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The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

1. Not Rushing In

You might be incredibly excited about buying a business, and we have come across people who have decided they want to work from home, have a look on Facebook marketplace and agree to spend money they don’t have, all in one day. No consultation with a lawyer or accountant, no real understanding of what is involved in the business. It did not last and it cost them money. 

We’ve also come across people who buy a business with unrealistic expectations of the work involved and an expectation that if the bank is prepared to lend them the money, they would be able to make a success of it. 

A business purchase is a big commitment. It is not just the cost involved, but running the business afterwards. The next three case studies to show why it is important not to rush into a purchase.

Case Study 1 

A young lady came to us with an offer from her employer to purchase the hairdressing business she was working in ‘cheap’, and to take over the lease for the business. She was keen to sign the agreement, as the seller (her boss) wanted to get out of the business before the end of financial year and it was already June. 

A quick review of the deal suggested that our client would be taking on a business that was only still operating because of her work, a lease that had three years remaining and was not cheap, and the need for some refurbishment of the salon. The landlord was offering a $5,000 incentive for fitout, but the likely cost was probably going to be higher. 

Fortunately, we were able to get our client to slow down and get accounting advice on the business, and to identify to our client that the seller would benefit to the tune of $30,000 per annum by being out of the lease. We encouraged our client to get an estimate of fitout renovations, which came in at a little under $70,000. 

Our client decided there was no benefit in the deal to her and other opportunities were out there. 

Case Study 2

A client came to us after having already taken over a beauty spa business. She thought she had a good deal because the replacement cost of the relatively new equipment in the business was significantly higher than the requested purchase price, and the vendor was providing finance. 

By already being in the business and having paid a deposit of $5,000 to the seller, our client was committed, and there was nothing in writing. The client came to us desperate to get a sale agreement documented because the seller had said they would do it and hadn’t. Our client was already paying the rent, COVID restrictions came into effect and the seller was suddenly very cooperative in getting the paperwork complete. The landlord was fortunately agreeable to transferring the lease, but our client did not want us to advise on the lease, which was very basic. 

Two years down the track it became apparent that the appropriate council certifications had not been obtained for the plumbing work on the premises and the premises were non-compliant. The lease and assignment of lease were silent on responsibilities and our client ended up footing the bill. 

Difficulties with the lease could have been resolved before the purchase was completed if the client had not already been in the premises and operating the business before getting advice. 

Case Study 3

Our client was looking to buy his first business at around $200,000 and had found a business through a broker that he was keen to buy. He arranged the finance, did his own due diligence and asked us to become involved at contract stage. The broker had prepared the contract on behalf of the seller. 

When we received the business purchase contract, it was unclear from the contract what exactly our client was buying. On talking to the broker, they had moved from selling residential property into business broking and were inexperienced in the area. They were also quite frustrated that our client hadn’t simply signed the agreement and sent it back. 

Without the business sale contract clearly setting out what was being sold, we couldn’t assure our client about what they would receive. In addition, the landlord wanted the buyer to enter into a new lease at a rent $10,000 per annum more than the seller had disclosed to our client. 

Fortunately, our client did not rush to sign and when answers to our questions were not forthcoming, and his circumstances changed, he decided not to go ahead. In that instance he had invested in getting legal and accounting advice and told us he had a very valuable learning experience.

2. Knowing What you Are Buying

So, what are you buying? If the contract isn’t clear, then you might be handing over money and not getting what you expected. You need to know what is important to the day-to-day operations of the business and how much of that is being transferred to you. You don’t want to purchase a cafe and upon settlement, find out that the seller cleaned out all the cupboards and fridges the day before and you have to restock before you can trade. 

Case Study 4

Our client was looking to buy his first business at around $200,000 and had found what he thought was a printing business and that everything was done onsite. He had no experience in printing and was planning to hire someone to run the business. He arranged the finance, and asked us to become involved at contract stage. 

When we received the business purchase contract, it was unclear from the contract what exactly our client was buying. There was no mention of printing equipment, paper, card, inks or other stock. We also suggested our client carefully go through the accounts with their accountant to ensure there were sufficient profits in the business to be able to hire someone to run it. The seller was an owner/operator. 

