Nobody likes to plan for life’s unpleasantries, including divorce. While divorce remains an unfortunate fact of life, proper planning with your business attorney can help protect your business from the unexpected. This is particularly critical where a business has multiple owners, members, or partners.
In a recent case out of New York, a company’s three partners were shocked to learn that the fourth partner’s impending divorce would result in his ex-wife owning part of the business. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to members’ interests becoming part of a divorce property dispute. And unlike blue-chip stock, who owns the shares of a small business has a direct impact on the day-to-day operations and decision making. In the New York case, the owners admittedly failed to plan for a divorce and ended up having to borrow $250,000 to buy out the divorcing partner.
However, with proper planning and consultation with a business lawyer, you can hedge against contingencies like divorce ahead of time. One such way is through a carefully-drafted Operating Agreement that expressly sets out what happens if a membership interest becomes subject to a divorce judgment. Common provisions grant the company a right of first refusal to buy out any sort of membership interest subject to transfer, and also set forth the rules for valuing such interest using either the Company’s books, a CPA, or an independent appraiser. Another common (and highly useful) provision prohibits a transferee of any membership interest from voting or otherwise participating in the Company’s affairs, until officially admitted as a “member” by the other members. Thus, even if a divorce decree awards a spouse part of the membership in the company, the spouse is limited to the economic benefit of such ownership until (and only if) the rest of the membership decides to allow the new member to participate in the actual business. Another planning tool is a separate buy-sell agreement, which sets forth the rules and conditions for each owners’ membership interest.
Divorce is not the only “D” word that a prudent business owner must plan for. Death of a member is another contingency that should be expressly addressed in a company’s documents. Disability or incapacity is another. Finally, a business should have specific provisions in place to address the potential of bankruptcy or insolvency.
The four “D”s–divorce, death, disability, and debt–are realities that no one likes to think about. However, planning for the bad as well as the good is a part of running a business. With a plan in place, a company will suffer much less disruption and uncertainty when the unthinkable happens. And that is good corporate governance.