When ‘I Do’ Becomes ‘We Don’t’

Be prepared if the end of a marriage means the end of a business partnership.

By Julie Pfitzinger


Christine Clifford and her first husband owned a marketing and consulting firm together for several years before the company was dissolved in the wake of another dissolution – the couple's marriage.

"When I look back at the end of our marriage and the end of our business, I realize what a double sense of loss I was feeling at the time," says Clifford, now president and CEO of Christine Clifford Enterprises in Edina. "I lost my identity in both ways."

It's not easy when a couple in business endures a public glimpse into the state of their marriage, as evident in the case of fashion designer Vera Wang, who recently filed for divorce from her husband and business partner of 23 years, Arthur Becker (although there are rumors the pair will continue to work together).

In her case, Clifford admits there were virtual assistants as well as clients who took sides in her divorce, adding to the stress of the situation. "Just as the couple can feel shattered, people from the professional aspect of your life can feel shattered, too," she says.

Kerri Shear Jaeger, a licensed psychologist in Minnetonka who frequently works with clients facing career transition, says it is not uncommon for women (who might not have maintained the same level of professional involvement throughout marriage as their spouse) to struggle to retain their professional sense of self, particularly when it has been intertwined with a spouse and a family business.

"One of the most important pieces of advice I give to women is to resist the temptation to make a hasty decision. Some women will just want to make it all go away and pull themselves out of the business when they are still vulnerable," she says. "Ask for what you need now that both the business and the relationship are ending."

Tori Appelhof, a partner with the Appelhof, Pfeifer and Hart, P.A. law firm in Oakdale, says it has been her experience that businesses forced to dissolve due to a failed marriage were generally in financial trouble anyway. However, the first step that should be taken by a couple looking to end a business partnership is to engage a CPA firm that can thoroughly evaluate the business and determine its fair market value.

"In today's economy, when you're talking about a smaller business, you're basically talking about putting a value on the stuff, which is part of the overall value," says Appelhof, who adds that strict 50-50 business partnerships between spouses are rarer than people might think.

No matter the level of a woman's involvement in a business, Jaeger counsels clients in transition to seek a career coach and therapist, and to remain focused on the opportunity that has presented itself. "Really, it can be a time to build a blueprint for your new life," she adds.

This was Christine Clifford's reality – following her divorce, she launched her own marketing and consulting firm, continued work as an author and public speaker, and went on to become CEO/founder of Divorcing Divas (see below).

"The divorce was the best thing for both my personal life and my professional life," she says. "I became accountable only to myself and I could take my business into the direction I wanted it to go."

Divorcing Divas