Without the business sale contract clearly setting out what was being sold, we couldn’t assure our client about what they would receive, what equipment was in the business, or even if the seller owned the equipment being used and had the right and ability to sell it. 

Without ensuring the contract was clear, it is possible that our client could have only received business branding, a client list and the liability for a lease – expenses without immediate income.  He would then have also had to immediately spend additional money purchasing the necessary equipment to operate the business. 

Fortunately, our client did not rush to sign and when answers to our questions were not clear, and he was offered a role interstate, he decided not to go ahead. That client is looking to purchase a business for income without him having to be involved in the day to day. He hasn’t done that before and said that it had been a very worthwhile investment in getting legal and accounting advice before signing anything. He now feels better prepared to assess potential deals in the future. 

3. Profit is in the Purchase

When you are buying a business, it is very important to get appropriate accounting and financial advice. It is possible to buy a business that needs to be turned around, but only if you can do so at the right price. 

The profit is in the purchase. 

What opportunities do you have to increase revenue immediately or very soon after you buy the business? It is not uncommon that people who are ready to sell are at that point because they have lost real interest in the business and there is lots of room for improvement. If you can see the opportunities, and know how to leverage them, then you might be looking at a good deal. 

A lawyer who had bought a law practice on the Gold Coast once applied to work with Onyx Legal. They claimed they had been misled about the value of the business, paid too much and there was no opportunity to make money because the Gold Coast was a low socioeconomic area! Naturally, they didn’t get the job. You attitude to the business you are buying can influence your ability to make a success of it. 

When you go into business, success or failure is up to you. Know what the business is worth once the owner walks away (are customers attached to the owner and likely to follow them?) and understand what you are willing to pay to secure that opportunity. 

It is not unusual for cafes and restaurants to be sold for nominal amounts (like $1) because the owner is losing money and is better off getting out. Someone who understand the area, likely clientele, available workforce and marketing can potentially come in and make a success of it. There are stories of a Gold Coast restaurateur selling and buying back a restaurant a couple of times because he knew how to make it a success, but the purchasers didn’t. 

One of the early Australian online tipping platforms was bought from the founders by a larger company, and then bought back by the founders 18 months later at a much lower cost because that company didn’t know how to make a success of it.

4. Assets vs Entities

When you buy a business, you are either buying shares in a company, in which case you are buying the history, or you are buying assets – which is everything necessary to operate a business. Assets can be tangible (like a desk) or intangible (like a website). 

When you buy shares, everything in the company comes with it, so you must understand what loans or other liabilities are sitting in the company, and how they will be dealt with at settlement. Things like tax debts, overdue superannuation, bad credit ratings, court proceedings, embarrassing media stories and so on are all associated with the entity, and that is what you are buying. 

When you are buying assets, you need to understand what is transferrable and what is not. Not all supply contracts are transferable without the prior approval of the customer. So if the profits in the business are in one or two large contracts and it is not clear if they are transferable, you may be losing money as soon as the purchase is completed. 

These sorts of things need to be checked. 

5. Transferring Intellectual Property

Intellectual property – copyright, trade marks, patents etc, need to be transferred in writing, by the owners. It is important to check who owns what when buying a business. In particular, copyright belongs to the creator unless transferred in writing. Software, graphic design, website copy etc all belong to the creator. If the creator is an employee it is ok, the copyright vests in the company, but if they started as a contractor before becoming an employee, there can be uncertainty about what they company owns and is able to sell. 

Case Study 5

Our client was buying a health business and searches showed that the domain name and the website (separate things) used to advertise the business were not actually owned by the seller. A lot of patients found the business through the website. It was essential to have the sale of business contract adjusted to ensure that transfer of the domain name and website occurred as part of the sale. 

Case Study 6

A client was interested in buying a business which used a particular bespoke software for all of its main operations. The due diligence process disclosed that the software developer had been contracting to the business for years and there was nothing in writing about the ownership of that software, or its ongoing use by the company. The seller was unable to produce anything in writing to show that it owned the software, even though it believed it did. 

