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As adults, most of us are probably aware that dying intestate (without a valid will) can complicate matters for our families and loved ones. But did you know that dying without a will can also complicate things when it comes to your business matters? It’s true, especially if you are the sole director and shareholder of a company which operates your business.

Immediate concerns

Generally speaking the death of a sole director and shareholder who has not left a valid will has a significant impact on the company because:

  • it creates an immediate void in leadership;
  • there are immediate financial and logistical ramifications;
  • who takes over the directorship and how long will that take.

A closer look

Directors are in charge of managing a company’s business activities. Specifically they are tasked with:

  • acting in good faith and in the best interests of the company;
  • avoiding conflicts between the company’s interests and their own personal interests;
  • preventing the company from conducting business during insolvency;
  • taking certain steps to facilitate the process when the company is being wound up.

Legally, a proprietary company must have at least one director and he or she must live in Australia. Any company with publicly-sourced funded shareholders must have at least two directors, most of whom must live here. Any public company must have at least three directors (exclusive of alternate directors), and at least two of them must live here.

In most cases, if there are several directors and one passes away, there is minimal disruption. This is because the surviving director/s can simply step in to run the company on a daily basis. Or, in some cases, they will select one of their peers to do so on an interim basis, usually until the shareholders/members choose a permanent successor.

In companies where there are several shareholders, the death of one also tends to cause minimal disruption. This is because the directors can usually continue the daily management of the business until the shares are distributed to the beneficiaries of the will.

By leaving a will, a sole director can also ensure that there is a smooth transition in the company leadership and operations following his or her death. The reason is that section 201F of the Corporations Act 2001 permits the executor to appoint the successor. Put simply, the executor is authorised to address this matter quickly, thereby avoiding any prolonged disruption. Under these circumstances a replacement director can usually be appoint within 24-48 hours.

Whereas, if the sole director has not left a will, a relative must make an application to the Supreme Court to apply for a Grant of Letters of Administration and this usually take months thereby leaving the business in limbo. What is more, the Court decides who is granted Letters of Administration not the deceased director. Imagine the ramifications for the company if the bitter and estranged spouse was appointed, which is highly possible given their right of priority to apply, unless there is a divorce.

The effect on operations

During this time, operations may cease entirely. This usually happens when the lack of a duly authorised manager results in the inability to continue daily operations, including routine business and financial transactions. When this occurs for a protracted period, the results can be devastating. Among other things, employees who can no longer be paid will leave, and the company’s reputation will suffer.

Even if someone wants to buy the company, the lack of a recognised shareholder may hinder their ability to do so – or at least their ability to do so quickly. Without someone to authorise the transfer of shares, any sale would be put on hold pending the appointment of the deceased’s legal personal representative and the settlement of the estate.

Complications may also arise if the final decision to wind up the company is made so all beneficiaries can be paid out. Specifically, a lengthy delay may have an adverse effect on the company’s value compared to what it would have been if operations remained unhindered.

The significance of a valid will

Of course, a will isn’t valid unless it is:

  • signed by the person who made it;
  • appoints an executor (up to 4 persons)
  • witnessed in front of at least two other adults who are not beneficiaries;
  • made when the deceased was of sound mind, memory and understanding.

To learn more about making a valid will and the importance of having one if you are the sole director or shareholder of a company, contact the Estate Planning Partner, Richard Dawson, or our Gold Coast Lawyers team on 07-5555 0000 or

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