Whose Values Count?

March 25, 2019 § Leave a comment

In the course of their divorce proceedings, the chancellor twice requested both Tracy and Brent Williams to submit a list of assets, values, and debts. When they came to trial, only Brent did so, and Tracy even listed the value of her business, a daycare, as unknown. The chancellor used Brent’s figures upon which to base equitable distribution. Tracy appealed, arguing that the chancellor erred in not appointing appraisers, even though she never made that request of the trial court. She argued that the valuations were not accurate due to depreciation.

The MSSC affirmed in Williams v. Williams, decided January 17, 2019. Justice Beam wrote for a unanimous court:

¶19. While we note that “expert testimony may be essential to establish valuation sufficient to equitably divide property, particularly when the assets are diverse . . . ,” Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 929 (Miss. 1994), we also recognize and “reiterate the principle that findings on valuation do not require expert testimony and may be accomplished by adopting the values cited in the parties’ 8.05 financial disclosures, in the testimony, or in other evidence.” Horn v. Horn, 909 So. 2d 1151, 1165 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (quoting Ward v. Ward, 825 So. 2d 713, 719 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002)).

¶20. Here, the record reflects that only Brent attempted to provide the chancellor with evidence regarding the valuations of the parties’ business interests, and the chancellor used those valuations as reflected in her opinion. Tracy’s argument that the chancellor committed reversible error by not appointing experts to appraise the current valuations due to depreciation is without merit. This Court refuses to blame the chancellor for a party’s failure to present sufficient evidence of property valuation. Faced with similar circumstances, we stated the following in Dunaway v. Dunaway:

It is our conclusion that the chancellor, faced with proof from both parties that was something less than ideal, made valuation judgments that find some evidentiary support in the record. To the extent that the evidence on which the chancellor based his opinion was less informative than it could have been, we lay that at the feet of the litigants and not the chancellor. The chancellor appears to have fully explored the available proof and arrived at the best conclusions that he could, and we can discover no abuse of discretion in those
efforts that would require us to reverse his valuation determinations. Dunaway v. Dunaway, 749 So. 2d 1112, 1121 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999). As explained in Dunaway, the chancellor’s duty is not to obtain appraisals of the marital property. Id. Further, the Dunaway court found that, while expert testimony about property valuations might be helpful in some cases, it is not required, and the chancellor may consider other
evidence presented by the parties. Id.

¶21. Tracy did not come forth with expert testimony or any other valuations of the businesses; therefore, the chancellor used the available proof, including Brent’s valuations, and arrived at the best conclusion that she could. Accordingly, this Court finds the chancellor did not err in the valuation of the Williams’s business interests.

I’ve said it here before that it’s often breathtaking how little attention lawyers give to adequate proof of values in divorce cases. That forces judges to do their dead-level best with scanty evidence. It can leave your clients disappointed in the outcome at the least, and mad as a hornet at you at the worst.

It’s malpractice in a divorce case to merely accept your client’s 8.05 as scribbled out by her without going over it and questioning every item, or at least the ones that appear out of line, and without making sure it is complete, with values and itemization of debt.

In this district, as the judge in this case did, we require an asset table showing the parties’ values, designation as marital or non, and debt. The list must be consolidated, meaning that there is one list. That way the judge is not required to figure out whether the “green sofa, $600” on her list is the same as the “couch in living room, $2,000” on his list are the same thing. We also will not give you a trial setting unless and until you produce that list. In cases where one party decides not to participate in that exercise, we accept the unilateral list and proceed to trial.

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