I married a woman I deeply loved. We were young, and her parents had a lot of assets. They gave us a house/interest free mortgage/down payment and jobs in their lucrative businesses. I woke at 3am every day, and worked til early evening. I also did half the housework and actively raised our children with my wife.
At one point, the business started to go downhill. I worked harder and longer, because I wanted my wife and her parents to respect me, and because I wanted to take care of our extended family’s assets. I was convinced I could turn things around, so I used up all our savings and borrowed a lot of money too.
In the end, the business failed, and with my long hours of absence and the financial stress over those last few years, my marriage did too. When my wife left me, her parents took the company’s building and the house, sold it all, shared the proceeds with my ex, and I was left with nothing—except the debt we’d developed together. I was left to pay the majority of our shared debt myself, or declare bankruptcy.
The above is a paraphrase of what two men*, in just the last few years, have shared with me. In one case, I witnessed the events close up, so had some additional perspective.
In each case, the Main Character assumed his in-laws would look out for him, share any wealth they ended up with. He worked without employment insurance benefits and without a share in the company’s assets. He assumed that no matter what, his marriage would last til death did them part. Even at the end, he believed his wife and in-laws would “do the right thing” and ensure a portion of any remaining assets went to him. After all, he’d worked 15-30 years to support their daughter and grandkids, right? Certainly they all loved each other. Despite life’s challenges and any broken dreams, they were in this together, yes?
In both cases, the Main Character had options at various points.
1. Co-own or own the assets, not just work for the business. Be on the title for the building and other major equipment. Have shares in the company.
2. At the outset, or early on, set up an exit contract that meets all parties’ needs. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Assume the family will stay intact, but during the most loving phase ensure each one’s “worst case scenario” rights.
3. Whether either of the above are in place or not, know when to fold ’em. Think twice about blowing all your assets and line of credit on a business. (To do so is to put all your eggs in one basket. We want to never do this!) And think three times about blowing things on a business you have no legal claim to.
4. Regardless of whether you did the above steps or not, if everything hits the fan, get a good lawyer. Where I live, the laws governing a family break-up are very fair to both men and women, whether in same-sex or opposite sex relationships. A family debt is shared, not hoisted onto one member. Assets developed since the marriage started are split fairly. A good lawyer will first direct you to free or cheap resources (books, websites) that outline the relevant laws. She will then aim for a more amiable process such as mediation, allowing family members to sort matters out without resorting to accusations, court, and so on.
Of course, options are useless to us if we don’t take them.
Wherever you are on your journey, ensure your legal and financial arrangements are fair—for the immediate term and in the long term, both while things are rosy and should things go downhill.
Fear not. Both men—one at age 40 and the other at age 52—accepted they were starting again at zero or less, focused on maintaining close relationships with their children, and are successfully rebuilding their lives. not just financially, but in every way. Both are sad about the losses they’ve experienced, but are also happy overall. They’re enjoying excellent health, a great connection with their kids, lots of fun, their preferred work, and a simpler lifestyle. They have everything they need, and look brightly toward the rest of their lives.
In a dream world, marriages are wonderful and remain intact for each member’s whole life, all people can be trusted to share co-created assets even during a relational blip, and so on.
In the real world, we can love and share and ensure our security.
*These days, this scenario is gender-neutral and orientation-neutral. It is often a woman in this position, and the scenario plays out in gay relationships as well.