There are many preconceptions surrounding business interests/companies and divorce settlements. The most frequent of these is the idea that the Courts will disregard the business when considering a settlement. TThe Courts do not disregard business interests and companies when it comes to divorce settlements. Whilst the Courts are loath to interfere with the smooth running of a business or change its ownership the business will, if material, form a key focus of the proceedings both in terms of its value and the income that it produces.

To properly advise clients, it is necessary to understand how the business is owned, what it is worth, what income it has provided and can provide in the future, for purposes of assessing the appropriate level of maintenance.

At Stowe Family Law, we are unique in having an in-house team of forensic accountants focused solely on supporting our clients through this process. Their role at Stowe Family Law is to assist with financial disclosures, investigate the accuracy of disclosures provided by the other party – particularly when there are business or offshore interests – and provide valuable assistance with financial settlement-related tax issues.

The financial matters surrounding a business (or interest in it) are frequently an area of huge disagreement between divorcing parties and therefore merit close scrutiny.

See our FAQ’s on businesses and divorce to find out more.

Read on to understand more about our approach to valuing a family business.

How The Business Is Owned

The first step in the valuation process is to establish the type of structure and how it is owned. There are many structures and in many cases, we see a combination of these:

  • 1. Sole Trader

    A single person owns, operates and controls the business for their personal benefit frequently using a distinct trading name. Staff may be employed. All assets are personally owned and all liabilities are personal debts. The owner and business are as one and the owner is assessed to tax on the profits made by the business each year.

  • 2. Partnerships

    A partnership can either be unincorporated (where personal ownership attaches to the assets and personal liability attaches to the debts) or incorporated, e.g. a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP). The distinction is important in terms of potential liability for partnership debts.
The partnership may be governed by a formal written deed or may be informal, e.g. usually between a small group or between husband/wife. Again, a trading style may be used and staff employed.
The assets are owned by the partners (according to their shares) and in the case of an unincorporated partnership the partners are all jointly and severally liable for all of the partnership’s debts. It is as though the partnership is a collection of sole traders grouped together. Partners of an LLP may have limited (but not unlimited) liability for debts.
Partners are assessed to tax on their share of the profits made by the partnership each year.

  • 3. Company, Limited By Shares

    A company is a separate legal entity and is operated by its directors on behalf of the shareholders. In many instances, the directors and shareholders are one and the same, usually husband/ wife or with other family members, for reasons of tax efficiency. Matters become more complex when unconnected persons are also shareholders as their wishes cannot be ignored. All persons working for the company are employees (including the directors) and will be paid under the PAYE regime. Shareholders may receive dividends, the amount of which is decided upon annually by the directors. Whilst the annual profits of the company are taxed (corporation tax) the amount of profits earned in any year are not wholly allocated to the owners as income. The directors decide when profits are paid out to the shareholders. The income taken by director/shareholders can therefore be manipulated/structured to achieve the best tax efficiency. It is then necessary to consider what profits could be paid out rather than what income is paid out.

What is it worth? What income it has provided and can it provide in the future?

Where there is an issue over the value of a business, a court will ordinarily direct that an expert (most likely a suitably qualified accountant) be instructed jointly by both parties. This expert will value the business to express a view on the income it can provide and the extent to which it can be used to assist with funding a settlement.

Whilst this can be a useful exercise it can tie the hands of either party that may be unhappy with the accountant’s opinion, which is always too high or too low depending on their point of view. The Court will generally rely on the expert’s valuation, unless they are discredited. A restriction on fees (the Court may direct the accountant providing the cheapest quote be used) can also have a detrimental effect on the extent of work the accountant can do in preparing his report. Valuations are mostly “desktop” in nature and not rigorous in the way that would be performed in the event of an actual sale of the business. The expert may not be able (for the fees authorised) to sufficiently investigate matters where it is alleged there has been manipulation of the figures. This is one of the reasons we have in-house forensic accountants at Stowe family law.

