A prenuptial or postnuptial agreement can save your business. Consider two dry cleaners, Ricky and Fred. Both thought they would be married to their wives until “death do they part.” Unfortunately, they both ended up divorced. Ricky walked out of divorce court personally and professionally ruined. Fred, while emotionally drained, was able to maintain and grow his successful business. Why the different outcomes?
Ricky owned a dry cleaning business with Lucy, his wife of 19 years. Ricky was in charge of all aspects of the business, but Lucy did manage the company’s payroll and vendors part-time. Occasionally, she worked the front counter. For the most part, Lucy raised the children and cared for her elderly parents.
When they decided to divorce, Ricky and Lucy were still civil and wanted their divorce to be amicable. Ricky and Lucy worked together, without lawyers, to craft a plan for sharing time with their teenage sons, and for sharing the family’s expenses. They also agreed to sell their house after their youngest son graduated high school.
After a few months, and at the urging of a well-intentioned friend, Lucy hired a lawyer to write up the couples’ plan. Lucy’s main goal was to make sure the divorce ended fairly for her children. The lawyer, however, believed that since any small business owner could hide income, assets, or a company’s true value, then Ricky must be doing that too. Even though Lucy had a base of knowledge of the business’s finances, she trusted her lawyer and figured that he knew better. So, she agreed to his “scorched earth” strategy to protect her children.
What is a “scorched earth strategy”? This is a common tactic to squeeze a business owner into a large and early settlement. The lawyer hires an accountant, and they go after every scrap of information and document pertaining to the company’s assets and liabilities, and they question it all—every argument and angle of attack is fair game. Much of the cost of providing the information and documents, and defending business decisions, must be paid by the business. Scared and desperate, Ricky lawyered up too. Unfortunately, Ricky’s lawyer couldn’t advise him on the settlement terms proposed by Lucy’s lawyer without conducting his own analysis of the company’s voluminous records. Much of the paper work involved in operating a dry cleaning business was foreign to him, and the stringent environmental regulations and reporting was overwhelming. Ricky’s lawyer had to hire his own accountant to help value the business for the divorce. Ricky and Lucy were now far from civil with one another, and the mud began to fly.
Faced with dueling accountants, complicated and conflicting arguments about the business’s finances and value, and accusations against Ricky of financial wrongdoing, the family court judge appointed an independent forensic accountant to advise the court. The independent accountant saw that the business, which was the couple’s biggest asset, was crumbling because the ugly divorce was keeping Ricky from focusing on the business. The accountant was also worried about the accusations of financial wrongdoing by Ricky. So, on the independent accountant’s recommendation, the court appointed a receiver to operate and protect the dry cleaning business. Ricky and Lucy were now paying six different professionals, and trial was still months away.
The receiver discovered that the company’s records did not comply with dry cleaning waste disposal regulations, and reported the non-compliance to government authorities. Ricky and Lucy blamed each other for the missing paperwork, and the sour relationship between them stalled and ultimately prevented joint efforts at an amnesty program and damage control.
The business began to accrue daily statutory fines, employees were laid off, debts mounted, and the business eventually shut its doors while Ricky and Lucy continued to fight in divorce court. A year later, with no business to provide income for Ricky or Lucy, Ricky agreed to settle by paying Lucy more than half of his share of the house. Lucy accepted the offer, even though it was smaller then what she expected originally, because her share of the house was pledged to pay her lawyer’s fees.
Fred was married to Ethel for 22 years, and they have a daughter. Like Ricky and Lucy, Fred ran the business while Ethel was involved part-time in just certain aspects. But unlike Ricky and Lucy, when Fred bought his dry cleaning business nine years earlier, Fred and Ethel signed a postnuptial agreement to protect each other in case of divorce. The attorney-drafted agreement laid out a strict structure for evaluating and dividing the business, and for determining Fred’s true income for spousal and child support calculations. It identified and limited the financial information and documents that the business would have to disclose. It also required that the couple use a single neutral accountant (who would be paid from marital property and not by the company), to gather and evaluate that financial information and documentation.
Early in the divorce, Ethel agreed that the postnuptial agreement was valid. She waived any right to ask the court to force the company to disclose more information or documents than described in the postnuptial agreement. This entitled Ethel to an immediate, fair, and higher award of support, thanks to a provision that she and Fred put in the agreement to encourage a quick resolution. Within a month, Fred and Ethel’s divorce was finalized, with minimal attorneys’ and accountant fees, and with no interference or intrusion into the dry cleaning business or operations.
How could two similarly situated businesses and families leave divorce court with such different results? The first story is horrifying, but exceedingly common. Many states have onerous disclosure requirements that unnecessarily burden the time and finances of a small business. Unscrupulous divorce lawyers are trained to hone in and target a business owner’s fear of having the business’s confidential and financial information exposed to the world, to induce an early and usually unfair settlement. Fair and careful divorce lawyers will also want extensive company records, because they fear being liable for giving bad advice if they make recommendations without investigating the whole picture themselves. Either way, good lawyer or a bad one, smart judge or not, a case involving a small business can be very costly.
The best way to avoid being a Ricky, is to get a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement like Fred. A good prenuptial or postnuptial agreement can render the most intrusive and damaging financial disclosures unnecessary, and can limit or attribute the related costs away from the business. In some situations, as shown above, they can save the business itself. If Ricky had a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement in place, maybe a receiver would not have been necessary, and Ricky and Lucy could have resolved the business’s regulatory problems confidentially without going out of business.
Ricky and Fred were not wrong to believe in their marriages. A life-long commitment is not fanciful; it is a hopeful and beautiful goal. Most couples think they will reach that goal and that other couples will fill our country’s depressing divorce statistics. But consider this, we buy life insurance, install security systems, and wear seat belts “just in case.” They give us security even if we think that odds will always be in our favor. A careful and thorough prenuptial or postnuptial agreement can provide you, your spouse, and your business with security that all will be protected in a divorce, and that years of building a life and a business will not be burned to the ground.
Chantale Suttle is the Managing Attorney and Founder of JustPrenups.com, which is headquartered in Celebration, Florida. She has been in the exclusive practice of family law for over 21 years and has served countless small business owners in divorce court. Drafting prenuptial and postnuptial agreements for small business owners is her favorite work.
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