This Doesn’t Sound Good

Suppose you were a corporate executive and your employer offered you a golden coffin. Would you be happy or sad?

There are a variety of ways of compensating corporate executives, ranging from incentive bonuses and stock options to various forms of nonqualified deferred compensation and “perks.” Some of these benefits are designed to encourage employees to stay with the company. If you stay a certain period of time and achieve certain goals, you’ll be handsomely rewarded; but if you leave early, nothing. These types of arrangements are often referred to as golden handcuffs. Another method of encouraging employees to stay is to assure them that if the business is sold or undergoes a substantial change in control, something good will happen. That something might be immediate vesting in stock options or a cash payment if employment ends shortly after the change. This is referred to as a golden parachute. If more modest benefits are promised to employees at lower echelons of the business, the phrase tin parachute is used. There are restrictions on the use of golden parachutes that are too generous, and that can lead to the imposition of an excise tax by the IRS.

An article on the Human Resource Executive Online Web site notes evidence of so-called golden coffin payments, based on examination of filings made with the SEC. Executives may become entitled to salary continuation payments for several years after their deaths, or their families might be given the right to continue the use of executive perks, such as private jets and country clubs. I suppose the theory is that the executive has been given so much compensation during life that any further increases can’t be justified to shareholders. So, as an alternative to paying more, the idea is to pay it longer, even after death. Still, golden coffin? It doesn’t sound like something nice.

As an alternative to this desire, like General Bullmoose from Li’l Abner, to have all the money in the world, some executives have opted to create a golden legacy. If the executive or his family has a particular charitable interest, the employer might arrange that life insurance proceeds on the executive’s life, or a large severance payment, be paid to a favorite charity or to a foundation set up by the executive during life. There shouldn’t be any tax consequence to the executive or his or her family from such payments, even though there are at least some indirect benefits to the family that might be generated. This enables the executive to do estate planning that is solely focused on providing for the family after the executive has passed on or, as they would say several generations ago, joined the silent majority (a phrase having nothing to do with the Nixon administration).

Robert H. Louis
Saul Ewing
http://www.saul.com/

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