What Happens to Stock Options After a Company Is Acquired? – A Practical Guide for Employees

Imagine a tree, your company, growing steadily over the years. As an employee, you’ve been nurturing this tree with your hard work and dedication.

In return, you’ve been given seeds – stock options – as a part of your compensation. These seeds hold the potential to grow into fruitful investments.

But what happens when another gardener, an acquiring company, takes over your garden?

Today, I will discuss what happens to your stock options when your company is acquired.

Key Takeaways

  • The treatment of stock options in an acquisition is multifaceted.
  • Factors like deal terms, type of equity, and individual agreements are crucial.
  • Professional advice is essential in understanding the implications.

The Basics of Equity Compensation

Before discussing the effects of an acquisition, it’s crucial to understand the types of equity compensation typically involved. These include:

  • Stock Options: A right to purchase company stock at a predetermined price.
  • Restricted Stock Units (RSUs): Company shares given after meeting certain conditions.
  • Restricted Stock Awards: Shares granted with certain restrictions.
  • Stock Appreciation Rights (SARs): A right to the increase in the value of a designated number of shares.

These forms of compensation are subject to various terms and conditions, which play a significant role in their treatment post-acquisition.

What Happens in an Acquisition?


When a company is acquired, multiple scenarios can unfold depending on the terms of the deal and the type of equity you hold.

Scenario 1: Acquired for Cash

  • Vested Stock Options: These may be cashed out, net of the strike price.
  • Unvested Stock Options: They might be converted to cash, canceled, or replaced with new grants in the acquiring company.

Scenario 2: Acquired for Stock

  • Vested and Unvested Options: They may be converted into common shares of the acquiring company.

Scenario 3: Acquired for Cash and Stock

A combination of the above scenarios might apply.

Scenario 4: Acquired at a Lower Valuation

This scenario often results in less favorable outcomes for stock option holders.

Other Considerations

  • Vesting Schedules: These may change post-acquisition.
  • Escrow Accounts: A portion of cash or stock received might be held temporarily.
  • Holdbacks: For key employees, part of the vested value might be retained.
  • Special Terms for Executives: Different terms like single or double trigger vesting may apply.

Equity Compensation Treatment in Different Acquisition Scenarios

Type of Compensation Acquired for Cash Acquired for Stock Cash & Stock Lower Valuation
Vested Stock Options Cashed Out Converted to Shares Combination Less Favorable
Unvested Options Converted/Canceled Converted Combination Less Favorable
RSUs Cashed Out/Converted Converted Combination Less Favorable
SARs Cashed Out/Converted Converted Combination Less Favorable

The Legal and Financial Complexities

Legal and Financial

Post-acquisition, the treatment of stock options involves intricate financial and legal considerations.

It’s crucial to consult a financial advisor to understand the full implications.

Tax Implications

  • Exercising Options: Early exercise might have tax benefits.
  • ISOs: Incentive stock options have specific tax treatments.
  • Public Company Acquisition: Regulations might affect stock sales.

Employee Considerations During an Acquisition

As an employee, it’s essential to be aware of:

  • Liquidation Preference: Understand how it affects your equity.
  • Equity Offer Evaluation: Consider the timing of exercising options.
  • Equity Implications: Gain insight into potential exit scenarios.

What If My Options Are Underwater?

world of stock

In the world of stock options, being “underwater” means the current market price of the company’s stock is lower than the strike price of the option.

Imagine a boat floating above the water level; your options are the boat, and the water level is the market price.

If the boat (options) is below water (market price), it’s underwater, rendering it less valuable or even worthless.

Possible Outcomes in an Acquisition

  • Cancellation: The acquiring company may cancel underwater options.
  • Adjustment: The terms of the options might be adjusted to reflect the new company’s stock value.
  • Conversion: They could be converted into options in the acquiring company, though still underwater.

