Planning for key employees is an important aspect of the growth of any business. Key employees can either drive value to your company or create a roadblock down the line when preparing for an exit transaction. This is why, as a business owner, it’s never too early to plan for ways to retain and reward key employees through the ultimate sale of your business.

Luckily, your first resort for keeping a key employee happy does not automatically mean giving up ownership. We have seen an uptick in companies using constructs like “phantom stock,” “equity participation shares” and other similarly named plans that, in essence, motivate an employee by enhancing their opportunity for participating in the growth of the company and giving them “skin in the game” all without selling actual shares in the company.

Why not actual stock?

Employees and employers alike are sometimes surprised to find out that issuing actual stock to an employee typically means that the employee must pay income and employment taxes on the value of the stock in the year in which they receive it (as if the stock was cash compensation). There are ways around this, such as requiring the employee to pay for the stock or issuing options to buy stock at a later date. But unless the employer is willing to give them the cash to pay for the stock, which additionally also triggers income and employment taxes, employees will rarely exercise their stock options until an exit transaction is imminent, and will have at that point already forfeited the potential tax benefits of stock ownership. In addition, employees holding actual stock in their employer have the rights to call owner meetings, inspect books and records, review financials, and exercise various other rights of a stockholder under state law. For pass-through entities in particular, employees will have to be issued K-1 statements that will hold up the filing of the employee’s own personal tax returns, and they may potentially have to pay taxes on “distributable” income of the company that they never actually receive. Further, once an employee holds actual stock, it is very difficult to get it back (in the event of a termination, for instance) without that employee’s sign-off. For all of these reasons, we are seeing more and more emerging and established companies steer clear of awarding actual stock to their key employees.

What is a Phantom Stock Plan? 

A phantom stock plan is a compensation plan that provides key employees the financial benefits of actual stock without the tax and other legal issues involved in ownership. This allows key employees to still participate in the growth and profitability of the company. 

Who are the Key Employees?

Key employees are typically those that meet the following criteria: they are highly compensated or they carry out management-level duties (as defined by the Department of Labor), and in either case, they must be able to negotiate their compensation packages. Employees that do not fall into one of these buckets are typically not eligible for phantom stock plans. 

How is a Phantom Stock Plan Structured?

The value of the phantom stock units can be measured by the value of the company stock. There are two main types of phantom stock plans: “appreciation” plans and “full value participation” plans. The full value participation plan pays both the value of the underlying stock and any appreciation in the value. The appreciation-only plan pays just the increase in value of the stock share going forward from the issuance of the shares. For either of these plans, employers will often pick a percentage of the company or a specific number of shares that are used as the basis of the calculation of the value of what is due to the key employee. 

The payout under the plan will often be based upon revenue, EBITDA, multiples and ultimately the value of the company upon exit.  

Further, the employer can choose to vest the plan benefit over a certain number of years, give vesting credit to certain employees for years served, or make the plans fully vested from inception.

When is the key employee paid?

A phantom stock plan will typically payout upon the occurrence of an exit transaction. The payment of the value accruing to the key employee will typically be structured to be contingent on them remaining with the company through at least until the end of the transaction and often up to one or two years after the completion of the transaction. Some plans also have other payment triggers, to the extent they occur prior to an exit transaction, such as the key employee’s death, disability, retirement, or termination of employment. Regardless of the payment trigger, the plan will specify if the payment will be made in one lump sum or as payment installments over time once one of the payment triggers occurs. 

At ShuffieldLowman, our corporate law and mergers & acquisitions team are here to advise clients on their options when looking to retain and reward key employees before, during, and after the exit transaction. If you have any questions, you can contact a member of our team directly or contact us through our website. Phantom stocks programs should be reviewed by an attorney to ensure it is drafted properly and meets the requirement as set by IRS code 409(a).  

Orlando Corporate law attorney, Julia Dennis, discusses the importance of protecting your company brand through a trademark, and the difference between a federal or state trademark.

The USPTO has announced an extension of certain trademark-related timing deadlines under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act. Certain filings (such as responses to Office Actions, statements of use, extensions of time to file statements of use, and others) that are due between, and inclusive of, March 27, 2020 and April 20, 2020 will be extended 30 days from the initial date it was due, provided that the filing is accompanied by a statement that the delay in filing or payment was due to the COVID-19 outbreak. An applicant, registrant or other person will be deemed to have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak including, without limitation, through office closures, cash flow interruptions, inaccessibility of files or other materials, travel delays, personal or family illness, or similar circumstances, such that the outbreak materially interfered with a timely filing or payment.

Further, the USPTO is also granting some relief to applicants or registrants that allowed their applications and registrations to be abandoned or canceled due to inability to respond timely to a trademark-related USPTO communication as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Note that if an applicant or registrant has a filing before the Trademark Trials and Appeals Board, no such automatic extension will be granted without an express request or motion.

The ShuffieldLowman intellectual property team remains available to assist with any new trademark filings and any responses that may be due to the USPTO during this crisis.

