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From Founder to Legacy: A roadmap for succession planning for Small Businesses

Succession planning is the process of identifying and developing a plan for the orderly transfer of ownership and management of a business. It is an important process for small business owners as it ensures the continuity of the business in the event of the owner’s death, disability or retirement, and protects the interests of their families and employees.

There are a number of steps to keep in mind when creating a succession plan:

  • Identify potential successor(s): The first step is to identify the potential successor(s) for one’s business. This could include family members, employees, or outside investors. There can also be more than one successor. For instance, the owner can choose to pass ownership to his own family member but give control to a non-family member.
  • Assess the potential successor’s skills and experience: Once the business owner has identified a potential successor(s), the owner would need to assess the successor’s skills and experience. This will help the owner to determine whether the successor would be a good fit for the business and be capable of leading the business.
  • Develop a training and development plan: If the successor(s) who has been identified does not have all of the skills and experience that they need to successfully lead the business, the owner will need to develop a training and development plan for them. This plan should outline the specific skills and knowledge they need to acquire, as well as the resources that will be available to them.
  • Document the business’s assets and liabilities: It is important to document the assets, liabilities and other core financials of the business. This will help provide the successor(s) with a clear understanding of the business’s financial situation.
  • Transition Process: The transition process deals with the transfer of ownership and management of business to the successors. The consent of all of the shareholders is necessary in such transfer of ownership. In cases of small businesses, since there is few shareholders present, transfer of ownership becomes relatively easy, as compared to large companies with multiple shareholders.
  • Disputes: In many cases of such restructuring, disputes arise. It is important to resolve any potential disputes among the shareholders before the succession plan is implemented. This will help to ensure that the transition process is smooth and the business is not disrupted.

What does a succession plan for a small business entail?

In addition to the points mentioned earlier, let’s delve deeper into the various aspects that should be covered in a comprehensive succession plan for small businesses.

Legal and Financial Considerations:
  • Business Structure Review: Assess the legal structure of the business, whether it’s a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation. Understand the legal requirements and implications associated with transferring ownership and management within the chosen structure.
  • Compliance with Local Laws: Ensure compliance with relevant Singapore laws and regulations regarding business transfers and succession planning.
  • Intellectual Property Rights: Identify and safeguard the intellectual property rights associated with the business, such as trademarks, copyrights, and patents. Include provisions in the succession plan to address the transfer and protection of these assets.
  • Tax Implications: Understand the tax implications associated with the transfer of ownership and management. Consulting with tax professionals to minimize tax liabilities and optimize the financial aspects of the succession plan is crucial.
Leadership and Management Transition:
  • Identify and Develop Successors: Assess potential successors within the organization or consider external candidates who possess the necessary skills, knowledge, and experience to lead the business effectively. Create a comprehensive training and development program to groom the successor(s) and ensure a smooth transition of leadership.
  • Knowledge Transfer: Facilitate the transfer of critical business knowledge and information from the current owner to the successor(s). Document important processes, contacts, and operational details to ensure a seamless handover.
  • Successor’s Roles and Responsibilities: Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the successor(s) within the organization. Establish expectations and performance metrics to ensure a smooth transition and maintain business continuity.
  • Mentorship and Support: Provide ongoing mentorship and support to the successor(s) during the transition period. Encourage open communication and collaboration between the current owner and the successor(s) to facilitate knowledge transfer and a smooth transition.
Contingency Planning:
  • Emergency and Temporary Leadership Arrangements: Develop contingency plans to address unforeseen circumstances, such as the sudden incapacitation or absence of the current owner. Identify individuals who can step in temporarily to manage the business until a permanent successor is appointed.
  • Key Employee Retention: Identify key employees critical to the business’s success and implement strategies to retain them during the transition period. Offer incentives, clear career paths, and ongoing communication to ensure their commitment and engagement.
  • Insurance Coverage: Evaluate insurance options, such as key person insurance, that can provide financial protection and mitigate risks associated with the departure of the current owner. Ensure adequate coverage to address any potential financial gaps during the transition.
  • Business Continuity Plan: Develop a comprehensive business continuity plan to address potential disruptions caused by the transition. Identify key operational processes, potential risks, and mitigation strategies to ensure the business can continue to operate smoothly throughout the succession process.