The buyer of the business walked away. 

6. Competition by the Seller

Online businesses are a big area where competition is a concern after settlement. Most business sale contracts contain some form of restraint on the seller about what they can do in an area that will compete with the business you are buying after the date of the sale. 

A restraint provision in an employment agreement is more likely to be enforceable when it is structured to protect the interests of the buyer, and not likely to be enforceable if it puts the seller in a position where they cannot earn a living. 

Tougher restraint provisions are likely to be enforceable for commercial agreements than they are in employment situations, because the courts will also expect the parties to have made a commercial decision about what is acceptable to them, or not. This is an issue for sellers who do not carefully consider what they plan to do after completion, and how they may be limited by a restraint. 

Different things that restraint provisions can cover are:

  • Area: Does the business operate locally, nationally, in a region like Oceania, or worldwide? Does the seller plan to expand the area of service, or combine it into an existing business that covers a larger area? Is it fair? 
  • Industry: A bug-bear we have is when a buyer attempts to include ‘a similar business’ without defining what that is, or to include the businesses operated by a group of companies related to the buyer, whether or not those businesses are in the same industry or something completely different. Restraints should focus on the business being sold, not something broader.
  • People: It makes sense to restrain a seller from working with existing or potential customers already known in the business being sold, however, we have assisted sellers in being permitted to retain a client list for the purpose of communicating a new business, where that business does not compete with or adversely affect the buyer. 
  • Key contacts: It can be also worthwhile include a restraint against poaching staff, suppliers or distributors for a period of time after completion. 
  • Time: Periods of restraint can vary significantly, anywhere from months to years. Times and areas of restraint vary depending on the type of business and the reach of that business. It is also common to have cascading provisions, which leave it to a court to decide what is fair if a restraint is breached. We encourage our clients to consider the period of time it would take a knowledgeable competitor to set up a similar business, and to be reasonable in setting the time for restraint. Where a large infrastructure investment is likely to be threated by competition from the seller, then a longer restraint period is likely to be considered fair and reasonable. 

7. The Limits of Each Adviser

It’s tempting to think that your advisers will have all the answers when you are buying a business and be able to tell you what to do if you end up in a situation where you feel a little lost. This can happen for people who have never bought a business before. 

As legal advisers, we can review the contracts and check that the contracts properly describe what you think you are buying and what your obligations, and the obligations of the seller will be, after purchase. We can highlight potential rights and flag decisions you must make – but we cannot make those decisions for you. 

The truth is, it is your responsibility.

Your accountant, lender or financial adviser are all in the same boat. They can highlight information for you, but they cannot make the decision whether or not to buy, and they cannot determine how much importance you place on any piece of information. 

Case Study 7

Many years ago when working in a national firm, a client who had borrowed significantly (millions) to fund a purchase was part way through the due diligence process and wondering whether or not the purchase was going to be worthwhile. It got to a point where the client was saying “we’ve spent too much (around $300k) now not to go ahead.” 

There was an element of wilful blindness on the part of the purchaser in that transaction. They had put their reputation, and their house, on the line to fund a purchase that was looking more and more questionable the more they learnt about the business. Going through with the purchase was more about their ego and being ‘clever’ at getting the deal done. 

About 6 months after settlement, the business failed and was placed into liquidation and the director was forced into bankruptcy.   

It is your money. It could be your reputation, your family and your future that you are staking on this purchase. As much as professional advisers can provide you with advice, advisers cannot tell you what to do and all the important decisions are up to you. This makes it important to be up front with your advisers, whether legal, financial, accounting or otherwise, and ensure they understand your priorities and concerns. 

A binding contract requires offer, acceptance and consideration. Consideration can be the doing of some thing or the payment of money. 

At every point before consideration has passed, you are likely to have the opportunity to exit from a transaction, no matter how much has been spent getting to that point. Sometimes, a small loss can be better than taking a risk that doesn’t feel right.  

When you are buying a business, you will also have a period of time to complete due diligence and should use that time to ensure that your assumptions about the business are correct, and if not, whether you still want to go ahead, negotiate further, or walk away. 

