Your partner has a great idea for a business, and naturally, you want to do whatever you can to help him or her succeed. Perhaps you build the new venture’s social media presence, just for a few hours a week. No big deal.
But, over time, the business grows — and so does your role. You’re now doing some bookkeeping, going on the occasional sales call and participating in strategizing sessions. It’s starting to feel more like full-time employment than a fun side project. You want real compensation, and a defined role within the company.
Should you ask your partner for a stake in their business? Here’s what to know about joining forces with your spouse on a business venture, and expert-approved tips on protecting your own interests along the way.
Figure Out What The Business Can Offer & What You Want
Start-ups come in all shapes in sizes. Some are one-man shows that don’t have room to offer shares or partnerships, whereas others have already received funding from angel investors and are preparing for massive growth, potentially bringing wealth to stakeholders.
“You need to understand what value is there,” says Leslie Tayne, founder and head attorney at Tayne Law Group, and author of “Life & Debt: A Fresh Approach to Achieving Financial Wellness.” “A smart person who wants to take on a piece of the business should have a conversation with their spouse and a small business attorney, who can advise on what’s happening in a business and how it’s structured. There are lots of nuances.”
Understanding how the business is structured will serve as valuable background information to the big question: What do you want from the company? There are a few main ways to formalize your role, each of which comes with its own pros and cons.
Co-ownership and business shares
You’ve been there from the beginning of the business, and now you want a partial stake in the company. In this case, you can ask to be named as a co-owner and/or request a percentage of shares in the business. This will allow you to reap a portion of the profits, but it also comes with the non-stop demands of running the business and potentially some financial risks if it fails.
“Your responsibilities will depend on the structure of the business,” says Kristen Euretig, Certified Financial Planner and founder of Brooklyn Plans, a financial planning firm that specializes in helping women take control of their finances. “In an S corp, for example, shareholders are supposed to have regular meetings and do an annual tax filing that’s separate from an individual tax return. You’re in it for the ups and downs.”
Bear in mind that a sole proprietorship business can’t offer co-ownership unless it restructures.
Maybe you’re not looking to become an owner, but you’d like some financial compensation for the time you’re investing in the company. You could ask for a salary.
While this would guarantee you a certain amount of money each year, you might miss out on big profits if the business really takes off. On the other hand, you wouldn’t have a responsibility for any losses if the business fails.
Recognition with a job title can go a long way to acknowledging your contributions — even if the company can’t yet afford to pay you what you deserve.
“Getting the title allows you to talk about how you helped the startup in a future job interview. Keep track of your achievements. You can say that your efforts helped the company get a certain amount of clients in a certain amount of time, which turns into real value for you,” says Euretig.
Not all businesses can add someone to payroll or offer a formal job title. In this case, you may want your partner’s company to pay you as a contractor for your work. This will require drawing up an official contract (in line with your local laws) and coming up with a payment schedule. You may need to renew the contract each year, depending on the terms of the agreement. You may also need to pay self-employment taxes on the money you earn.
Get to know as much as you can about your partner’s business to determine what kind of compensation makes sense.
“Date the business before you marry it,” says Euretig. “You might find it’s not something you want partial ownership of, and you may be able to find another way to get value for your contributions before you really go all in.”
Assert Your Needs
So you’ve zeroed in on how you’d like to be compensated, and you believe it’s something the business can offer. Now what?
“Start with a conversation, not a confrontation,” says Tayne. “Let them know that you’re happy to do the work, but as the business is growing, you want to have a bigger piece of it.”
If your partner is less than enthusiastic about teaming up on business, don’t panic — instead, start with an honest conversation about why that’s the case.
“There may be lots of good reasons why they don’t want you involved, and it’s not necessarily personal. Perhaps the business needs to take on certain financial obligations, but you have debt and the lenders will be checking the credit of all business owners. Or, perhaps they already have a business partner who also has a spouse, and they don’t want to also include that spouse in the company,” says Tayne.
If you’re not satisfied with the answer, it might be time to step away from the business and re-evaluate your level of involvement. It’s also a good idea to look into the marriage laws in your state to see if you’re already entitled to a stake in your spouse’s business.
“People think they need to have their name on the house, the bank account and the business to have a stake in that asset. But, if you’re married, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s a state-by-state determination,” says Tayne.
On the bright side, your partner might be completely on board with finding ways to make you feel valued for your contributions. However, you may need to negotiate the exact terms, so recognize where you have wiggle room while respecting your limits.
Create Healthy Boundaries
No matter what arrangement you end up with, it’s important to create healthy boundaries between your business partnership and your romantic life.
“Sometimes it’s not so easy to work with your significant other,” says Tayne. “Set some ground rules. Leave personal stuff at home and business stuff at the business.”
You should also be clear on the interpersonal dynamics at work versus at home.
“If your spouse is technically the boss at work, that’s not how it is at home, so you both need to be comfortable with that,” Tayne added. “It requires a conscious effort not to make your work relationship a 24/7 situation.”