How to Manage Half-Siblings in a Family Business

How to Manage Half-Siblings in a Family Business

Some people grow up with the simplicity of father, mother, brother and sister. Many people, however are a part of families that are far more interesting and complicated than that. So when it comes to family businesses, often room has to be made for complicated family trees which may involve children from a previous marriage, offspring from an extra-marital affair, adopted children, or some other form of 'half sibling'. More family members can be an asset to a family business, but work obviously has to be done on the family relationships if the family business relationships are to function well - something that is integral to the success of any family business.

Christophe Bernard

Partner, Global Head of Family Business

KPMG in France


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Managing difficult relationships

Sibling rivalry is often a very real problem even in ‘regular’ families, so understandably competitiveness and jealousies can sometimes become especially heated between adopted, half- and stepsiblings. The children of a family business owner’s ex-wife, for example, may feel left out, the children with the new wife having more of an ‘in’ in the family business. The permutations of the family setup are numerous, but the insecurities and jealousies aroused are fairly universal.

Ideally the patriarch (or matriarch, as the case may be) recognises the potential for conflict and works hard to develop good relationships with all children and encourages and facilitates them to do so with each other. He or she should have candid conversations about what each child wants and expects from the family business, and there should be an openness amongst the family about the roles and prospects of each. 

When the family business leader does not however take the lead, the onus may fall on the siblings to instigate the bridging of divides themselves, even if just with the view of developing amicable relationships that will safeguard the future of the family business.

Legal standing of extra-marital children

In days gone by, the children born to a family patriarch outside of marriage were considered illegitimate and so were denied legal rights, like that of inheriting any part of their father’s estate. Nowadays, many countries recognise such treatment as being unconstitutional or an infringement of human rights. Consequently extra-marital children do indeed have inheritance and other rights, and any inheritance claims – provided paternity can be proven by DNA evidence, for example – will be awarded by the courts.

When incorrectly handled, the dividing of an estate or family assets can get acrimonious under such circumstances – and it could well negatively impact the future success and sustainability of the family business. It is much better, for everyone’s sake, to avoid potential lengthy legal battles by bringing such children into the fold early on, integrating them into the family, and accommodating them properly in succession planning. Make use of an impartial, objective mediator if need be.

Children in a blended family

As societal conventions have become more fluid, we see the rise to prominence of the so-called blended family – where children from previous relationships and those from the current relationship come together in one family unit. If you’re a family business owner with a blended family, you may be concerned about how, in the future, you will be able accommodate all the children in your business.

To mitigate drama and in-fighting down the line, or when you are no longer around, it’s in the best interests of both the family and the family business to ensure that the family unit is a cohesive and strong one. You can endeavour to promote harmony between siblings, step-siblings and half-siblings by:

  • Getting to know each child individually – take note how their individual strengths, skills and talents may be of use in the business
  • Finding ways to encourage discussion between siblings and half-siblings about the roles they would like to or expect to play in the business 
  • Discouraging a sense of entitlement – insist that everyone exercise humility and treat each other with respect
  • Stressing that manipulative behaviours to gain favour or the laying down of ultimatums will not be tolerated
  • Rewarding good effort equally and not favouring any particular child
  • Recognising that family business is affected by family dynamics. Create a platform – like a family assembly – where grievances can be aired and resolved.

Meeting a half-sibling half-way

If you're part of a family business and you have an adopted, step- or half-sibling, what do you do (if anything)? We suggest you:

  • Recognise the situation for what it is and work through any negative emotions you might have, with a therapist if necessary.
  • Recognise that your half-sibling does have certain legal rights and that fighting a lengthy court battle can be costly and emotionally futile.
  • Change your attitude towards the relationship by dispensing with the word 'half', 'adopted' or 'step' when you talk about your relationship – the words maintain a divide that isn’t generally helpful. Recognise that, in many cultures around the world, half-siblings are considered full siblings and are treated as such.
  • Whilst you don't need to be best friends, develop a relationship with that sibling – they may have qualities from which the business will benefit!
  • Discover how you can work together, not against each other – a family business mediator may be helpful in facilitating these discussions if you don’t yet feel comfortable with it.

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