Divorce can be a complex and emotionally challenging process, especially when a couple owns a business together. The division of business assets can add a layer of complication to these already intricate legal proceedings. Understanding the impact of divorce on business ownership is fundamental to protecting the financial interests of both parties involved.

Divorce lawyers and financial advisors play a crucial role in navigating these complex situations, helping couples find the best solutions for their individual circumstances. Several factors, including the type of business, individual contributions, and the location of the divorce, can influence the outcome of the division of business assets. It is vital for both spouses to seek professional guidance to ensure the process is fair and transparent.


Divorce and Business Ownership Fundamentals

When a couple separates and a family business is part of their marital property, the distribution of business ownership can significantly affect the future of the company. While some couples may choose to continue operating the business together, others may opt for a buyout or the sale of the business to a third party. Determining the value of the business as a marital asset and the contributions of each spouse is essential to reach a fair settlement.

Under Australian Federal and NSW laws, divorce can have a significant impact on business ownership. When a couple divorces, their assets are typically divided according to the principles of family law. This often includes assessing the value of any businesses owned by the couple, determining each spouse’s contributions to the business, and deciding on an equitable division of ownership.

The Family Law Act 1975 governs the financial aspects of a divorce in Australia, including the division of property and business assets. The family court considers various factors, such as the length of the marriage, the contributions of each spouse, and the financial resources of each party, before determining the appropriate division of assets.

In Australia, there are several common types of business structures which may be subject to division in a divorce. These include:

  1. Sole proprietorship: A sole proprietorship is a business owned and operated by one individual. In a divorce, the family court may consider the value of the business as an asset and may distribute a portion of its value to the other spouse.


  2. Partnership: A partnership consists of two or more people who share responsibility for running a business. During a divorce, the court will likely need to determine each spouse’s ownership interest and contributions to the business, which may prove more complex than in a sole proprietorship.


  3. Company: A company is a separate legal entity from its owners, with shares representing ownership interests. In a divorce, the court may need to determine the value of a spouse’s shareholdings and then distribute those shares or their value accordingly.

Understanding the legal framework and common types of business structures in Australia is essential to navigate the complexities of divorce and business ownership.

Maintaining accurate financial records, such as financial statements, bank statements, and tax returns, can help protect your business ownership interests during the divorce process.

Protecting Business Assets From Divorce

When going through a divorce, it is essential to protect your business assets. In Australia, federal and New South Wales (NSW) laws may impact the division of business assets during a divorce. To safeguard your business from the potential financial strain of a divorce, consider using the following strategies.

Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements

Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, legally named Binding Financial Agreements, are legally binding contracts that establish financial expectations and responsibilities for each spouse. Having a prenuptial agreement before marriage can protect your business from being considered marital property. A postnuptial agreement is similar, but is executed after the couple is already married.

To create a valid prenuptial or postnuptial agreement in accordance with Australian Federal and NSW laws, consider the following steps:

  • Consult with a solicitor to draft the agreement,
  • Provide full disclosure of assets, including business interests,
  • Ensure both parties seek independent legal advice, and
  • Sign the agreement freely and voluntarily.

Business Trusts

Establishing a business trust can be an effective way to protect your business assets from potential divorce disputes. In a business trust, the business owner transfers the ownership and control of the business to a trustee. The trustee then legally owns the business and makes decisions on behalf of the trust’s beneficiaries.

Here are some necessary steps to set up a business trust in Australia:

  1. Choose a trustee: A trustee can be an individual or a trust company. It is crucial to select a reliable and trustworthy trustee, as they will have full control over the business assets.
  2. Draft a trust deed: A trust deed is a legal document that outlines the terms and conditions of the trust, as well as the powers and obligations of the trustee. Seek legal guidance to ensure the deed meets Australian Federal and NSW legal requirements.
  3. Register the trust: Notify the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and obtain a tax file number (TFN) and an Australian business number (ABN) for the trust.

Creating a business trust may involve additional costs and complexities compared to individual ownership. Nonetheless, the protection it offers your business assets can make it a valuable strategy to consider during a divorce.

Valuing a Business in Divorce

When a couple goes through a divorce in Australia, and one or both parties own a business, it’s crucial to have an accurate valuation of the business as part of the property settlement process. This section will discuss various methods of business valuation and factors that can affect a business’s value during divorce.

Methods of Business Valuation

There are several methods to calculate the value of a business, each providing different insights and results depending on the nature of the business. Three common methods include:

  1. Market Valuation: This method calculates the fair market value of the business based on how much it would be worth if it were sold at the time of the valuation. It takes into consideration the price of similar businesses in the market, considering factors like size, profitability, and geographic location.

