The Value of Valuation

June 11, 2020 § Leave a comment

In the divorce case between Missy and Randy Norwood, the only evidence in the record of property values was in the form of the parties’ 8.05 financial statements. This despite the fact that the property in dispute for equitable division included 129 acres of land with poultry houses, a residence with 3.37 acres and the poultry business. Missy’s financial statement assigned a gross value of $1,148,000, and Randy’s total was $840,000. There was debt. The chancellor sorted through it as best he could, assigned values, and divided the estate. Unhappy with the division, Missy appealed.

The COA affirmed in Norwood v. Norwood, decided May 12, 2020. Judge McCarty wrote the 5-4 majority opinion:

¶11. “It is within the chancery court’s authority to make an equitable division of all jointly acquired real and personal property.” Martin v. Martin, 282 So. 3d 703, 706 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2019) (quoting Bullock v. Bullock, 699 So. 2d 1205, 1210-11 (¶24) (Miss. 1997)). “This Court reviews a chancery court’s division of marital assets for an abuse of discretion.” Id. “We will not reverse a chancery court’s distribution of assets absent a finding that the decision was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or an erroneous legal standard was applied.” Id.

¶12. “Our Supreme Court has held that the foundational step to make an equitable distribution of marital assets is to determine the value of those assets.” Id. at (¶8) (internal quotation mark omitted). From there the chancery court must equitably divide the marital property according to the factors first articulated in Ferguson. Id. at 706-07 (¶8). [Fn omitted]

¶13. Now on appeal, Missy claims error in the chancery court’s valuation of the marital assets. However, the chancery court relied upon the evidence provided by the parties in valuation and distribution. The general rule is that “[i]t is incumbent upon the parties, not the chancery court, to prepare the evidence needed to clearly make a valuation judgment.” Id. at 707 (¶10). In Martin, the wife had complained that the husband received more than her after the chancery court’s distribution of assets. Id. at 706 (¶6). Yet, “[d]espite numerous requests from the chancery court, neither party provided the court with a single valuation of the assets at issue,” “[t]here was no testimony of the market value of the real property,” and “[a]ppraisals were never conducted.” Id. at 707 (¶9).

¶14. In light of the general rule, we affirmed the court’s decision regarding property distribution. Id. at (¶13). For “[w]here a party fails to provide accurate information, or cooperate in the valuation of assets, the chancery court is entitled to proceed on the best information available.” Id. at (¶10); see also Messer v. Messer, 850 So. 2d 161, 170 (¶43) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003) (“This Court has held that when a [chancery court] makes a valuation judgment based on proof that is less than ideal, it will be upheld as long as there is some evidence to support [its] conclusion.”).

¶15. In this case, the chancery court considered all of the evidence before it—both parties’ Rule 8.05 financial statements and their in-trial testimony. It is clear that more and better proof would have been helpful to the chancery court. But the fact that there was little proof does not automatically warrant a reversal of the chancery court’s determination of this issue. As we declared nearly two decades ago, “[t]o the extent that further evidence would have aided the chancellor in these decisions, the fault lies with the parties and not the chancellor.” Ward v. Ward, 825 So. 2d 713, 719 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002).

¶16. The dissent cites Mace v. Mace, 818 So. 2d 1130, 1133-34 (¶¶13-14) (Miss. 2002), to suggest we should remand due to the lack of an expert’s valuation of the marital property. In that case, the Mississippi Supreme Court reviewed the valuation of a medical practice, which the trial court had assessed at $374,000, including the value of the building and equipment. Id. at 1133 (¶13). Because of the complexity of the issues, and because “it [was] abundantly clear from the testimony that the valuation of the practice was unreliable,” the Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a more comprehensive valuation. Id. at 1134 (¶¶15-16).

¶17. However, Mace did not create a requirement that only an expert can conduct a property valuation before an equitable division can be determined. Parties may choose not to hire an expert or not have the resources to do so. Unlike the complex proof needed in Mace, this is not a case that requires clarification on remand. The chancery court was not impeded in this matter because of the proof presented at trial. The chancery court found that “Randy’s 8.05 Financial Statement shows minimal income from the poultry operations” and that both Randy and Missy agreed the expenses he listed from the poultry farm were accurate. There is no reason to re-try this case when there is “minimal income” and the expenses were not in dispute.

¶18. Because it is the parties’ duty, and not the chancellor’s, to prepare and submit evidence for a valuation judgment, we find no abuse of discretion. It is clear that the chancery court’s decision was based upon the proof mustered by the parties at trial. It was the parties’ decision at trial to present slim proof. That choice will not result in reversal on appeal. This decision is affirmed.

As the court points out in ¶17, there are legitimate reasons why parties may choose not to have property appraised by a professional. Cost most certainly can be a factor. The parties may simply choose to leave it up to the chancellor to decide, although that is usually a crap shoot.

You can use requests for admission to help nail down values.

Just remember that the less precise your proof the more the matter falls within the chancellor’s discretion and judgment. And if there’s any proof at all in the record to support her findings, your chances of getting her reversed are practically nil.

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