How to deal with disputes in the family business?

by | Apr 21, 2020

Sound Management and the Family Business

A Family business is the pillar of family assets. A special attention should be given to it in a Family Charter. Who manages the Family Business? Family members and/or others? They may be assisted by consultants and advisers. How are Family directors and officers appointed? Are they remunerated? If yes, what is their legal status? Are they employees of the Family? How to remunerate them? The Family Charter should provide answers to these questions.

An intricate matter not to be ignored when drafting a Family Charter, is to clarify and set out the management roles of Family members and of non-Family members. Who will manage the Family Business? A Family member? An outsider? What are the prerequites for a Family member to sit on the Board of the Family Business? Are young Family members admitted to play a part in the management of the Family Business? On what conditions? How are the Family Business managers and/or directors remunerated? How to evaluate their performance? How are shares in the Family business transferred?

The easiest way to approach these matters is to assimilate the Family to a legal or a corporate entity, having its own existence and interests independently of its members. The reason for this approach is to set a tested framework for the purpose of managing the Family and its assets in the most professional and businesslike manner. Ultimately, the Family members shall benefit from such an overall unbiased management. Consequently, and as a result of such simulation, a Family may have a number of bodies to manage it. The Family Charter shall provide for a structure which may comprise of the following bodies:

  • A Family Assembly: It comprises of all direct Family members. Its operation and decision-making process follow the pattern of a general meeting of a company.
  • A Family Board: This board is the executive management arm of the Family. It runs its affairs. Its members are appointed by the Family Assembly from amongst Family members or non-Family members. As a matter of fact, the independent executive Board members play a crucial role within the Board, as their input and contribution are made without any outside influence or pressure.
  • A Family Council: It is the body that comprises of Family members elected by the Family Assembly. In families, with a large number of members, it is more practical and more efficient to have a Family Council. In its capacity as the Family’s representative, this Council deals with Family matters on behalf of all Family members. The Family Charter shall set out the role and powers of the Family Council. Its most important role is to inter-act between the Family Assembly and the Family Board.
  • Family Committees: These are specialized committees comprised of the Family members who share common interests. Relevant matters of concern to the Family may be submitted to them for perusal and issuance of related recommendations.
  • Family Office: This appointed body runs the Family day-to-day affairs. It implements the Family Board decisions. Typically, it consists of administrators, legal counsels and fund managers. Family Office executives are recruited on the basis of their education, skills and experience. Their main task is to tend to the needs of the Family and its members in all respects. Family Office services range from concierge services to the provision of highly technical financial and legal advices and opinions, which cover current or contemplated investments of the Family.


A family business, just like any other business, is exposed to the mishandling of its affairs, and the mismanagement by those who have been entrusted with the same. Such mismanagement may materialize in a number of ways, and may be attributable to a number of factors: a Family officer acting intentionally, or negligently, or simply omitting to act when his/her action is required; or to the lack of skills required for the job.

The easiest way to assess the performance of a Family business directors, officers and executives (hereinafter “a Manager” or “Managers” as the context dilates), is to assimilate such business to a corporate business. The duties, in particular the fiduciary duties, laid upon a Manager are no different than those laid upon their counterparts in corporate concerns. Governance, in its widest sense, is equally required in Family businesses.

Family Office Managers are similarly bound by the duties of care and loyalty. Their fair dealings, on behalf of the Family, is not a virtue, but a genuine duty. They should exercise generally recognized best practices, in good faith, using sound business judgement at all times. The fact that a Family Office Manager is at the same time a Family member, elected, or designated, to assume a managerial function, does not exonerate him of such duties.

  • Liability and Accountability: We are inclined to consider a Family member, who is in charge of managing a Family business, more at fault when violating governing regulations, in-house or otherwise, such as laws and official directives, than if “strangers” to the Family perpetrate the same wrongful act. The blood and “next-of-kin” bond with those the wealth of whom have been put in a Manager’s hands, creates, somehow, a type of a personal charge that does not exist in concerns managed by people who do not have such relationship. As we know, a court of law, looking into a matter brought to its attention, may very well award damages to the Family resulting from the misperformance of a Manager. In the event of criminal wrongdoings, such member may, in addition to the payment of a monetary fine, be sentenced to confinement in jail.
  • Disputes with a Managing Family Member: Is a dispute that arises between a Family member, who holds an executive function in the Family Office, or in any other concern owned or controlled by the Family, and the managed entity considered a Family dispute? There are two possible ways to look at this intricate matter, which occurs quite frequently in Families, let alone in Family businesses. If we consider the dispute as a Family dispute, in some cases, other Family members may take sides and support the Manager whose performance is being questioned, against other Family members who challenge such performance. Some of these disputes end up creating cleavages among Family members, and may result in deadlocks that are detrimental to the Family business and could threaten its continuity. The more reasonable approach could be to consider the dispute as being simply a professional dispute; the route cause behind it should be assessed in an objective way, as if the Manager in question was a total stranger to the Family. A common wrongful act by Family Office executives, who are members of the Family, is what we refer to in corporate law as “self-dealing”. This type of dealing consists of the Manager causing the Family business to transact with a related party, thus creating a conflict between the interest of the Family and the personal interest of the Manager. A typical illustration of this conflict is when a Manager reaps financial, or reputational benefits, on the account of the Family business and, consequently, the Family members.

Family Finances

The Family Charter provides also for the management of Family funds, as well as for the rules governing their spending and distribution. The Family Board sets the strategies for the achievement of the Family financial objectives within guidelines normally set by the Family. It also provides for the regular financial reporting to g members (annual, quarterly, monthly). This reporting helps keep all Family members abreast of the performance of Family liquid and non-liquid assets and help them plan their own individual finances and investments.

Settlement of Family Disputes

Disputes among Family members are inevitable, especially when they share the ownership, and/or participate in the management, of a Family business. A well thought Charter addresses all possible controversial issues that may arise within the Family and is, in this respect, a mitigator of Family disputes, and a reducer of their frequency. It helps settle such disputes to a large extent. These disputes normally arise as a result of unclear situations. All members of a Family may not agree on the way profits realized by the Family are to be disposed of.

A Family Charter usually addresses financial matters, such as the acquisition and preservation of valuable assets, the maximization of the return of such assets. If the management and disposal of these assets are regulated, the occurrence of disputes over them is automatically reduced. Having said that, neither a Family Charter nor any other type of documents may prevent or help avoid acute Family disputes.

It is only the will and determination of at least one, or one clan, or one branch of the Family members who are in dispute, that are likely to minimize the adverse consequences of the non-settlement of the disputes, not only between or among them, but mainly on the Family as a whole. This may require concessions to be made. These concessions will prove to be precious gifts to the Family.

The Charter sets out a whole procedure for the settlement of the Family disputes: how to initiate the process? Who, or which body, to submit the disputes to? Arbitration by an arbitration panel? Private arbitration? Or, in a worst case, litigation before a specific court?

family business

Saba Zreik

Manal Consultancy