below the exercise price, the shares are worth nothing and can never be exercised. Furthermore, If the terms and conditions of the bonus agreement are not met by this date, the employee will lose the SAR.
    • Exercise price is the market price of the stock on the grant date, and the price an employee is able to purchase shares, once options are vested. There is also an exercise period, which is the time in between the vested rights and the expiration date, wherein the employee may exercise their appreciation rights. 

    Unpacking SARs

    Offering a SAR is a great benefits plan for startups, especially if you are an S-Corp, LLC, partnership, or other business entity that is unable to award stock. A SAR allows a business to reward its employees without exhausting any cash reserves or giving up any equity and they can usually fund the rights through the organization’s payroll system.

    Stock appreciation rights are essentially a bonus – usually paid out in cash, sometimes stock, or a combination of the two – to a company’s employees. These bonuses are issued with a grant date, an exercise price, a vesting date, and an expiration date. This type of benefit plan enables an employee to cash-in on appreciating stock prices, after a specified vesting period, between the grant date and the exercise date. However, this payout is only accomplished if the employer’s stock price rises. 

    Planning is key

    The ability to create a customized benefits plan, structured for the betterment of a business and its employees, is what makes SARs a popular option amongst many businesses looking to incentivize their employees. Depending on how a company is set up, employers have a lot of flexibility when planning because there are few to no restrictions. 

    • Employers have the ability to offer their employees options to exercise their SAR when they choose to.
    • Vesting schedules provide a performance-based retention tool, structured in a way that bonuses are only paid out if an employee lives up to the original terms and conditions agreed to on the grant date. 
    • Predetermined plans can be agreed upon as to what an employee will receive if he/she resigns or is terminated, if anything at all.
    • Non-compete clauses can be implemented into the employer/employee agreement in order to ensure employee loyalty.  
    • Employers can further incentivize top performers by offering some of the net proceeds if the company is sold.
    • Companies that already have an ESOP in place can offer SAR as an additional incentive for its employees.
    Caveat

    While stock appreciation rights do have their advantages, such as tax deductions for corporations, and no upfront cost to employees to exercise rights, there are a few things to understand in advance. 

    • An employer is required to withhold taxes, either by withholding cash or shares.
    • Publicly traded companies may require shareholder approval when issuing stock appreciation rights.
    • A company may need to follow retirement plan rules if it wishes to cover all employees and offer benefits after termination.
    • Employees will not receive dividends or voting rights.
    • Upon exercising rights, employees must report any income on the fair market value of the amount of the right received at vesting – even if it is a share and is not sold.
    • If employees receive cash upon the sale of the company, it will be taxed as ordinary income tax

    When planning, many decisions must be made carefully and strategically. Employers must consider vesting rules, liquidity concerns, eligibility, rights to interim distributions of earnings, tax implications and so much more. It is always advisable to discuss any plan to issue SARs with a knowledgeable attorney. Sentient Law is here to assist you.

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    Is An ESOP Right For My Company?

    Win-win

    An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), is the most popular form of employee ownership in the U.S. ESOPs helps businesses establish a transition plan by creating a market for their company’s stock. This method of ownership transfer or sale can be a sound strategic move for business owners to ease the burden of retirement and to sell in a way that is advantageous for tax purposes. The benefits of an ESOP are not mutually exclusive, it is also a great way to spread the wealth amongst dedicated employees and promotes an ownership culture within a company, making this a win-win benefit plan. After all, giving employees a sense of ownership can make them feel like an important part of the company, incentivizing them to work harder and fostering loyalty and productivity.

    The implementation of an ESOP can be extremely complicated, Matthew Rossetti is an expert in this area of practice and will confidently guide you through the process. Let’s take a deeper look into it to determine if an ESOP is the best option for your company.

    ESOP simplified

    Stock options give employees the opportunity to own parts of the company they work for. In an employee stock option plan a company sets up a trust and this trust can acquire, hold, and sell the company’s stock. An ESOP (employee stock ownership or employee share ownership) is a kind of employee benefit plan offered by employers. In most cases, ESOPs are a contribution made from the company to the employee, rather than an employee purchase. It is a defined-contribution (employees do not pay income tax on the amount contributed by their employer until they withdraw money from the plan) similar to profit-sharing or a 401(k) employee benefit retirement plan. Company shares are allocated to individual employees’ accounts annually. Upon retirement, disability, termination, or death the employer must buy back the stock at fair market value from the employee unless there is a public market for the shares. 

    With an ESOP an owner of a company can sell parts or all of its shares and continue to maintain control of the company and its business operations. It is important to note, while this plan is referred to as employee stock ownership, the employees don’t actually own stock in the company. The ESOP is an organized retirement account, held by a trustee for the benefit of the employee. That person, or trust company, will negotiate a closing deal on behalf of the employees and hold the sold stock in trust. Although employees have an ownership stake in the company, they don’t actually have a right to vote the shares, to elect the board of directors, or any say as to how the company should or will be operated. When the employees retire, then, they reap the rewards and get a payment based on what the shares are worth.

    Why is it advantageous to an employer?

    Choosing to sell a business to an ESOP requires much consideration for a business owner. While establishing an ESOP has its advantages, an ESOP is not the proper course of action for all corporations, and particular entity formations do not meet the requirements for this type of employee benefit plan. For example, an S corporation and a C Corporation have the ability to establish an ESOP. However, an LLC is not permitted to have an ESOP because it does not have stock, it has memberships or units, therefore it can not offer ESOP stock options. That being said, an LLC that is taxed as an S corporation does qualify for an ESOP. Rather than stock, the unit shares will have the same rights to distribution, dividends, and liquidation proceeds.

    For those companies that do qualify and opt for an employee stock option plan, there are substantial tax advantages. Not only is it a tax-exempt trust, transferring to an ESOP allows a business owner to defer or bypass capital gains taxes. Moreover, contributions of stock and cash are tax-deductible, and when an ESOP is used to borrow money both the loan repayments and interest are tax-deductible. The benefits of an ESOP will vary depending on the type of entity a business owner chooses for their company. Many companies choose to convert LLC taxed partnerships into an LLC taxed as a corporation, S corporations into C corporations, and C corporations into S corporations after having more clarity as to the benefits of each. A popular choice of entity selection for businesses aiming to offer an ESOP is choosing an S corporation, due to its significant tax advantages.

    If the ESOP holds shares in an S corporation, the earnings from the ESOP shares are not taxable. Furthermore, an S corporation can avoid tax distributions all together and hold on to the cash in the company, for reinvestment into the business, if the ESOP owns 100 percent of the company. This is because S corps don’t pay tax on their profits, their profits and losses are passed through to their shareholders based on the percentage of their ownership. If an ESOP owns the company, there is no federal tax due because the ESOP is in a trust, which is tax exempt, allowing companies to retain more of its earnings. With the increase of cash flow, corporations are able to quickly reduce debt, enhance employee benefits, and have funds for greater capital investments and acquisitions. This is a huge tax advantage for S corporations. Do keep in mind,  Any changes that are to be made to your business entity should be done after consulting a qualified attorney, due to possible adverse consequences.