What happens to a small business when the owner dies?

In Singapore, the absence of a succession plan in the event of the death of a small business owner can result in various legal and operational challenges. To mitigate these challenges and ensure business continuity, it is important to understand the relevant laws and regulations governing succession planning in Singapore.

Intestate Succession:

When a business owner dies without a will or an adequate succession plan in Singapore, the distribution of their assets, including the business, will be governed by the Intestate Succession Act 1967 (the “ISA”). The ISA outlines how the deceased’s assets are to be distributed amongst the surviving family members.

When the business is distributed according to intestacy laws, this may result in disputes among the heirs, or an unintended distribution of the business especially if the deceased owner had intended for the business to be passed to a non-family member. To prevent the occurrence of such scenarios, it is advisable for small business owners to have a will in place. A will allows the owner to specify their desired distribution of assets, including the business, and nominate specific individuals as successors.

Wills and Probate:

A will is a legal document that outlines the distribution of assets upon the owner’s death. In Singapore, wills are governed by the Wills Act 1838. It is crucial for small business owners to consult with a lawyer to draft a will so that the will would accurately reflect their wishes regarding the transfer of ownership and management of the business.

Upon the owner’s death, the will would go through the probate process in Singapore. The executor appointed in the deceased’s will would need to apply to the court for a grant of probate. With the grant of probate, the executor is legally recognised to administer the deceased’s estate, which includes the business.

Business Succession Planning:

Other than a will, there are other legal instruments that owners can incorporate into their business succession planning. Such instruments include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Buy/Sell Agreements: Small business owners can enter into buy/sell agreements with co-owners or key employees to establish a predetermined framework for the sale or transfer of the business upon their death. These agreements specify the valuation of the business, the terms of the sale, and the rights and obligations of the parties involved.
  • Trusts: Establishing a trust can be an effective way to protect and manage the business’s assets. Small business owners can create a trust to hold shares or other assets related to the business and specify the beneficiaries who will benefit from the trust’s assets upon their death. Trusts can provide continuity and protection for the business, ensuring a smooth transition.
Business Entity Considerations:

The type of business entity, such as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or company, can also impact succession planning in Singapore. Each entity has its own legal and regulatory requirements for transferring ownership.

For example, in the case of a sole proprietorship, when the sole proprietor dies, the business will cease to exist. The business and its assets are considered as personal assets of the deceased, and would be distributed just like any other personal assets. In the case of partnerships or companies, partnership agreements and shareholder agreements can provide guidance on how ownership and management transfers should be handled when one of the owner dies.

Why should a business owner have a succession plan

A small business owner should have a succession plan to safeguard the interests of the business, its employees, and stakeholders. A well-executed plan ensures a smooth transition, minimizes legal and financial risks, preserves the business’s value, and provides clarity and direction to the successor(s). Moreover, having a succession plan in place enhances the business’s reputation, instils confidence in customers, and facilitates the securing of loans or investments.

Key points that can be addressed in a succession plan

There are certain points that can be addressed in a succession plan, specifically in the context of Singapore’s laws and regulations.

Identifying Successors:

Under Singapore laws, when identifying potential successors, it is essential to consider the legal and regulatory requirements specific to the business entity. For instance:

Sole Proprietorship: The successor may be identified in the owner’s will, and the succession plan should clearly state the transfer of ownership and management.

Partnership: The partnership agreement may outline the process of admitting new partners or provide a provision where the remaining partners can buy over the shares of the deceased partner. This allows the partnership to continue its business without interruption.

