Businesses can pose special challenges upon divorce. As Dallas divorce attorneys, we deal with these issues in many of our cases, with businesses acquired during the marriage and also businesses owned by one spouse before marriage.
Texas law typically treats corporations, partnerships, and other types of businesses as a separate legal entity – existing apart from shareholders and partners. Because these businesses are separate legal entities, only the spouse’s interest in the corporation, partnership or other business is up for division by the divorce court. This means that specific corporate assets are often off-limits in a divorce action. But, there is an exception to this rule when alter ego can be established.
If the business is found to be the “alter ego” of a spouse, divorce courts can “pierce the corporate veil” to move assets out of the corporation and divide them between the parties as part of the shareholder’s community estate. A finding of alter ego sufficient to justify piercing in the divorce context requires the trial court to find:
(1) unity between the corporation and the spouse such that the separateness of the corporation has ceased to exist, and
(2) the spouse’s improper use of the corporation damaged the community estate beyond that which might be remedied by a claim for reimbursement.
The concepts of alter ego and piercing are applied in divorce cases to achieve an equitable result, that is, a just and right division of the marital estate. Generally, the divorce court will pierce to avoid leaving the community estate with virtually no property.
Whether you are a business owner, spouse of the business owner, or the attorney representing either party, when a business interest is part of the community estate, or owned by one spouse during the marriage, keep the equitable principles of alter ego and piercing the corporate veil in mind when evaluating the strategy for a divorce proceeding.