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Leadership How to divide a business in divorce without affecting the company

Lawyer, mediator, certified family enterprise adviser

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, and his wife MacKenzie are divorcing after 25 years of marriage. With a 16.1 per cent stake in Amazon, Mr. Bezos is worth about US$137-billion.

While in its early days, the ultra-high-net-worth couple’s amicable split, according to their joint statement via Twitter, sets an example of what to do, especially when it involves a business. With a company like Amazon at stake – the second-largest U.S. employer globally – a collaborative approach is key in order to keep shareholders and employees reassured during the divorce process.

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Especially when it comes to the ultra-wealthy business owners, a low-profile, swift divorce is preferred and here’s how to do it.

How a business is divided upon divorce

Generally, family law in Canada allows for the non-owner married spouse to receive the equivalent of half the value of the business portion that was acquired during the marriage, unless the shares were excluded in a marriage agreement.

Typically, the business owner will be asked to hire a business valuator to prepare a formal valuation of the shares based on accepted methods. However, because business valuations involve some subjective factors, the non-owner spouse may contest the report and obtain their own valuation. The family will then be in the unenviable position of having to fund a battle between the two experts’ sometimes very different valuations, as they defend their methods and findings. If the parties reach an impasse and the matter goes to court, all of their financial affairs will become public record.

Once they reach an agreement on the value of the business, the couple will then decide how to pay half of that to the non-owner. It is more common that this payment is made with other liquid assets rather than with the transfer of shares in the business and, if necessary, the buyout can be made in installments over a period of time to minimize financial stress on the business.

Typically, dividing shares of the business with the non-owner on the date of separation is not the norm, as couples frequently find it beneficial to all involved when there is a clean financial break.

Reduce impact of divorce on the company

When the business’ leading figure is a celebrity, such as Mr. Bezos, and many details of their personal lives are public, a burning concern for shareholders and employees is how the divorce will affect the company.

While Mr. Bezos’ wife was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the business, it’s not uncommon that couples co-own and/or run the business together. When both spouses are shareholders or have an important role in the operations of the business, the potential exit of one of them during a divorce can disrupt operations and even cripple a company. Co-owner spouses are encouraged to work together to create a smooth transition and distribution of responsibility in order to minimize any negative financial impact and stress on employees.

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Regardless of whether only one or both of the divorcing spouses are involved in the business, presenting a co-operative approach to the uncoupling is an important strategy to maintaining stability for the business.

Ensure privacy and confidentiality

Except for certain acrimonious cases that can’t be resolved without court intervention, most high-net-worth couples are interested in keeping their affairs private in non-court processes such as mediation and collaborative law where they can keep their family affairs, business finances, trade secrets and strategies private. Mediation or collaborative law protects any details and discussions related to the business, spouses and children from becoming public record. It also allows them to retain the power of deciding the outcome of their divorce, rather than leaving it in the hands of a judge.

Choosing to divorce may be the most difficult personal decision business owners will need to make. In Mr. Bezos’ case, his and Ms. Bezos' united approach to their divorce seems to exemplify how to serve the good of everyone. With the livelihood of so many employees and money at stake, that makes more than good business sense.

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