Employee Strategy for Underwater Options

  1. Stay Informed: Understand the terms of your options and the acquisition deal.
  2. Seek Advice: Consult financial advisors to explore potential strategies.
  3. Monitor Market Trends: Keep an eye on stock market trends that could affect the value of your options.

How Do Acquisition Types Affect My Stock Options?

Cash Acquisitions

Cash acquisitions often lead to the simplest outcomes. Your vested options might be cashed out, providing immediate financial benefits.

However, unvested options’ fate could be more uncertain, depending on the deal’s terms.

Stock Acquisitions

In stock acquisitions, your options might be converted into options of the acquiring company’s stock.

This scenario keeps your equity compensation alive but shifts its potential growth to the new company’s performance.

Mixed Acquisitions (Cash and Stock)

This scenario combines elements of both cash and stock acquisitions.

Your options might partly be cashed out and partly converted into the new company’s stock options, offering a blend of immediate financial gain and future growth potential.

Leveraged Buyouts

In leveraged buyouts, where the acquisition is funded through significant debt, the fate of your stock options can be particularly uncertain.

The high debt levels might affect the company’s future performance and, consequently, the value of any converted stock options.

What Should I Ask My Employer During an Acquisition?

Employer During an Acquisition

To navigate this transitional phase effectively, it’s crucial to ask the right questions:

  1. What is the Nature of the Acquisition? Is it a cash, stock, or mixed acquisition?
  2. How Will My Stock Options be Treated? Understand the specifics for both vested and unvested options.
  3. What Happens to Underwater Options? Inquire about the fate of options with a strike price above the market value.
  4. Will There Be Changes to Vesting Schedules? Ascertain if and how your vesting schedule might change.
  5. What Are the Tax Implications? Understand the potential tax consequences of the acquisition on your options.


Does the size of the acquiring company affect the treatment of my stock options?

The size of the acquiring company does not directly affect the treatment of stock options.

The key factors are the terms of the acquisition deal and the types of equity compensation involved.

If the acquisition is international, does this change what happens to my stock options?

In international acquisitions, additional factors like currency exchange rates, international tax laws, and regulatory differences can come into play.

It’s important to consult with a financial advisor knowledgeable in international acquisitions.

Are there any scenarios where I might lose all value of my stock options in an acquisition?

Yes, if your stock options are deeply underwater (the strike price is much higher than the market value) and the acquiring company decides to cancel them without compensation, you could lose all value.

Can an acquisition trigger an immediate need to exercise my options?

Some acquisitions may lead to a change in vesting schedules or offer a limited window to exercise options.

Always review the terms of the acquisition and consult with your HR department or a financial advisor.

How does an acquisition affect my stock options if I leave the company before the acquisition is finalized?

If you leave the company before the acquisition, the treatment of your stock options depends on your employment agreement, the vesting schedule, and the terms of the acquisition.

Generally, unvested options are forfeited, but vested options might retain their value.

If the acquiring company is private and I have stock options, what happens?

If the acquiring company is private, your options might be converted into options in the private company.

This can affect liquidity and valuation, as private company stock is not as easily traded or valued as public company stock.

Final Words

Like a gardener handed new seeds from a different species, employees holding stock options in an acquired company face a new set of growth conditions.

The outcome depends on the specifics of the acquisition deal, the type of equity held, and the individual agreements.

Having knowledge regarding these dynamics, consulting professionals, and staying informed are key to navigating this complex terrain.

Keep in mind that while the nature of the seeds might change, their potential to bear fruit remains, albeit under different conditions.

Bottom Line

  • Stay Proactive: Keep abreast of developments and seek clarity on how the acquisition impacts your equity.
  • Strategic Planning: Work with financial advisors to strategize the best course of action for your stock options.
  • Flexibility: Be prepared to adapt your financial plans in response to the evolving corporate landscape.

We’ve recently covered the topic of fee-only wealth management firms and what they represent, so make sure to check it out and ensure a stable financial growth.