UK family businesses currently employ over ten million people and account for more than 65 per cent of the 4.6 million private sector enterprises. Safeguarding the family company is therefore critical when a divorce or separation becomes inevitable between two business partners.
Divorce is acknowledged as one of life’s most stressful experiences. The additional challenge for SMEs is to ensure that the company’s direction, focus and vision are sustained.
An increasing number of UK business partners who decide to split are turning to Collaborative Family Law (CFL) which aims to resolve matters amicably and avoid court cases. Both parties and their lawyers work face-to-face on problems, with additional professional advisers such as accountants on hand when necessary.
Advantages over the more traditional – and adversarial route – are numerous. Firstly, no artificial timetable is imposed. If matters need to be resolved speedily there can be an intensive series of meetings over a short time leading to an early resolution which minimises business disruption. If more time is required, collaboration enables the process to be slowed down to accommodate respective parties.
Another option for business owners is mediation, a similar process with a single qualified mediator guiding both parties, with or without other legal representatives present. In fact new regulations introduced in April 2011 require separating couples to undergo a compulsory mediation awareness session with a qualified mediator before they embark on the court process.
Like CFL, mediation has many benefits: a clear advantage of either process is that both parties take personal responsibility to agree a face-to-face solution without having decisions forced on them. They can retain control of the process and be the ones to take the decisions which are best for the business at the time they consider appropriate.
While a decree absolute can take some time to secure, a financial and commercial solution can be reached much more speedily if both parties are willing to talk about – and take ownership of – decisions. Openly discussing fears and aspirations for the future of your business – and whether you will run it together while living apart or whether one of you will remain at the helm – in a calm and supportive atmosphere is key to the outcome.
This route is infinitely preferable to the hostility and acrimony that all too often permeates traditional divorce proceedings and can be sufficiently damaging to derail couples and the company into which they have poured many years of their working lives.
In summary, CFL or mediation can provide the best opportunity of divorcing without animosity while preserving the goals, direction and energy of the family business – an outcome that is far less likely with a case disputed in court and its associated stresses and traumas.