When business owners are negotiating contracts to gear up for the sale of their business, they are rightly concerned with key questions such as the sale price for the business including assets such as how much the sale will cost them and what happens if something goes wrong. At the end of the contracts, there are usually several pages of type that usually look like boilerplate. Inside those clauses is usually something called an assignment clause, or more accurately, an anti-assignment clause.
It’s one of those clauses that everyone glosses over – after all, it’s just standard legal text, right?
For a business owner hoping to sell their business, an anti-assignment clause can dissuade potential buyers and play a crucial role in the selling price of a business. If this sounds familiar and you’re in the process of negotiating the merger or acquisition of your business, read on – we’ve put together a practical guide to anti-assignment clauses and what to look out for.
What is an assignment clause?
The anti-assignment clause states that neither party can transfer or assign the agreement without the consent of the other party. On a basic level, that makes sense – after all, if you sign a contract with a specific party, you don’t expect to be entering into an agreement with a third party you didn’t intend to be.
However, when you sell your business, you will want to transfer ownership of those contracts to the buyer. If your contracts all contain an anti-assignment clause, they effectively restrict you from transferring ownership to the interested party. Now, you’re presented with a new challenge altogether – before you can focus on the sale of your business, you must first renegotiate the terms of your contracts with each party.
Language to look out for in anti-assignment clauses
If you’re thinking about selling your business or even have potential buyers interested, it’s better to know in advance if you’ve got anti-assignment clauses in your contracts. There are generally two types of anti-assignment clause to look out for. The first relates to the complete bar on assignment of rights and responsibilities and is typically worded in this way, or similar:
“Neither Party may assign, delegate, or transfer this agreement or any of its rights or obligations under this agreement.”
The second type prevents the transfer of rights or duties without prior written consent of the other party. This will read along the lines of:
“Neither this agreement nor any right, interest, or obligation herein may be assigned, transferred, or delegated to a third party without the prior written consent of the other party, and whose consent may be withheld for any reason.”
So, where the first prohibits assignment altogether, the second prohibits assignment unless permission is sought in advance. Some clauses may even explicitly state that a change of control such as a merger or acquisition is an assignment. The last thing you want is to cause a dispute by breaching the contract, but if you’ve already agreed to these terms, you’ll have to open a fresh set of negotiations with the contracting party before you sell the company.
Assignment clauses in M&A: what’s the problem?
Due diligence is the bread and butter of any merger or acquisition. Rather than a leap of faith, due diligence ensures the purchase of a business is a calculated decision with minimal risk to the buyer. Typically carried out by specialist lawyers, the process is designed to lift the hood on the target business to determine the valuation of assets and liabilities and identify any glaring issues that could leave the buyer open to risk.
During the due diligence process, the buyer will look through all of the major contracts the business has open, and specifically keep a close eye out for assignment clauses.
Despite the virtual environment that many businesses have been forced to operate in in 2020, most companies will have commercial leases for the premises from which they typically work. Almost all leases have an anti-assignment clause, and this is a perfect example of an instance that is often overlooked by commercial tenants when selling a business which includes a leasehold property. This transfer of ownership may well be prohibited under an anti-assignment clause so that prior to the sale of the business, you would be required to ask permission from your landlord. The issue here is that the landlord may well see this as the perfect opportunity to renegotiate and secure a better deal for themselves. What’s worse, if they don’t sign off on the transfer, you’ll have an obstruction on your hands that will stand in the way of the sale.
In any case, an unexpected anti-assignment clause usually winds up being a last-minute hitch in the sale, and it never comes at a good time. Whether it delays the sale or obstructs it altogether, overlooking an anti-assignment clause can cost you considerably in an M&A transaction.
What makes anti-assignment clauses enforceable?
Generally speaking, an anti-assignment clause will be enforced by the courts if it was agreed upon by both parties to the contract. Many contracts exclude or qualify the right to assignment – according to the courts, a clause that states that a party to a contract may not assign the benefit of that contract without the consent of the other party is legally effective and will extend to all rights and benefits arising under the contract.
Courts won’t always enforce assignments to which the counterparty did not give permission, even where there is no anti-assignment clause that specifies this provision.
How to negotiate anti-assignment clauses
The best practice for business owners is to be vigilant when negotiating new contracts and ensure that any anti-assignment clauses still allow for the transfer of ownership when they decide to sell the business.
Remember, even though the buyer is purchasing the assets of the business, this usually means that all of the contracts of the business go with it because the business remains intact. Therefore, the best way forward is to negotiate these clauses upfront from the outset of the relationship, so that when you do decide to sell your business, you automatically have permission to transfer the ownership without having to delay the sale by entering into fresh negotiations.
If your agreement does not permit assignments, it’s worth seeking the advice and support of a specialist lawyer who can help protect your interests through negotiation with your counterparty on this point. You may be able to include a provision that allows for assignment of your rights and obligations upon the prior written consent of the other party. Your lawyer will likely advise you to carve out a specific provision to prohibit the counterparty from unreasonably withholding or delaying consent or making it subject to unreasonable conditions – an issue which, if not provided for within the contract, can cause serious delay and disruption to the sale of your business. Further, it may be beneficial to add an extra element to the contract that makes exceptions to the clause for assignments between affiliates. If you’re planning to sell your business, this would be the right place to carve out an exception within the clause to the change of control via a merger or acquisition.
It’s important to bear in mind that anti-assignment clauses tend to be viewed narrowly by courts, and that there have been several instances whereby anti-assignment clauses have not been enforced since the clause itself did not explicitly state that the assignment of rights, duties or payment would render the contract void or invalid. So, if you’re in the process of negotiating an agreement and wish to protect your interests through the addition of an anti-assignment clause, it’s critical that you include the consequences of assignment within the clause itself and state that assignments would invalidate or be in breach of the contract.
If you do not wish for the counterparty to be able to transfer the legal obligation to perform their duties as stated in the contract to a third party, this must be explicitly stated in one of three ways:
- Specify the need for consent
There’s no need to be unreasonable – you can protect your interests while still giving the counterparty the space to re-negotiate should they wish to assign rights by including a clause that asks for consent.
- Provide an exemption to consent for affiliates, successors or new owners
Ask your lawyer to draft an exception into the clause that permits assignment to affiliates or successors to the counterparty, such as:
“Neither party may assign or delegate this agreement or its rights or obligations under this agreement without the prior written consent of the other party, except that no consent is required (a) for assignment to an entity in which the transferring party will own greater than 50 per cent of the shares or other interests; or (b) in connection with any sale, transfer, or disposition of all or substantially all of its business or assets; provided that no such assignment will relieve an assigning party of its obligations under this agreement. Any assignment or delegation that violates this provision shall be void.”
- Require reasonable consent
Just as you would not wish for consent to be held back from you unreasonably in the renegotiation of contract terms prior to a sale, your assignment clause should make clear that you will not unreasonably withhold or delay consent should the third party request permission to assign their legal obligations. This may read something like this:
“Neither party may assign or delegate this agreement or its rights or obligations under this agreement without the prior written consent of the other party, whose consent shall not be unreasonably withheld or delayed. Any assignment or delegation that violates this provision shall be void.”
Whatever the circumstances, we strongly recommend calling upon a contract law specialist, whether you’re undergoing due diligence in the run up to an M&A transaction, are considering selling your business or are negotiating new contracts with customers and suppliers. Our lawyers bring in-depth expertise in the area of anti-assignment clauses and will work closely with you to protect your interests and ensure no clauses in your contracts negatively impact the sale of your company.
For a free consultation, get in touch with our team through the contact form below or using our online chat service.