Today's Viewpoint: A MarshBerry Publication

The Risks of Handshake Agreements in Insurance Brokerage

Since the insurance brokerage business is relationship-based, it’s typical for independent brokers to have referral relationships with noncompeting brokers. These relationships are often sealed with just a handshake. However, not formalizing such agreements can lead to costly disputes down the road.

Referral agreements based on a handshake (or verbal contracts, or anything informal) are quite common in the insurance broker industry. Many brokers don’t see the point of taking the time and energy to formalize agreements between noncompeting “friends.” After all, if there is a falling out between brokers, don’t the referrals just stop? Is there any need to spend time drawing up contracts or making things official? Can’t you just trust that the deal will go through? In reality, it’s rarely that simple.

The challenges of informal agreements

There are many risks of handshake agreements for insurance brokers. Handshake agreements can become an issue for brokers reevaluating their capital structure. Most capital providers and strategic partners will not finalize a relationship with brokers with outstanding agreements without formal documentation. Capital providers and strategic partners often require brokers to formalize referral agreements or other arrangements before a partnership is finalized. This may cause a costly delay in closing a partnership or getting access to capital.

Another of the risks of handshake deals in insurance brokerage usually arises when things go south between non-competing businesses that are sharing a relationship with a client. At that point, the question comes up as to who owns the business that was referred. Is it the broker who placed the business or referred the business? If the broker placed the business, how long is the referring broker entitled to compensation or commission splits? It’s rare to find alignment between brokers on these issues when the time comes to dissolve or formalize these handshake agreements.

When to get formal

Formalizing a handshake agreement is each party’s “insurance policy” against any significant change within the business or when things aren’t going well. The best time to formalize an agreement is at the onset – when both parties are excited about the mutual benefits of the relationship. The second-best time to formalize an agreement is when things are still going well. Don’t wait for tension or a sudden need to formalize an agreement. Avoiding an official arrangement can lead to disputes and, in some cases, can even prevent or delay a desired change in capital structure.

Tips for formalizing

Part of the risks of handshake deals for insurance brokers is that they can be misinterpreted, incomplete, or lacking detail. Here are a few key items to consider when formalizing an agreement:

  • Ownership: Clearly outline who owns the business and the responsibilities of each broker when it comes to servicing the account.  
  • Compensation/commission splits: Clearly outline commission splits and referral fees for both brokers and define payment terms.  
  • Agreement term & termination: Clearly define the terms of the agreement and the steps to be taken to renew or terminate the agreement. 

Because insurance brokerage business deals often happen between trusted, familiar colleagues, it’s unsurprising that formal agreements fall behind the back burner. However, it’s important to validate agreements to ensure both parties are aligned and on the same page to mitigate, if not eliminate, the risks of handshake agreements in insurance brokerage. Kicking the can down the road could result in costly disputes and future business delays.   

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Contact Jennifer Martin
If you have questions about Today's ViewPoint, or would like to learn more about how MarshBerry can help your firm determine its path forward, please email or call Jennifer Martin, Vice President, at 440.287.6790.

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