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Oil baron's divorce leaves billions on the line

It is unlikely that your divorce involves dividing up billions of dollars worth of assets. Still, no matter the size of your marital holdings, most couples can learn from the example that is currently being set by the divorce of Harold and Sue Ann Hamm. Harold is the billionaire owner of a successful oil company, and the couple's divorce has been making headlines from Florida to California -- and everywhere in between.

Official estimates place the couple's assets at about $17 billion. That means this case is shaping up to be the largest divorce settlement ever decided by the U.S. court system. The primary issue in this divorce is that of business ownership and influence; Sue Ann is attempting to recover financial assets from the growth of her husband's company, potentially forcing him to surrender a portion of his ownership in the firm.

If you and your spouse own a business together, it is critical to know the ways in which these ventures can grow. If a business experiences active appreciation, that means that the owners contributed -- at least in part -- to the growth of the company through business skills and guidance. Passive appreciation, on the other hand, occurs through economic forces that cannot be controlled by an individual; think inflation or a sudden spike in property values.

At issue in the Hamm's divorce is whether Harold's business underwent active appreciation because of his contribution. If that is the case, then Sue Ann should be entitled to a larger share of the estate. This case illustrates the importance of keeping careful track of the changes in value related to your business and personal holdings. Without that type of documentation, your individual assets could be at a greater risk of division during your Florida divorce.

Source: Forbes, "A Multi-Billion Dollar Divorce: What All Divorcing Women Can Learn From Sue Ann Hamm" Jeff Landers, Sep. 22, 2014

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