There are two angles (at least) to the issue of spouses being business partners. There is the personal one and the legal one. Really, there´s a third — how it affects employees, which we can call the personnel one. Let´s start with the personal one, and I´ll blog later on the others.
Small Biz Advisor did a series of tips for business spouses a while back. They made the point that, "When your spouse starts a business, you automatically become employee number one. Even if your spouse says otherwise or you believe otherwise, the position is an offer you can´t refuse. Knowing your roles and responsibilities in advance helps you avoid learning them by trial and error as your spouse´s needs change. Your job description requests you to fulfill the roles of cheerleader, silent partner, temporary staff and annoying coworker."
At a minimum, a spouse will be involved as a cheerleader, but in some cases the spouse is a full partner in the business. There are pros and cons here. Among the pros is the value of having a spouse who is fully committed to taking the risk a new business inevitable entails.
But just because you and your spouse have both bought into the idea of starting this business, is it really a good idea? Based on the successful business partner couples I know, you need to have several things going for you for it to work:
1) You have to really enjoy talking with each other, at length, on a great number of subjects. The successful business couples I know are successful communicators in their marriages. They´re both open-minded and they have learned to talk things through without taking sides.
2) Your business is more likely to flourish if the two of you have complementary skills. It helps if one of you enjoys handling the finances and another one likes fixing the computers. One of you has to enjoy making sales calls, and perhaps the other is happy running the office.
Tom Evslin, who started several businesses with his wife Mary, says, "Mary and I are lucky that our skills are complementary. I invent stuff and implement it; Mary makes me describe sensibly and simply what I´ve invented and then markets it. During the early stage of a business, Mary makes cold calls and opens doors; I negotiate and close."
Evslin also says, "When it works, there is nothing better. When it doesn´t, it really sucks. Most couples don´t want to work together. That´s fine and they shouldn´t do it. Twenty-four hours a day of being in the same place is intense. There are excellent relationships that don´t want and would be damaged by this intensity." And frankly, it is better if you can arrange things so you are not in the same physical place 24 hours a day.
Before you and your spouse commit to being business partners, negotiate the roles. As Small Biz Advisor pointed out, knowing the roles in advance spares you the inefficiency and frustration of figuring them out as you go along.