As we said at the start – don’t rush in.

    How can Onyx Legal help you?

    If you are interested in buying a business, whether this is your first time or your tenth, and you know you need help in the process, make an appointment now to talk it through with one of our team.

    Legally Binding Contracts: What You Need To Know

    Legally Binding Contracts: What You Need To Know

    Legally Binding Contracts: What You Need To Know

    LEGALLY BINDING CONTRACTS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

    There is no doubt that running a business has risks. These risks may come from your employees, your contractors, your suppliers or customers.

    As a business owner, you need to take control of your business by assessing these risks and determining how to reduce these risks. One of the best ways to protect your business is to understand contracts. The terms and conditions on your website document the contract between you and every user of your website. If you don’t have any written terms and conditions, you are guessing about the agreement you have with your website users. 

    When you sell your product or services, you need a written sales contract to be certain that you are protecting your interests. If you operate an online platform to market or sell your products or services, you need a contract for use of your website (usually terms and conditions). Or, if you want to protect your confidential information such as your client list and trade secrets, then you need a confidentiality deed.

    Contracts are an essential part of all businesses as they form the basis of the majority of business relationships and transactions. It is, therefore, crucial for you to know when you do and do not have a binding contract. A binding contract is something that is legally enforceable. So for example, having fun with your friends in a pub is not going to be a binding contract, it’s going to be a bit of a joke and a bit of fun. In order to get a binding contract, you have to have all of the essential terms agreed and an intent to create legal relations. You also need to be able to give evidence of the terms of the agreement.

    CASE STUDY

    We recently had a client who entered into a contra deal with another service provider, each expecting to complete between $3,000 – $5,000 of work for the other party. Our client wasn’t able to, or wasn’t prepared to trawl through historical emails to specify the details of what they had committed to provide, and they had not invoiced periodically. (An invoice with a credit applied can assist in evidencing that an agreement was made.)

    The other party provided a written engagement for services and invoiced regularly. After 12 months, the other party claimed they had received nothing from our client and took legal action to seek payment in full of their invoices. Because our client was not organised, wasn’t able to specify the agreement made or clearly identify the work produced, they ended up in a position of having to either invest in legal services to defend a court matter, or compromise the claim and pay the other party.

    A bitter pill to swallow!

    For a contract to be legally binding in Australia, it must contain at least the following elements:

     

    1. offer

    A contract is essentially a promise between people to do or not do certain things, and it starts with an offer.

    An offer must be clear, unambiguous, and contain the essential terms that are to be agreed upon between the parties. That might include the parties to be involved in the contract, the timing of the contract, payment terms under the contract, and any other essential terms necessary to make sense of the purpose of the contract.

    When you communicate to another person your promise, you are making an offer. For example, if you promote your services in three different packages on your website, then you are making an offer to each person who views that webpage.

    When thinking about business contracts, a company that prepares a proposal is making an offer. If the business looking at that proposal accepts it, that is the first step toward a binding contract, but if they come back and says, “we want something different,” then that offer no longer stands as the offer It’s a counteroffer and the counteroffer takes the place of the original offer.

    This will go on until the parties reach a point where there is an offer that is capable of being accepted, and that’s where you get acceptance.

     

    2. acceptance

    There must also be acceptance of the offer through a clear statement or conduct in response to the offer. Acceptance can be evidenced in a variety of ways, so it could simply be an email, a telephone conversation, or the signing of a formal written contract.

    For online services, acceptance will be when your customer clicks on that button that says, ‘Buy Now’. That is accepting the offer that has been made available on the website.

    Contracts are commonly accepted by signature, or by checking a box next to a statement that says you agree to the terms and conditions.  Many contracts are binding without a signature, but not all contracts can be legally binding without being signed. Contracts for the sale of land must be in writing and signed. Wills must also be in writing and signed to be enforceable without needing court intervention.

    A form of signature is preferred because even if the parties did not read the contract before signing it, their signatures indicate that they have read and understood and are bound by the terms.

