The first significant, substantive document in most business sales or any merger & acquisition transactions is generally the letter of intent. This may also be called a memorandum of understanding, expression of interest, indication of interest or term sheet, but for the purposes of this article, we will refer to it as a letter of intent.
A letter of intent sets forth in abbreviated form the basic understanding of the key transaction terms between the buyer/acquirer and the seller/target. The letter of intent is not intended to be the final understanding between the parties, and it is not intended to be binding. That said, parties will usually find that terms which are provided for in the letter of intent are very difficult to reverse in a definitive agreement.
The most important terms in the letter of intent are:
The letter of intent should also set out what the seller will receive for the sale, whether stock or cash, and if the latter, how it will be paid. If the buyer is not going to pay the full purchase price in a set amount of cash at the closing, the letter should specify how much of the purchase price will be in a note (and if so, the terms of the note and whether or not the note will be secured, convertible, etc.) or via an earn-out. The letter should also specify what amount will be escrowed, the timing and conditions for its release and whether there may be an adjustment to the purchase price based on a closing value, which is often a combination of equipment, inventory and accounts receivable minus debts of the seller.
Perhaps next most important, the letter of intent also often specifies key closing conditions for the parties, most often, the seller. These may include any combination of the following:
These provisions must be considered carefully, even more so in the definitive agreement than the letter of intent, because they allocate risk between the parties. Additionally, they will likely give the party not subject to the condition an “out” or unilateral option not to close the transaction if such condition is not satisfied.
Numerous and varied other non-binding terms often appear in letters of intent. These may include a timetable for the transaction and the choice of law and forum for resolving disputes, which is particularly important when the parties are located in different jurisdictions or different countries.
Among the important non-binding terms, there is one key term which is binding, at least on the seller: exclusivity. This provision, which may also be known as a no shop or a standstill, prohibits a seller from entering into negotiations with another party for the proposed sale over a specified period, typically between 30 and 90 days. At its most stringent, it may require a seller to report any contact—even if not initiated by the seller—to the buyer. It may even require a payment (“break-up fee”) in the event that the seller does not complete the transaction. Due to the typical lack of reciprocity of break-up fee provisions, as well as the number of matters out of the seller’s hands, these provisions should be vigorously resisted in almost all instances by sellers.
Finally, sellers may wonder this: if a letter of intent is typically about five pages, and a definitive purchase agreement is closer to 50, what constitutes the vast amount of provisions in the latter compared to the former?
The lengthiest and most substantive provisions in definitive purchase agreements that are not typically included (other than to say that the definitive agreement will have customary provisions along these lines, which will be true and correct at the closing) relate to the representations and warranties the seller is giving about the business being sold and the accompanying indemnifications it is providing to the buyer if any of these statements are untrue and cause the buyer to incur liability or losses. These provisions relate to a seller’s assets, liabilities, employees, contracts and intellectual property, among other things, and the circumstances under which the seller will be required to indemnify the buyer and the procedure to be followed. While these matters often generate among the most animated negotiations in preparing the definitive agreement, they rarely arise at the letter of intent stage.
Although indemnification provisions are usually not covered, if the content of such provisions is critical for the seller in determining whether to enter into the transaction, the seller may wish to include a couple of sentences on the duration of the representations and warranties, as well as the seller’s maximum liability for a breach.
Negotiations at the letter of intent stage need to be handled carefully in tone and in substance, as they will be critical in determining what goes into the final binding agreement. It is important for sellers to engage an experienced corporate attorney prior to this stage of the transaction to ensure transaction terms which are as favorable as possible.
[Editor’s Note: If you want to read more about how to sell or otherwise exit a business, be sure to read “Business Transition and Exit Planning: Welcome to the Jungle!” It will lead you step-by-step through what you need to know.
To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following webinars: The M&A Process: Understanding the Lifecycle of a Deal & Basic Deal Documents and Structuring and Planning the M&A Transaction. This is an updated version of the original article published on April 3, 2015.]
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