Don’t burn the business: 4 divorce safeguards for female founders

Can you protect yourself and your business against divorce? Female founders share hard won experiences you can learn from.

When I started my public relations business, I was married to Jon. He saw my growing entrepreneurial income as hard to understand, impossible to project, and uncontrollably damaging to him. Among my many failures in our marriage, I could not sympathize with why my success was the cause of his suffering. The year after my income eclipsed his, we filed for divorce. The relationship went up in flames–and my business almost went with it.

In the years since then, I’ve found myself talking to other women entrepreneurs and reading all I can about how to not only succeed in my relationship, but also how to protect against disaster.

Divorce is  a gut punch. But when you’re an entrepreneur, the potential business disaster adds another layer of destruction. How do we avoid burning the business if the relationship is set to implode?

1. Acknowledge the priority reset.

Marital hazard number one is that the entrepreneurial journey can reset your priorities in unpredictable ways. Angela Proffit, founder of Vivid Experiences in Nashville, married a military man before she started her business. “As I grew older and got busier with my company, we grew apart.” The divorce was amicable, but she learned something about compatibility.

Now she says, “I can only date another entrepreneur, as they understand how my brain is wired. And if I ever marry again, it would be best to marry another entrepreneur, so we are on the same page with communication and life.”

Carrie Kerpen, who co-founded Likeable Media with her husband, advises that as an entrepreneur, you have to work specifically on your marital relationship to preserve it. Her recent article in Inc. shares concrete relationship tips.

2. Realize that your business resets your spouse’s priorities.

Marriage hazard number two is that your spouse will also reset priorities because of your entrepreneurship in unpredictable ways.

Meet Eloise Gonzalez. Twenty years ago, she fell in love with a dashing doctor in Miami. “He had me sign a prenup–I agreed.” They had two children. Eloise also birthed an entrepreneurial idea that grew into Commercial Interior Contractors. Fast forward ten years, and Eloise is diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, Sjrogens Syndrome and Lupus, but her business is scaling significantly.

“Even sick, I started making more money than him; it affected his pride. He started working less and playing more golf.”

Fast forward ten more years. “He filed for divorce. I had to pay him a seven figure lump sum alimony because he contested the prenup. My take away lesson-ladies, have your eyes wide open. Get iron-clad prenuptials and postnuptials, both on video.”

Now she summaries two decades of marriage to that doctor like this: “He only passed by my office a couple of times in twenty years to deliver our kids golf travel bags.” Ouch.

3. Have the business ownership discussion.

Is it indeed “your business?” You might want to clarify that.

If your company was started during your marriage, legally half of your shares or ownership may belong to your spouse. Says Lynn Winberg, a founder who has been building an SEO consultancy for almost two decades,

“When Mark and I divorced after our girls went to college, I learned that if you start a business when you’re married, that business is considered marital property in most states. I’m experiencing the joy of buying my own spouse out of the business I founded while paying for college for our kids.”

4. Compromise on cash.

Rusty Holcombe is the entrepreneur behind Holcombe Financial, a wealth management firm that specializes in supporting first-generation entrepreneurs. He is a client at my public relations firm.

Rusty’s own clients are confidential, but he does confide he’s witnessed some terrible divorces involving entrepreneurs. His professional advice is, “Settle quickly. The lawyers will bleed you of every penny if you let them. Fight for anything that speeds the process and against anything that delays it. Speed will save you exponentially both emotionally and financially. Rusty has a blog post on entrepreneurs and divorce that goes into more detail.

There are no easy answers to people problems.

As entrepreneurs, we know this much is clear. Hopefully, if you keep your eyes wide open and focused on your relationship, you can have the conversations and commitments that create clarity for you and for your business.

This article was first published in Inc. Magazine. It has been slightly adapted here.

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