  2. Asset-based Approach: This method involves valuing the business’s net assets, which include the assets less liabilities. In this approach, the emphasis is on the fair market value of the tangible and intangible assets, considering their depreciation and appreciation where applicable.

Income-based Approach: The income-based valuation method focuses on the business’s ability to generate income and takes into consideration its historical earnings and future projections. This method usually involves calculating a capitalisation rate and applying it to the net income or cash flow of the business.

Factors Affecting Business Value

During a divorce, various factors can affect the value of a business, depending on the approach used for valuation and the specific circumstances of the case. Here are a few key factors that may play a role in determining the business value:

  • Goodwill: Goodwill is the intangible aspect of a business that represents its reputation and relationships with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Establishing the value of goodwill during a divorce can be challenging, but it is an important consideration, especially for businesses that rely on customer loyalty or have a strong brand presence.

  • Non-marital Contributions: In Australian Federal and NSW laws, non-marital contributions – such as investments or loans made before the marriage or after separation – can impact the value of the business for the purposes of property settlement. These contributions are considered in the equitable distribution of assets.

  • Management Role: The role each spouse plays in the management and operations of the business could affect the value assigned to the business, especially if one party is solely responsible for the business’s success and growth.

  • Economic Factors: External factors such as market conditions, industry trends, and the broader economic environment can impact the value of a business at the time of divorce. These factors may need to be considered in the valuation process, particularly in cases where the market is volatile or the industry is subject to rapid change.

In summary, valuing a business in a divorce case can be a complex process. Understanding the different valuation methods and the various factors that can affect a business’s value is essential for a fair and equitable division of assets.

Business Ownership Division Strategies

Buyout Negotiations

One common strategy for dividing a business in a divorce is through buyout negotiations. In this scenario, one spouse agrees to purchase the other spouse’s share in the business. Having a business valuation is an essential step in determining the fair market value of the business. Some key factors to consider during the negotiation process:

  • Agree on a valuation method
  • Determine an appropriate payment structure
  • Consider tax implications
  • Assess the potential impact on employees and stakeholders

It is crucial to approach buyout negotiations with a clear understanding of the business’s value and the desired outcome for both parties. It’s important to note that in a buyout situation, the proceeds from the sale of one spouse’s share in the business will be treated as cash in the property pool. Seeking expert advice from lawyers and financial professionals can help facilitate a smooth negotiation process and fair division of the business.

Co-ownership Continuation

In some cases, former spouses may choose to continue running the business together as co-owners after the divorce. This decision usually requires a high level of trust and cooperation between the parties and can offer several potential advantages:

  • Maintenance of daily business operations
  • Preservation of the business’s value
  • Development of clear roles and responsibilities for each co-owner

To make co-ownership work after a divorce, it is essential to establish a robust legal framework that outlines the roles, duties, and contributions of each party. This may include:

  1. Implementing a shareholders’ agreement
  2. Drafting written agreements that outline decision-making authority
  3. Conducting regular meetings to discuss business performance and strategy

Additionally, both parties should have access to legal representation to ensure that their interests are protected in the formation and execution of co-ownership arrangements.

Taking into account the Australian Federal and NSW laws, these strategies should be tailored to the specific legal framework and requirements in the jurisdiction. While the process of dividing a business in a divorce can be challenging, adopting a strategic approach can help to ensure a fair and equitable division while preserving the value of the business. Utilising professional guidance and adhering to the principles of a confident, knowledgeable, neutral, and clear tone will assist in navigating this difficult process effectively.

Third-Party Sale

In some cases, the parties may decide to sell the business entirely. If the business is sold to a third-party, the proceeds will be added to the property pool and considered as cash. It’s important to consult with legal and financial professionals before you and your ex-spouse make a decision on selling your business.

Need a Family Lawyer? Call Burke Mead Lawyers Today

Navigating the turmoil of divorce is never easy, but this is especially true for couples who have a range of joint assets, such as a business. Divorce and business ownership can be a challenge to resolve, but it is possible with the right help – such as the advice of an experienced family law firm.

The team at Burke Mead Lawyers are experts in family law, including divorce and separation.  Our experts can assist you throughout this process to protect your legal rights and responsibilities.

About the Author
Ebony Purcell

Ebony Purcell is an Associate in the Family Law Team at Burke Mead Lawyers. Ebony’s experience as a solicitor exclusively in family law spans more than 10 years advocating for her clients. She also regularly appears for clients in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia both locally and throughout the country.