Primary Contact: Julia Dennis

It is well-known that in Florida, a great way to own your home is in your individual name so that the home can qualify for homestead protection. Florida’s homestead laws are among the broadest in the country, and exempt homestead property from levy and execution by judgment creditors.

However, homestead laws extend only to your principal, permanent residence. What happens if you want to purchase a beach condo, an office building, or a piece of land to potentially build on in the future? How you title this property can have a significant effect on your business and your other assets.

Generally, holding each piece of real property in a separate limited liability company (“LLC”) owned by a revocable trust is an effective way of ownership with a number of business and estate planning advantages:

  1. Asset Protection. Owning property through an LLC maximizes the protection for your personal assets. Because there is an inherent risk of liability that goes along with property ownership, you, as a property owner, could potentially be subject to tort claims stemming from activities that occur on the property. If the property were held in your individual name or in the name of your revocable trust at the time a tort claim was made and the claim resulted in a judgment against you or your trust, your personal assets or the assets of your revocable trust could be attached to satisfy the judgment. However, if the property is held in an LLC and is the only asset of the LLC, only this property can be used to satisfy the judgment. The same principal applies if you hold a number of real properties, each with a significant value. Generally, each such property should be placed into a separate LLC for these purposes.
  2. Estate Planning. Having each piece of real property in a separate LLC has advantages from an estate planning standpoint in that it makes it simple to transfer ownership to family members. The ownership of real estate held by an LLC is represented proportionately by a member’s shares of an LLC. Rather than filing a new deed, the owners can transfer ownership of the property to their children by simply issuing them membership interests in the LLC. This makes gifting away interest in the real estate very simple and cost effective. Further, the LLC could also be structured with voting and nonvoting units. The owner can preserve control over the property during his or her lifetime and, at the same time, move some of the value of the property out of his or her estate, by gifting only the nonvoting units to family members. The owner could then prescribe how the property is to be controlled at his or her passing by devising the voting interests in the LLC to one or more beneficiaries of the owner’s estate.
  3. Avoidance of Probate. Owning real property through an LLC that is in turn owned by a revocable trust enables one to avoid the difficult probate process with respect to that property, which in turn eases the administration of your estate in the event of your passing.

A less effective, yet still a better way of owning real property than in your individual name, is placing the property into a revocable trust. This type of ownership does not have the asset protection and estate planning benefits described above, but it does remove the property from the probate process at your passing.

If property has already been purchased, it is still possible to take advantage of some of the protections discussed above by transferring the property into the appropriate holding structure. A major consideration as to whether to transfer the property into a revocable trust or an LLC is whether the real property is encumbered by a mortgage. If the property is unencumbered, it should be transferred into a newly formed LLC to take advantage of the LLC’s asset protection attributes. If there is a mortgage on the property, however, a transfer into an LLC would trigger documentary stamp taxes in the amount of $.70 on each $100 of the mortgage payable to the state of Florida. So, for example, on a $500,000 mortgage, the documentary stamp taxes payable to the state at the time of the transfer would be $3,500, which, for some, may not be worth the benefits of the transfer in the first place. If this property is transferred into a revocable trust, however, nominal documentary stamp taxes would be due on the transfer.

While the Florida LLC is an effective and frequently used vehicle for holding real property, there are other options that may be more appropriate for property owners. The specific circumstances and goals of the property owner must be evaluated before making this decision.

In today’s diverse and dynamic tech industry, strong intellectual property (“IP”) protection is key to establishing and accumulating value in your business. With the Apple, Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. case inundating the tech news over the past few weeks, understanding that it is difficult to prevent a competitor from attacking your IP, we started thinking about what businesses can do to minimize IP problems from the inside out. We wanted to share a few of these items in today’s blog.

  1. File for and monitor federal and/or state registrations. Depending on the level of protection desired and the availability of financial resources, you may consider registering some of your IP with applicable federal or state governing bodies. The process can take anywhere from a couple of days (e.g. for certain state trademark offices) to several years (e.g. for issuance of a federal patent), but an issued registration imparts a presumption that your business holds exclusive rights to the registered IP.
  2. Enforce your rights. Once you have secured registration of your patents, trademarks and copyright, it is critical that you police your industry and enforce your rights. Failure to police your IP will weaken even an issued registration. But beware of sending out poorly researched cease and desist letters, as those can sometimes have the disastrous effect of voiding your registered mark. See Firehouse Subs case
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  3. Check your employment and consulting agreements. Any time a business engages an employee or consultant, the business must make sure that their employment and consulting agreements convey sole ownership of any work product to the company. While there is a legal presumption that the company would own any work product that its employees produce, such a presumption does not exist with respect to independent contractors who, absent a written agreement to the contrary, will be deemed to have sole ownership to any work they produce for you. To be safe, for both employees and independent contractors – get it in writing.

For more recommendations or for a complete assessment of the intellectual property used in your businesss, contact the attorneys at ShuffieldLowman.