Divorced women offered help to buy partners out

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The Independent Online
WHEN a marriage collapses it is usually unpleasant. Where the spouses are also business partners it can make the splitting of assets more difficult.

The recent House of Lords judgment in the O'Brien case resolved only a very narrow issue - that a wife should not lose her home, after guaranteeing her husband's business debts, when she had not been warned by the mortgage lender to seek independent advice.

According to the financial intermediaries Milbourne Management, there are other ways in which banks have treated women unfairly. Milbourne is offering loans to women to buy out their business partner husbands when the marriage collapses. Too often, the firm says, the banks take the side of the man, wrongly assuming that he is the more capable partner.

The vast majority of companies are family-owned, but many husband-and-wife partnerships are registered as the property of the husband. A study by Kingston Business School stressed that a woman's role in family partnerships is often understated. Husbands and wives who run a business together risk losing both business and marriage, said the report.

Nigel Risner, Milbourne's chief executive, said: 'In our experience, women are excellent risks, far safer than men. In the sectors we are particularly familiar with - pubs, restaurants, nursing homes and owner-occupied retail businesses - wives are the dominant force in 85 per cent of jointly-owned businesses.'

Mr Risner added: 'Lenders are saying 'We won't help you; you're a woman'. We know the attitude of lenders to women.'

Mr Risner's claims were dismissed by the main clearing banks. A spokesman for the Midland said: 'These comments surprise me. Our record on equal opportunities is good. We support women in business. It is looked at on a strictly business basis and we lend money if there is security.'

Barclays said: 'If we were lending against a business we would look at how viable the business is and whether it could repay the money, and look at the incomes of the people involved. Very often, the husband is earning more than the wife: there is no conspiracy in that - we are more likely to lend to the higher earner.

'We would look at the participation of each partner, look at the characters of the husband and wife. In many cases, both are integral and we may take the view that the business couldn't survive without them both. We wouldn't discriminate in favour of one rather than the other. In some cases it would be the woman that the business would need.'

Organisations representing women in business were unable to endorse the complaints against the high street banks. Aileen Sweeney, of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs, said: 'I've had no problems over getting business loans myself. But then again, I'm not married.'