When HNW Business Owners' Marriages Go Sour: Structured Solutions

Tom Burroughes Group Editor November 23, 2020

When HNW Business Owners' Marriages Go Sour: Structured Solutions

This news service talks to Northern Trust about the kind of complexities arising when business owners and their spouses break up, and the sort of structures and methods that can be used to make the process less painful and disruptive than it needs to be.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought many changes and one has been a sharp rise in divorce legal proceedings once courts cases resumed in the summer. And for high net worth and ultra-HNW couples with business interests, the stresses of lockdowns and economic disruption add to the challenges.

It may take time for full data to emerge about how the virus has put relationships under pressure – maybe proving the “final straw” for people already in difficulty. But what is clear is that handling complex cases is going to be a particularly busy area of work for private client lawyers.

Where business owners and their spouses are concerned, a number of tools and structures exist to dampen down some of the sharpest arguments about money and offer a way to resolve certain disputes, Steph Wagner, director of Northern Trust Wealth Management’s women and wealth advisory practice, told this publication. 

In many relationships there will be a “financial spouse and a non-financial spouse”, she said. “Often that is where they will need a bit of an advocate and advice to level the playing field a little.”

With law courts closed and cases delayed, or handled via video, etc, it means that valuation disputes - accentuated by COVID-19 - become more of an issue, Wagner said. “It is taking a lot longer for courts involved in an asset issue and parties are having to work more together.”

COVID-19 has certainly pushed divorce filings higher. The number of people looking for divorces was 34 per cent higher from March through June compared with 2019, figures from Legal Templates, a company that provides legal documents, has found. 

While it is not a palatable subject, divorce cases among HNW and UHNW individuals are a major wealth management concern. After all, there’s little point laboring to build wealth only to see it dissipate because of poor planning. Or worse, to damage the interests of third parties. For that reason, ways of resolving issues in break-ups are important private client tools.

Untangling the business and non-business assets of divorcing couples is complex, not least because if a business gets broken up, not only does it affect the couple but employees, suppliers and other interested parties are involved.

Although it may seem a dry way of putting it, Wagner said that divorce is essentially a business transaction (buyout) and when an illiquid asset (namely, the business interest) is part of the marital estate there can be varying opinions on what the value of that asset is. 

Structures, solutions
There are several ways that couples can structure business and other interests to ensure that however acrimonious a split is, it does not destroy what has been built and protects third parties. 

Co-owning assets after divorce:  If the divorcing couple needs to continue to co-own assets for a period of time, there are two potential options:
1.   A partnership (LP/LLC)
--   But this may or may not be allowed under the terms of the operating agreements of the business. 
2.   A trust with an impartial trustee like a corporate as a trustee
-- This might be an option, especially if the asset doesn’t permit transfer to a partnership.  
--  Both parties can contribute their interests to a trust, with an impartial trustee acting as an intermediary to hold shares of the business in an agreed upon manner. The trust can include other safeguards to ensure both parties’ interests are protected until a buyout (or outright sale). 
--  For example, a third party (impartial trustee) can oversee and monitor the operating spouse to make sure the covenants are being kept and the financials are prepared correctly.

A term that needs to be understood is that of the "buying spouse". Such a person is the spouse that intends to remain in the business after the divorce, and looks to buy out their spouse’s interest as part of the settlement.  The selling spouse is the one who will be bought out. 

When co-ownership post-divorce is not a viable option (either logistically not permitted or parties refuse) a structured sale through a deferred payment, or an earn-out, can be considered. In a deferred payment, the buying spouse (who will hold the assets moving forward) pays the selling spouse a large sum payment up front with a remaining portion of proceeds paid out over time, with potential interest (a.k.a. a seller’s note).  One issue w/ this option is that both parties still need to agree on value upfront and that might be difficult. 

Earn out
Another term that arises is the "earn-out". This works in the same manner with the buying spouse paying an upfront lump-sum to the selling spouse (potentially at a discount), followed by earn-out over a number of years (e.g., 3 to 5) based on the assets future performance (revenue growth, cash flow). Pros and cons to earn-outs include:

They offer upfront liquidity for the selling spouse, as well as a discounted price for the buying spouse. Also, the overall purchase price is tied to future performance (when uncertainty hopefully subsides), which helps to give both parties some degree of comfort.  

It is traditionally difficult for a selling spouse to “police” earn-outs. This may create concern that a buying spouse may achieve $1 short of the earnout 


With a clawback, an initial price is established and the buying spouse buys the selling spouse out of his/her interest. However, the transaction is subject to to a “clawback”. This means that if the business sells within a stated period of time, (e.g., two or three years after divorce), the buying spouse agrees to share all, or a decided upon percentage, of future sale proceeds that exceeds the valuation (or sales price between the two spouses) at the time of divorce. 

On the plus side, they provide immediate liquidity to the spelling spouse and there is no ongoing co-ownership issue. The buying spouse sells to selling spouse at a discount since selling spouse has opportunity to participate in any upside without having to do any work him/herself.

However, on the downside, it might be hard for spouses to negotiate the discount rate to initial value, as well as the percentage amount of upside that buying spouse is to share with selling spouse.         Similar to an earn-out, a “clawback” must be carefully drafted/negotiated, and the selling spouse will need to closely monitor the business to ensure everything plays out properly. 

As these examples demonstrate, dividing business interests because of a divorce is a complex business, and organizations such as the group at Northern Trust are likely to be kept busy in coming months, and years.

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