Can Ex-Spouses Survive as Business Partners?

Request a Consultation

One of the world’s foremost philanthropists, Melinda French Gates has announced that she’s stepping down as co-chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. French Gates has helped lead the $75 billion organization since its founding nearly 25 years ago.

“I am immensely proud of the foundation Bill and I built together and the work it is doing to address inequities around the world,” French Gates said on social media. She expressed confidence in the foundation’s leadership and ongoing mission but said, “The time is right for me to move forward into the next chapter of my philanthropy.”

“Melinda has new ideas about the role she wants to play in improving the lives of women and families in the U.S. and around the world,” Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman said in a statement. “And, after a difficult few years watching women’s rights rolled back in the U.S. and around the world, she wants to use this next chapter to focus specifically on altering that trajectory.”

Married for 27 years, Bill and Melinda Gates seemed like the ultimate power couple. A year after their 2021 split, French Gates told “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King that she had expected to be married “till death do us part” and never anticipated their shocking and very public split. She spoke openly about her anguish and anger at the end of their marriage. Although Bill Gates admitted that he had an affair, French Gates emphasized, “It’s not one thing, it was many things” that ultimately drove her to the decision to end the marriage.

At the time of that interview, French Gates said that while she was still healing, she had reached a good place; she and Gates were “friendly,” if not exactly friends, and had “a productive working relationship, and I think that will continue.” She indicated that the two planned to stay together at The Gates Foundation even as she grew her own company, Pivotal Ventures, which is “focused on funding projects that empower women,” according to CBS.

However, according to CNN Business, the agreement to keep working together was always on a trial basis. The foundation had a contingency plan in place, giving the ex-spouses a two-year runway to decide whether they could continue as co-chairs. If not, French Gates would resign from her position.

Now that she is moving on, French Gates explained, “Under the terms of my agreement with Bill, I will have an additional $12.5 billion to commit to my work with women and families.”

The Gates case is rare in some ways: a couple with an unimaginable fortune running one of the world’s preeminent charitable organizations. However, in another sense, their situation is not uncommon: a divorcing couple has shared business interests or a company that they own and manage together. The fundamental questions are: Can you end your marriage and remain business partners? Can you keep working together—productively, happily, healthily—after divorce? And what will you do if it turns out you can’t?

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 Annual Business Survey shows that in 2021, 297,778 employer firms or businesses were jointly owned and operated by spouses—that’s more than 10 percent of all U.S. for-profit businesses.

It might be possible if you want to keep running your business together after you’re no longer married.

Start by honestly assessing some key factors: 

Are you essentially good business partners? Do you share core values? Are you aligned in mission and vision? Do you have compatible skills?

Respect and Trust. Despite the disintegration of your romantic relationship, do you fundamentally respect and trust each other? Can you set aside personal differences to recognize each other’s business talent and value in the company? Can you rely on each other and know that your partner will do what they say they will do and accomplish what’s needed?

Communication. Can you still communicate calmly, professionally, openly, and effectively?

Clearly defined roles. As married business partners, you may have shared many tasks, collaborating on practically everything. After a divorce, it may be better to separate your roles and responsibilities based on your individual strengths and skill sets.

Feelings in check. When trying to work together during and after divorce, “Don’t make business decisions with your emotions, says Kiplinger. “Professional decisions tainted by personal pain or vindictiveness can taint your entire enterprise. Honestly, examine your motives. Is a decision informed by your business’s best course of action, or is it informed by a desire to undermine or hurt your partner?”

Create an agreement. Many married partners, the NYTimes says, skip a critical step when forming a business together—drafting a formal agreement. “Most business partners sign a shareholders agreement to establish what happens if someone wants to sell. Married entrepreneurs, though, often do not write such an agreement.” If you hope to continue working together after you split, you can create a legal business agreement at the time of your divorce. Sometimes, a legal document that addresses what happens if it doesn’t work out alleviates some of the anxiety and pressure and ultimately enables you to continue as business partners.

Transparency. Be honest with your staff about your situation and how new arrangements could impact their employment.

Professional support. Will you be able to heal your pain if you have to see each other every day? You may benefit from therapy or counseling to help you work through that process.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether the end of your marriage partnership means the end of your professional partnership. The veteran family attorneys at SFLG are experienced in handling high-net-worth divorces, including those of couples who share a business. We can help you navigate the complex divorce and business division process if necessary.

By Debra Schoenberg


Our Awards and Memberships

Schoenberg Family Law Group, P.C., recognizes that family law matters involve complex, sensitive issues that can have a lasting impact on you, your family, your finances and your future.

More About Honors & Awards
Arrow Image
10.0 Avvo Superb Top Attorney Family Law, Divorce
Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journal
American Jurist Institute Top 10 Attorneys 2017
2022 Client Satisfaction American Institute of Family Law Attorneys 10 Best
100 Fastest-Growing Private Companies In the Bay Area San Francisco Business Times
10 Best Female Attorneys 2017 American Institute of Family Law Attorneys
San Francisco Bay Area's Best and Brightest Companies to Work For Winner 2021
2018 Best Lawyers Best Law Firms U.S. News & World Report
California Board of Legal Specialization (CBLS) State Bar of California
2020 Client Champion Debra R. Schoenberg
San Francisco Business Times Corporate Philanthropy Awards 2019
Expertise Best Divorce Lawyers in Concord 2020
2018 Expertise Best Divorce Lawyers in San Francisco
Fast 100
Lead Counsel Rated
Litigation Counsel of America (LCA) Fellow
National Board of Trial Advocacy
2017 Parents' Press Best of The Bay
San Francisco Business Times
Rated By Super Lawyers Debra R. Schoenberg
The Business of Pride
2021 Best Businesses Three Best Rated
San Francisco Business Times Corporate Philanthropy Awards & Summit
American Jurist Institute Top 10 Attorneys of 2018
Arrow Image