Regardless of the formal structure of the business, the valuation of it will generally proceed in the same way and is dependent on the type of business. There are three main types of business to be considered in divorce proceedings, and each is approached differently:

  • 1. Income Stream

    This type of business usually has a small sole trader structure, but sometimes (for reasons of tax efficiency) is operated in the guise of a limited company structure. The business is usually a single person providing their own labour, whether as a tradesman or professional service provider, e.g. consultant surgeon, to a variety of clients. There are no ongoing contracts and it is highly unlikely there would be any premium for a sale of the business to a third party, even if there was a business to sell. In this instance, the business is considered an income stream and its value is taken as the value of the net assets in the business.

  • 2. Property / Investment Based Business

    For a property/ investment based business, it is the value of the property/ investment that is important as there is no underlying trade. Consideration must be given to the value of each individual asset and any necessary revaluation of assets will be incorporated into a revised balance sheet to reach the overall value of the business.

    To calculate the net value, it will be necessary to consider both the potential amount of tax that would arise on a sale of the property as well as the tax that would arise on extraction of the funds from the business.

  • 3. Trading Business

    Any business (other than income stream type) that is trading in nature with a view to making profits is usually valued according to its profits. The circumstances of the business are considered and a calculation is performed to assess the annual maintainable earnings. That figure is then multiplied by the price/earnings ratio to get to the total value of the business and the value of an individual’s interest is then calculated relative to that total.

    Adjustments may be required for factors such as debt, surplus assets or minority shareholder discount, dependent on the individual circumstances. A valuation will also be considered on an asset basis and the greater figure will generally be the value of the business.

    The calculations performed to reach the maintainable earnings will also be relevant for consideration of the income that the business can provide to its directors/ shareholders, and will be relevant for consideration of spousal and child maintenance.

    The potential incidence of Capital Gains Tax will also be a feature of the calculation of the (net of CGT) value of the parties’ interests in each business.

During the course of divorce proceedings, emotions can run very high and we find this is particularly true when looking at the value of a business and the income it produces.

The party running the business may argue the business has no value, even when that is obviously untrue. Figures can be manipulated and the state of the business misrepresented in order to achieve a lower value and a fair outcome in the eyes of the business operator (but inequitable otherwise).

At the end of the day, and unless there is to be an overall capital and income clean break between the parties, the business will be providing an income to both parties, whether directly (as salary/ dividends) or indirectly (via maintenance). Manipulation of figures during proceedings is a false economy and can subsequently be exposed. This could lead to consequences such as the reopening of proceedings if a Court decides that fraudulent misrepresentation occurred during the original proceedings.

Companies and divorce, with both parties owning shares

The Courts prefer to achieve full separation between the parties, including the ownership of business interests. In most cases, this is achievable as it is usually only one of the parties who is actively involved in the running of the business. Hence, a transfer of a share of ownership from one party to the other is desirable. However, that may have ramifications for both capital gains tax and the overall net income that can be taken from the business. It may also result in a distorted outcome.

Whilst Capital Gains Tax is not usually an issue, unless the transfer is of shares in an investment company or property, the change to routing of all income from a business through one party only can have significant income tax consequences through the loss of personal allowances and basic rate tax band. Thus, not only will the parties be running two households instead of one, they also face doing this from a reduced overall net income.

Company Pension Scheme

There may also be a company pension scheme in which both parties may be members and that pension scheme may own the property that the business trades from.

Each Case is Unique

Obviously, every case is unique.  If you want to discuss your situation with one of our expert family lawyers or forensic accountants, do not hesitate to get in touch.   You can also find more information on the subject in our Divorce & Businesses FAQ’s.

Your team in this field

Nick White
Nick White is a Forensic Accountant, he has a national remit and provides input and assis...
Forensic Accountant
Suzanne Grant
Suzanne is a forensic accountant who is based in our Harrogate office but has a national r...
Forensic Accountant
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