Is working for free ever justified, even for your spouse?

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I came across this NY times column, which gave rise to all sorts of thoughts.

My husband is beginning to fund-raise for his new start-up. I’m a professional brand strategist. He and his co-founder want my help naming their company, crafting messaging and creating their website and pitch materials. When I asked how formal the arrangement would be and whether there would be any compensation involved, he was incredibly hurt and now believes I don’t support his business. Am I completely wrong here? Should I work for him for free on the principle of being his wife?

So let’s try to break this one down.

Many people would have a knee-jerk reaction and say, “OF COURSE spouses should share skills. Marriage is all about mutual contribution, and everyone’s the gainer. It’s called supporting each other.”

True enough. But there’s also this: if the wife is a professional and if she does any work of serious extent for her husband’s business, she almost inevitably passes over other (paid) opportunities.

Her contribution could range from a short-term consultancy to actually laying aside her own business entirely and supporting her husband’s startup. And here, if she gets no official recognition, position, or salary, is the fly in the ointment.

If the marriage stays stable, equitable and loving for the rest of these two people’s lives, that’s fine. No problem may ever arise and it may not matter in whose name the income is. But what if it’s not?

What if things go south, and 20 years down the road, the wife needs to strike out on her own after being a prop for her husband’s business for two decades? Yes, as many will point out, in case of a divorce, she gets a share of the business. He may buy out her part during property division, or he may sell the business and split the profit with her.

This, however, leads to two issues:

  1. In a family court, depending on the state in question, the wife may need to prove the extent of her contribution to the business, and this may be difficult if she never had an official role.
  2. If the husband is in sole control of company finances, he may prepare for divorce and siphon off funds to offshore funds and trusts (I’m aware of these strategies because I write a lot of web content for divorce lawyers).

Furthermore, if her role in the business was completely behind the scenes, the wife may have a 20-year blank on her resume. She may include her experience in the family business, of course, but then what happens if she applies for another position? Who will give her recommendations, the ex-husband/boss?

This gets even more problematic if she ever needs a mortgage or a car loan. Not (officially) working for 20 years doesn’t present a good picture for potential lenders.

If the split-up happens closer to retirement age, the wife may find herself in even deeper financial trenches.

But this isn’t even the worse scenario. In the worst case, the wife may actually stay stuck in an unhealthy, possibly abusive, marriage because she is so deeply mired financially. I’m not saying this will definitely happen. But it might.

So, my bottom line: if a person expects their spouse to play any long-term significant part in their business, at minimum, the contributing spouse should get an official recognition of their role and company stocks. Anything else may put their partner in a very, very precarious position down the road.


Author: Anna

An Orthodox Jewish wife and mother enjoying a simple life with her family and chickens, somewhere in the hills, in Israel.

6 thoughts on “Is working for free ever justified, even for your spouse?”

  1. My immediate thought was that of course she should not quit whatever paid work she was doing to work in her husband’s startup bc this is just unwise. If one spouse is starting a new and unproven venture, it’s very helpful if the other spouse can be in a stable income producing situation.

    My husband has mentioned wanting to start his own firm in the past. I am currently a stay at home mom. I have said I would want to go back to work first so I could be bringing home a paycheck and carrying our health insurance (we live in the US so having a job that includes health insurance benefits is extremely important.) He didn’t take this as me not believing in his abilities, just as me being prudent.

    In the case you site, there is also a co-founder. So the wife is being asked to work for free not just for her husband, but also for his business partner.

    If I was this wife, I probably would not bring up the whole what if we someday get divorced scenario and instead frame my desire to have an official agreement and pay as important to my career so that I can include this work in my professional portfolio.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Spot on! I would also say that in a healthy, non exploitative relationship, a partnership would be fair and not include one side giving everything without any official recognition of their contributions.


  2. The husband’s reaction caught my eye. If he was ”incredibly hurt”, that seems to me that he himself do not believe in his budding business. He probably feels nobody ever believed in him, so anything but excited ”yes of course” hurts him.
    On the other hand, if she talks about compensation in the second sentence, that seems odd to me as well. If I was the wife, I’d do something that would help him in the beginning of establishing a business and I’d be capable of doing relatively easily, but I would not work for years and years, without a salary of some kind (depending on how much I’d work).


    1. That’s exactly what I mean. Of course I wouldn’t charge a spouse for an hour of my time, but I would expect at least some compensation for an intense and time-consuming stretch of work.


  3. We bought a business 7 years into a common law marriage. The person that loaned the money for sick and marked paid in full 5 years later. It was in my wifes name only. I have worked there for free for 19 years. Never thought much about it until now. We have been together 25 years now and she just left me and moved out for a guy she just met. I’m left running her business that was ours by myself now. She gives me a place to stay and food, gas. But nothing else. We made just enough for us to live on, now she’s added a new apartment and running her credit cards up which means less for me. I’m 66, disabled because of the hard work at the business. I can’t get medicare or ss because she never paid in for me… now I’m told that it’s her business and I benefited from it by having a place to live and food for 19 years! This was an attorney that told me this. I’m tired, disabled and left without anything now. Any silver lining?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry, David. I wish I had any practical advice to offer, apart from consulting another attorney and getting a second legal opinion (maybe you can find someone who offers a free consultation). It sounds like you had been seriously taken advantage of, and I hope you can find a solution.


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