February, 2011

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Legal Differences Between a Stock Purchase and an Asset Purchase

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

A Stock Purchase refers to the sale and purchase of an ownership interest in an entity like a corporation, partnership or limited liability company. The Seller sells, and the Buyer purchases, all or part of the outstanding shares of stock in a corporation, or all or part of the membership interest in an LLC or partnership, as well as all of the existing assets and liabilities of the entity. This includes the name and goodwill of the business, which oftentimes can be valuable. The existing entity itself does not change. Rather, the owners of the stock or membership interest in the entity change from Seller to Buyer, while the entity itself continues uninterrupted.

In a Stock Purchase, unless agreed otherwise, the Seller is absolved of any obligations or liabilities stemming from its prior ownership interest in the entity, as the Purchaser becomes the owner of not only the assets of the entity, but likewise the debts and obligations as well. For this reason a Seller will generally prefer a Stock Purchase over an Asset Purchase, as a Stock Purchase allows the Seller to walk away from the business without the fear of future debts, liabilities or obligations of the business. For the Purchaser of stock in such a transaction, I cannot stress how important it is to perform the maximum amount of due diligence it can, in order the possibility of assuming any unintended or unknown liabilities and obligations, since such liabilities should have or could have been known.

Unlike a Stock Purchase, an Asset Purchase involves, as the name implies, the purchase and sale of only the assets of a particular business, without the purchase or sale of any stock or other ownership interest in the company. The Purchaser buys, and the Seller sells, only the specific assets identified in the governing document, named the Asset Purchase Agreement. Any assets not included in the Asset Purchase Agreement remain the property of Seller. The Buyer must create a new entity that will own the purchased Assets, or use an already existing entity for the transaction.

The Seller of assets retains ownership of the shares of the stock or other membership interest in the business, and as a result the Seller also retains any existing or future obligations and liabilities of such business, except those specifically transferred to the Buyer as part of the sale. For this reason a Purchaser will normally prefer an Asset Purchase to a Stock Purchase. This way, the Buyer obtains only the specific assets which it desired to purchase, and which debts, obligations and liabilities it is assuming, if any.

An additional cost that may be necessary in an Asset Purchase is the need to possibly transfer ownership of certain assets used in or by the business, and/or assign leases and other third party contracts to which Seller was a party.

There are many tax issues that must be addressed when deciding between a Stock Purchase an Asset Purchase. I advise my clients to see the advice of an accountant for such issues.