Legal Blog

Shareholder Agreements in Divorce: A Legal Perspective

Divorce proceedings can often involve complex financial negotiations, particularly when business interests are involved. When spouses who are shareholders in a company decide to part ways, it can raise a host of challenging issues regarding the disposition of shares, control of the business, and the future direction of the company. In such cases, understanding shareholder agreements becomes crucial, as they often dictate how shares can be transferred, sold, or retained in the event of a divorce.

Shareholder agreements are legal documents that outline the rights and obligations of shareholders in a company. These agreements typically address a wide range of matters, including the transfer of shares, the appointment of directors, voting rights, and dispute resolution mechanisms. While shareholder agreements vary widely depending on the specific needs and circumstances of the shareholders and the company, they often contain provisions that address what happens in the event of a shareholder’s divorce.

One common provision found in shareholder agreements is a buy-sell agreement, also known as a buyout agreement. A buy-sell agreement is a contractual arrangement between shareholders that governs the sale and purchase of shares under certain circumstances, such as death, disability, retirement, or divorce. In the context of divorce, a buy-sell agreement may specify that the shares owned by a divorcing shareholder must be sold to the remaining shareholders or to the company itself at a predetermined price or according to a specified valuation method.

Another important consideration in the context of divorce is the issue of control and management of the business. In closely-held companies, where a small number of shareholders typically control the company, the transfer of shares as a result of divorce can have significant implications for corporate governance. Shareholder agreements often include provisions that address voting rights and the composition of the board of directors, which can become relevant in the event of a divorce.

In some cases, spouses may be parties to a shareholder agreement together or may have entered into a separate agreement that governs their ownership interests in the company. In either scenario, the terms of the shareholder agreement will play a central role in determining how shares are treated in the divorce process. For example, if the shareholder agreement contains provisions restricting the transfer of shares or giving other shareholders a right of first refusal, those provisions will generally need to be respected in the divorce proceedings.

However, it’s important to note that while shareholder agreements can provide valuable guidance and structure in the event of a divorce, they are not necessarily binding on the court. In some jurisdictions, the court does not have the authority to transfer title of shares from one spouse to another.  However, if the parties enter into an agreement to transfer shares from one spouse to the other, the shareholder agreement becomes the governing instrument on effectuating the transfer.

Ultimately, navigating shareholder agreements in the context of divorce requires careful attention to both the terms of the agreement itself and the applicable family law.  Consulting with experienced legal counsel who can provide guidance on both corporate and family law issues can be essential in ensuring that the interests of all parties are protected and that the divorce process proceeds as smoothly as possible. By understanding the implications of shareholder agreements and how they intersect with divorce law, shareholders can better position themselves to protect their interests and preserve the value of their investments in the company.


professional headshot of principal attorney, Sandra | 240.507.1716

As a family law attorney, Sandra (Sandy) Brooks’ practice focuses on a wide range of aspects in regards to family law. She dedicates her time to assisting clients in domestic law matters including divorce, child custody and visitation, family mediation, spousal and child support, property division, and division of retirement benefits. Other matters that fall under her jurisdiction as a family law attorney include tax consequences of divorce, mediation, prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements, negotiating and drafting of separation agreements, domestic litigation, and post-judgment proceedings.