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Including Non-Married Partners at Family Meetings

Dear Advisor:

We have a family meeting once a year to inform all family members about the business and to learn together. Now our sons have asked us whether they can bring their spouse/partner as well. One son is married, the other lives with his partner. As we are an old (4th generation) family business in the rural area of southern Germany, my uncle does not like the idea of including in-laws and would not accept non-married partners. What would you suggest?


Whether to include in-laws in family meetings or not depends on the culture of the family. Most families nowadays do include in-laws, but not all. The reason for inclusion is to build trust and unity among the family members and to strengthen all family members’ understanding of the business.

A common reason not to include the in-laws is the information and numbers shared in the family meeting. But, even if in-laws are not allowed to participate, they typically get the information from their spouses anyway. The disadvantage is that you cannot influence the way the information is understood. When the in-law receives this information at the meeting, questions can be answered in an adequate, non-political way. Openness generates trust.

The question of whether you allow partners, (those not legally married to family members) but living with them has two dimensions. Whether or not non-married partners are accepted is driven by the values of the family. First, if the family changes its attitude toward non-married partners, it sends a strong message concerning the expectations of individual members. If it has been a core value of your family, for example to follow the Christian rules of acceptance of non-married partners, inviting them will violate not only a tradition but also the beliefs of the family. Second, accepting non-married partners is a message to non-family stakeholders of your business. Especially in a Catholic, rural surrounding like that found in southern Germany, this change of rules has an impact on your employees, people in your village, your suppliers, bankers and others. The mover could be interpreted as becoming more modern, but it also could be seen as the family losing its values.

Considering all this, I would suggest that you invite the in-laws for the next meeting. At that time, an agenda item should be a discussion of your family’s values. If anything related with marriage comes up in the core values of your family, you should be careful about changing your practice toward non-married partners without an in-depth discussion and decision of all family members.

 

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