    However, this does not mean that if your contract is not signed, it is not valid and therefore not enforceable. Parties can also accept the contract terms through their conduct or other circumstances. It all depends on the circumstances and intention exhibited by the parties. As long as it has been sufficiently communicated, it will be valid acceptance.

    For example, completing work referred to in the contract signals acceptance of the contract terms, and that person will be entitled to seek payment under the contract.

    A counteroffer is not acceptance, it is a new offer that needs acceptance.

     

    3. consideration

    A person must give some value in return for a promise to create a legally binding contract. In other words, each party must receive a benefit.  The most common form of consideration is payment in exchange for goods or services.

    With the online example, you’ve clicked the ‘Buy Now’ button. The consideration is the payment of money, and as soon as that consideration has passed, there is a binding contract in place.

    Using the example of a proposal, once the terms of the proposal are agreed and accepted by one party, either the payment of money or the start of work or both, will be consideration. The essential terms of the contract must be agreed before the point of consideration to be binding.

    So, if you ask a client to pay first and then give them terms and conditions after payment, then the terms and conditions won’t be binding because the consideration has occurred before those elements of the contract are agreed. This can be different where a deposit is conditional upon certain terms being accepted.

    Terms and conditions of a contract given to a purchaser only after the contract was formed will not be binding.

     

    4. Intent to create legal relations

    As entertaining as it might be to dare a friend in a pub to do something, if they do it, your payment to them is only enforceable based on your goodwill and is not legally enforceable.

    This is different to a restaurant promising that a huge meal is free if you can eat it all. That can be enforceable because the restaurant intends people to rely upon that promise in ordering the meal in the first place.

      other elements of a binding contract

      Aspects of contracts that can affect whether or not a contract is binding include capacity, mistake, illegal intent, fraud, misrepresentation, duress or no intent to create a legal contract.

       

      capacity

      Capacity is whether somebody has the legal capacity to make a contract. Only an adult can enter into a contract; that is somebody over the age of 18 years. A person under 18 years does not have legal capacity to form a binding contract.

      A person with a disability or an older person who has lost capacity through dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may not have capacity to make a contract, or may have only intermittent capacity.

       

      mistake

      A mistake in a contract can sometimes invalidate a contract. Typographical errors are generally not fatal mistakes.

      Usually, a party will be bound by the documents they signed, whether or not they’ve read or understood them. However, where a party signs a contract that they fundamentally believe to be something different to what it is, this may be a mistake sufficient to affect the binding nature of the contract. For example, if a person believes that they are purchasing a copyright work (say a painting) where in fact, what they’re signing is only a limited license to use that copyright work for a limited purpose (hanging  the painting in their office). In those circumstances, there is quite a significant difference between what the first person understands they are paying for, and what they are actually getting under the contract.

      That may give rise to a doctrine of what’s called a non est factum, which means, ‘it’s not my deed’ or ‘it’s not my contract’ or ‘I didn’t agree to this’. It is very rare to argue this type of mistake.

      There are other types of mistakes, for example, one party could be mistaken about what it is they are buying. A party might think they are buying a website with all the existing content and so on, where in fact, what they’ve done is entered into a contract to buy a domain name.

      Now, it is likely that the seller in that circumstance knows that they are only selling a domain name and they probably have a level of awareness that the purchaser is mistaken as to what they are actually getting.

      In those circumstances the purchaser may not be able to end the contract, there might not be a remedy under contract law or common law, but there may be a remedy in equity. In equity, the party who knew the other party was mistaken as to what was involved in the contract, may be required to allow the other party to revoke the contract or to have rectification of the contract.

      Rectification is amendment to the contract to make it reflect what was understood to be the terms of the contract. Occasionally, both parties to a contract have mistaken some aspect of the contract, but different aspects.

      There have been some recent cases in Queensland regarding property development, where two parties to a development contract had different understandings of different aspects of the contract and they were ventilated when it went to court. Again, it is rare to have a circumstance where there is a unilateral mistake by both parties about different issues to the contract.

      A common mistake is where both parties are mistaken about something to do with the contract. A good example is where both parties think a description of a property refers to a visual address they agree upon, only to find in a property title search that the property they thought they were transacting is the property next door.