Company: Potential successors may be identified in the company’s constitution. For instance, the constitution may stipulate a specified class of recipients that shares may be transmitted to when the original shareholder passes on.

Training and Development:

Developing a comprehensive training and development program for successors is crucial for a smooth transition of leadership. Consider the following aspects:

  • Identify the specific skills, knowledge, and experience required to effectively lead the business.
  • Provide relevant training opportunities, mentorship, and exposure to key business operations.
  • Comply with any regulatory requirements or industry-specific certifications that may be necessary for the successor to assume their role.
Legal Instruments:

Business owners can utilise a variety of legal instruments for succession planning. These instruments can include, but are not limited to, the following:

Wills and Trusts: Draft a legally valid will that clearly outlines the transfer of business assets and ownership. Establishing trusts can provide further protection and management of assets.

Partnership Agreements: Include provisions that address succession planning, such as procedures for the admission or withdrawal of partners.

Buy/Sell Agreements: Consider implementing buy/sell agreements that provide a framework for the sale or transfer of business interests in the event of death or incapacity.

When utilising the above legal instruments to transfer shares or alter the ownership structure of their companies, business owners should ensure that their instruments of succession comply with the Companies Act 1967 and other relevant regulations.

Communication and Stakeholder Engagement:

Open communication and stakeholder engagement are essential to maintaining transparency and minimizing uncertainty during the succession process. Consider the following:

  • Develop a communication strategy to inform employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders about the succession plan and its implications.
  • Address concerns and provide reassurance to stakeholders regarding the continuity and stability of the business.
  • Comply with any legal obligations, such as notifying relevant government authorities or regulatory bodies about changes in ownership or management.
Contingency Planning:

Anticipating and addressing unforeseen circumstances through contingency planning is critical. Singapore laws do not mandate specific contingency plans for succession, but it is advisable to consider the following:

  • Establish temporary leadership arrangements in case of sudden incapacitation or absence of the owner or primary successor.
  • Identify a backup successor or designate a responsible party to handle the business temporarily until a permanent solution is established.
  • Consider insurance coverage, such as key person insurance, to mitigate financial risks associated with the sudden loss of the owner or primary successor.

Tools for small business succession planning

As discussed earlier, there are multiple estate planning tools for small business:

a) Wills and Trusts: A will is a legal document that outlines the distribution of assets upon the owner’s death. A trust provides a mechanism to manage and protect assets for the benefit of designated beneficiaries. Properly drafted wills and trusts can ensure a smooth transfer of ownership and protect the business’s value.

b) Partnership Agreements: The partnership agreement outlines the roles, responsibilities, and decision-making processes within the business and can include provisions for succession planning.

c) Buy/Sell Agreement: A buy/sell agreement is a legally binding agreement that governs the transfer of ownership in the event of certain triggering events, such as the death or retirement of a business owner. This agreement establishes the terms and conditions for the purchase or sale of the business interest, ensuring a smooth transition and providing a fair value for the departing owner.

What should succession planning for a small business include?

Succession planning for a small business should include the following essential elements:

  • Documentation of the succession plan, including legal agreements, wills, and trusts.
  • Clear identification of successor(s) and their roles.
  • A comprehensive training and development program for successor(s).
  • Strategies for maintaining business continuity during the transition.
  • A communication plan to inform stakeholders about the succession plan.
  • Regular reviews and updates of the plan to adapt to changing circumstances.


Succession planning is a vital process that ensures the longevity and success of small businesses in Singapore. By addressing key considerations, such as legal and financial aspects, identifying successor(s), and establishing contingency plans, small business owners can safeguard their businesses’ future. Engaging legal professionals experienced in Singapore laws is crucial to develop a robust succession plan tailored to the unique needs of the business. With a well-executed succession plan in place, small businesses can transition smoothly, leaving behind a strong legacy for future generations to build upon.

Please note that this article does not constitute express or implied legal advice, whether in whole or in part. For a Consultation or if you simply require more information, email us at


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