We all hoped that, once the pandemic had waned, we would return to a more normal, predictable economy, but it seems that we are confronted now with even more unpredictability in what economists have dubbed the “uncertainty economy.” Very few people are able to choose the best time to divorce on the basis of finances, but the current environment can make evaluating the worth of stock options, a closely held business or even real estate highly challenging.
For one thing, the pandemic itself lingers. Some businesses—bicycle manufacturers and bicycle shops, for instance—experienced boom times during the pandemic. Other businesses—restaurants and businesses at tourist locations, for instance—suffered greatly, limped along, or even closed for good. Now, instead of settling into a steady hum again, our economy is coping with inflation, the rising cost of labor, supply chain tangles, and the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. The situation is still fluid. What works today may not work well tomorrow. What doesn’t look promising today may be much more successful tomorrow.
In a divorce case in which significant financial assets are involved that are community property, a family lawyer will bring in a trusted professional business or property evaluator—whatever is appropriate for the particular situation. Evaluating a closely held business is often the most difficult issue—more difficult than, say, dividing the value of real estate or stock in a publicly traded company. Three different methods can be applied to a business valuation: the market approach, the income approach, and the asset approach. The business evaluator will judge which to use, singly or in combination.
Much will depend on the ownership agreement as expressed in formation documents, whether the owners be investors, business partners or family members. These documents generally provide in some way for what will occur in the case of a divorce or a death. Generally, co-owners do not want to have to deal with an inexperienced ex-spouse or widow/widower who abruptly becomes part-owner of the business or practice (in the case of a doctor or lawyer in a partnership). The spouse who is in the business also has to consider tax issues and his or her fiduciary duty to other owners. And courts are not allowed to simply give corporate assets or debts to one party or the other in a divorce.
Generally the spouse involved in the closely held business will have three choices available: continue to own the business with the ex-spouse (maybe they already work together and have a decent working relationship), sell the business and divide the profits, or offset the value of the business ownership with other property if other assets are available. In Texas, “personal goodwill” as part of a business is not community property. It attaches to the person who created it. But the business may have “enterprise goodwill”--the value of the business apart from the individual owner--which may be community property.
None of this addresses the issue of the fluidity in the current economy. Divorce agreements can allow for that in the form of contingency agreements. For example, a business owner may be dealing with a specific potential liability. The divorce agreement may provide that, for a given period of time, the business owner is allowed to set aside a certain amount of money to address the liability if it arises. If it does not arise, after a certain period of time, the money will be divided between the two former spouses. Or let’s say a business asset with limited liability or future involvement that is part of community property may be sold in the future. A divorce agreement can provide that, if the asset is sold, the profits will be shared. Clawback provisions can be included, as well, to provide for future adjustments. This will require extraordinary drafting skill.
There is another option as well and that is to wait for more settled times. But the two spouses may have radically opposed views as to the “best” time for the divorce. The spouse who earns less may want to divorce when community property values are at their highest; the other spouse will want to split when community property values are at their lowest. In either case, they would do well to consult experts in family law and business valuation experts before deciding on when to set a divorce in motion.
Susan Myres is a Houston-based, board-certified family law attorney at Myres & Associates and has over 35 years of experience.