From the November 2006 issue of Entrepreneur
Life has a way of intruding on our plans. Employees bear children, nurse dying parents and battle their own illnesses. What happens when they want to take several months off? If your business has 50 employees or more, those who've worked for you for at least 12 months, with 1,250 hours of service during that time, have a right under the Family and Medical Leave Act to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and return to the same job or a comparable one.

But what if you're not subject to the FMLA? The law doesn't require your small business to grant extensive leaves. Still, you want to help out someone facing trouble--and a good employee's particular abilities can be very hard to replace. You could grant the leave and make do by hiring temporary help or dividing responsibilities among other employees. It can be hard on those left carrying the load or struggling with an inadequate temp, but it may be well worth it when your valuable employee returns.

Beware of open-ended arrangements, where the leave drags on while things at work fall apart. Agree with your employee on a reasonable estimate of time off, which could be extended if necessary. Get your agreement in writing, even if it's just a memo. And it's best to check with your lawyer to make sure you didn't miss something important.

Jane Easter Bahlsis a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.