Ask an Adviser: How to handle splitting the business in a divorce

In wife-husband companies, death isn't the only unexpected event requiring a financial plan

By Frank Jaffe

Apr 17, 2015 @ 12:01 am EST

They were considered the perfect match — both professionally and personally. Over the years, the couple built a successful kosher bakery. In recent years, two of their children started working at the company with the intention of taking it over once their parents retired.

What no one anticipated was that the couple, after 30 years of marriage and nearly as many years co-owning the bakery, would decide to divorce.

Now what?

When my clients dropped this bombshell on me recently, not only was I personally taken by surprise, but my financial planning skills were put to the test. I advise clients to put together a business contingency plan for death and disability, but now a new set of variables was thrown into the mix.

Going forward, would the ex-husband and wife be able to work together and draw salaries from the business? Starting a new business or career in late middle age would not be easy, especially without the support of a spouse with a stable income. If the business was split up, which spouse would retain the working interest, and would he or she be able to run it without the former mate? And how would the buyout be funded?


An estimated 3.7 million businesses in the U.S. are owned by husband-and-wife teams. With the divorce rate at a staggering 50%, my clients' situation is far more common than one might think.

Clients are so busy getting their businesses off the ground that many never think about what might happen if they get divorced. As such, they never take the precautions beforehand that they would if they had a business partner outside of marriage.

Nobody wants to say to their spouse, “Hey, by the way, how are we going to handle the complications of a divorce affecting our business?” The business is almost like a child. No couple contemplates splitting the baby.

Despite the sensitivity of the topic, an adviser needs to stress the importance of treating the business as, well, a business, including preparing for the potential impact of a divorce. Just as a couple may have a prenup, they also need a business prenup.

The biggest challenge facing business partner couples contemplating divorce is the reality that more often than not, running the business together post-divorce is not a viable option.

After all, how many couples who have decided to divorce will want to continue working with each other on a daily and often intimate basis? And would a less-than-amiable situation eventually prove deleterious to the stability of the business? (Not to mention, what happens if one spouse moves on to a new mate?)

If one spouse leaves, will the business remain profitable without that partner's skills? An agreement needs to be reached that will enable both the remaining spouse/business owner and the departing partner who has been bought out to support themselves and fund their retirement.

As the earnings power of the business with one remaining partner is difficult to calculate, a flexible buyout formula that's based on financial performance going forward should be considered.

This is easier to contemplate while the couple is happily married than after the marriage implodes. Agreeing on a buyout price, including valuation and payout terms, is the biggest obstacle if no agreements were signed prior to the divorce.


Selling the business outright and splitting the proceeds may work as a last resort if the couple can't settle on a breakup agreement. However, many small businesses that rely on the expertise and customer relationships that a husband-and-wife team built up over decades may be difficult or impossible to sell for a good price.

In addition, as in my clients' case, there is the concern over how this will affect children who entered the business with the understanding they would someday take over.

The moral of the story is: Plan ahead.

Frank Jaffe is a certified financial planner at Access Wealth Planning in Roseland, N.J.

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