      For online content, the contracting parties might both think that the website is built with a particular programming language, for example, HTML, when it is built on a different system or with different programming language.

      Where there is common mistake, all party’s expectations around the contract are altered because something has risen that none of them were aware of when they first went into the contract. Again, the remedy is more likely to be an equity in terms of a rescission of contract or rectification of the contract, rather than a specific ability to terminate the contract. However, if all parties are mistaken and they have a mutual agreement to end the contract, then that is not a problem at all. It is only a problem when the parties are in dispute.

       

      illegal purpose

      Another aspect that will affect the binding nature or enforceability of a contract is whether or not it’s for an illegal purpose. A contract for the purpose of committing a crime is not enforceable. There are differences in criminal law in the different states and territories of Australia.  There are also proposed changes around Australia regarding slavery laws at the moment.

      Consider modern slavery, such as people immigrating from overseas and then having their passports taken from them and essentially going into indentured labor services. An offer to find work for someone in exchange for their payment to get help in immigrating will not be enforceable if it results in indentured labor.

       

      fraud or misrepresentation

      If there is misrepresentation or fraud before the contract is made, which influences one party to enter into the contract, then the contract may be challenged. Fraud is a deliberate untruth that can be relied upon to void a contract. Misrepresentation is something less.

      Consider an IT Service Provider. They say that they will be able to provide you a secure computer system and a phone system (being very simplistic, obviously), for a set monthly fee and an installation cost. Then you find out halfway through installation that it simply will not work with your existing systems, unless additional products or services are purchased, or there is some variation to what needs to be done.

      This may be misrepresentation, particularly if you have asked the service provider to review what your requirements are and tender on that basis, then you have accepted the tender and they can’t deliver what they said they would deliver. A remedy for misrepresentation is likely to be damages.

       

      duress

      Coercive control is a form of domestic violence that is very topical at the moment, and difficult for the legal system to articulate. Duress or coercive control is putting someone in a position where they feel they have no choice but to enter into the agreement.

      In a business situation, holding up payment pending an agreement can be a form of duress if the party withholding payment knows that it will have an adverse effect on the party due to be paid, and they intend to use that as leverage for future negotiations. It is effectively holding the company that is owed money to ransom for money it is already owed.

      Although the creditor company might have remedies in terms of taking the debtor to court for recovery of payment, the time involved in recovering that payment may be sufficient to effectively put the creditor out of business without the payment due being received.

      A threat can also form duress, unless there is a term of the contract that was agreed which supports it. “If you don’t sack that person, we will terminate this contract” is a threat unless the contract includes a provision that you can require the contractor to replace people if you are not happy with them.

       

      spoken contracts, or partly spoken and partly written

      An oral contract can also be valid and enforceable. A contract can be partly written, partly verbal and partly included in an exchange of emails. [https://onyx.legal/articles/contract-dont-have-to-be-in-writing/]

      For this reason, you need to be aware of when you’re making promises to other people and when you might be creating binding contracts, whether you intended to or not. Having a formally written contract with signatures on it is proof of the contract that was agreed. The documentation is not what is required to make it binding.

      Evidence obviously becomes an issue when contracts are oral. That is when disputes end up in courts, with different people claiming perfect, and differing, recollection of what was agreed.

       

      contracts and deeds are different things

      There is a difference between deeds and contracts. Contracts need consideration, which is the doing or giving of something in exchange for understanding that the other party to the contract or the other parties to the contract have obligations that they will fulfill in exchange.

      A deed is binding without consideration, and as a result, there are specific rules around the signing of a deed before it can become binding.  

       

      remedies

      Once a contract is formed, the nature of the remedy depends upon the nature of the problem in the contract and can include a variety of remedies from voiding the contract from the beginning through to payment of damages, specific performance, damages for losses occurring within the contract and so on. These all depend on the terms of the contract agreed between the parties.

      Want more information?

      We love writing contracts. Especially contracts you understand, so that your customers understand them too. Keep it simple. Let us know what contracts you would like to put in place in your business by completing our contact form or booking an appointment.