Running a Business With Your Ex-Spouse

by Susan Johnston on April 14, 2011

Ending a marriage is hard enough, but when you and your soon-to-be-ex also own a business together, it creates an extra layer of complication. Should one of you buy the other out? Or can you continue working together without destroying the business, too?

After their divorce, Heather and Donald Patz chose to continue working together on Patz & Hall, a highly regarded Northern California winery and tasting salon they founded in 1988 with two other friends. While the transition was awkward at first, they say it’s been an overall positive experience. Here’s how they make it work.

  1. Honestly evaluate your situation. “I think the reason it’s worked for us is that we grew up together, we were married 29 years, and we really saw each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” says Heather (pictured). “I would consider us friends. We’ll go to lunch occasionally.”  Donald adds that while they considered parting ways professionally, they chose to stay in the business together because they both loved Patz & Hall and wanted to pass it down to their children, which would “make one person buying out another person would be kind of pointless.”
  2. Weigh your options. Both agree that this arrangement isn’t for everyone. “For other companies, if you can’t work together and make it a positive for the company, then yeah, I don’t think it’s helpful to stay together in the business,” says Heather. Donald stresses that it’s important for both parties to share a vision and a commitment to making the business succeed. If you don’t, then consider some other arrangement, like splitting up the business or buying one side out.
  3. Don’t put employees in the middle. When Donald and Heather split, the company was still small enough that there weren’t many employees. Later on, as Patz & Hall grew, they added more employees who came into the company after things had settled down. Says Donald, “There’s not a sense that the office is being required to take sides in some personal dispute.” Obviously, watching the owners’ divorce unfold from a cubicle is bad for morale, so it’s best to keep arguments private. “Nobody can 100 percent separate their personal life from their business life, but to the extent that you can do that, I think it really helps,” adds Donald.
  4. Focus on the business, not each other. “Like anything, it’s a process,” says Heather. “There are ups and downs, but if you can get through the stage of the anger and disruption, which takes a year or two, things will usually smooth out if you have both people willing.” They concentrated on their love of the business and wanting to pass it on to their kids, a passion they both shared. As Donald says, “There’s still ground for mutual respect and ability to share a vision even outside of a personal relationship. There was a period of time where it was awkward, but we got used to the fact that it was going to be strictly business as opposed to going home and continuing the same conversations over dinner.”