December 19, 2016 § 1 Comment
Three things are fundamental when it comes to equitable distribution:
- It’s incumbent on the chancellor to determine the fair market value of the assets before determining division; and
- It’s up to the parties to offer evidence of the values; and
- It’s up to the chancellor to determine the weight and credibility of the evidence.
When Chad and Catherine Potts showed up in court for their divorce in 2015, one item at issue was equitable division of the former marital residence and 40 acres of land. There was no dispute that the property was marital. Catherine presented a 2011 appraisal that valued the property at $138,000, and Chad offered an eight-month-old 2014 appraisal placing the value at $86,000. After quizzing Chad over the discrepancy between the two valuations, the chancellor averaged the two and determined the value to be $112,000.
Dissatisfied, Chad appealed, contending that the judge should have adopted his more recent value. On November 22, 2016, in Potts v. Potts, the COA affirmed. Judge Irving wrote for the unanimous court:
¶8. “Property division should be based upon a determination of fair market value of the assets, and these valuations should be the initial step before determining division.” Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 929 (Miss. 1994). Pursuant to Ferguson, Chad argues that the chancellor should have relied solely on the appraisal he submitted to the court because it was more recent and, therefore, a more accurate determination of the fair market value of the property at the time of the divorce. He asserts that the chancellor erred by applying an average of both appraisals that were submitted to the court rather than simply applying the most current appraised market value of the property.
¶9. Catherine responds that the chancellor was not in error in determining the value of the marital home and land by averaging the appraisals submitted by the parties. She argues that Chad’s appraisal showed a $52,000 reduction in the fair market value of the property, and no evidence was presented to the court explaining the reduction in value. In addition, she argues that the overall award in the case was fair, reasonable, and equitable.
¶10. “A chancellor is responsible for determining the fair market value of the marital assets.” McKnight v. McKnight, 951 So. 2d 594, 596 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). It appears that the chancellor found it disturbing that the property had lost a considerable amount of its value and he attempted to obtain an explanation to assist in the determination of the property’s fair market value. The chancellor addressed this issue during the proceedings with Chad as follows:
Chancellor: Property values are about the same now as they were three or four years ago?
Chad: Yes, sir.
* * * *
Chancellor: Have you taken away a lot of the improvements to the property in the past few years?
Chad: Taken away? What do you mean?
Chancellor: Are they gone from what they were from, say, 2009 until 2014? Have a bunch of the improvements been gone?
Chad: No, I haven’t.
Chancellor: Are they deteriorated very much, or have you kept them up pretty well?
Chad: Yes, sir, I have.
¶11. There was no evidence offered to support the reduction in value as both appraisals were conducted by the same entity. In addition, Chad testified that the property values were about the same as they were at the time of Catherine’s appraisal, that no improvements had been removed, and that the property had not deteriorated. “To the extent that the evidence on which [a] chancellor base[s] his opinion [is] less informative than it could have been, we lay that at the feet of the litigants and not the chancellor.” Williams v. Williams, 129 So. 3d 233, 241 (¶31) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citation omitted). Chad failed to give a reasonable explanation for the diminishment in the value of the property from 2011 to 2014, even though property values generally had remained steady. The appraisals were the only evidence submitted to the chancellor to determine the value of the property. As stated, there was a considerable difference in the value arrived at by the two appraisals with no apparent explanation for the difference. The chancellor split the difference, as in his discretion he was permitted to do, to arrive at a reasonable value. McKnight, 951 So. 2d at 596 (¶7). After reviewing the record, we find nothing to suggest that the chancellor abused his discretion. This issue is without merit.
The chancellor actually did Chad a favor by giving him the opportunity to explain why his value of the property had decreased as much as he claimed in the period between the two appraisals. As you can see, Chad didn’t do much to help his cause. By the way, MRE 614 specifically allows the judge to examine any witnesses, and even to call witnesses herself. In this case, I think the appellate result would have been exactly the same whether or not the judge asked any questions.
It’s ingrained in our law that the chancellor may average values when presented with competing valuations. If you want to have a basis to challenge averaging, you have to put some evidence in the record as to why your client’s valuation is the more credible. For instance, had Chad called one or both of the appraisers to testify, that may have produced a different result. In the absence of that testimony, he may perhaps have been able to explain some deterioration of the property or some other factor affecting value negatively. Absence of that kind of proof left a vacuum which the chancellor filled with an average. And it deprived Chad of much to argue on appeal.
November 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
I’ve whined here before about inadequate proof of values in equitable didtsribution cases and the burden it places on the trial judge. I won’t repeat my plaints here.
The latest case where a chancellor had to make a decision with far-less-than-precise proof of values is Williams v. Williams, decided by the COA on October 5, 2013.
Phillip and Gail Williams were before the court in a divorce where the main matter in dispute was equitable distribution. Neither party produced an appraisal of a residence and real property in Alabama. Instead …
- Phillip introduced a document styled “An Acknowledgment of Lease Purchase Agreement” by which Phillip purported to sell the property to a purchaser for installment payments of $325 a month until he could “obtain a loan to pay off the balance of $40,000 … less the $325 a month without interest …” The document was filed among the land records in Alabama. In his testimony, Phillip stated that the purchaser would, indeed, be paying more than $50,000 for the property.
- Gail introduced a tax receipt showing that the property was valued for tax purposes at $61,100, with $43,900 attributed to the house, and the remainder to the underlying property.
Also included in the adjudication were the parties’ householdd goods, yard equipment, and tools, the values of which were in dispute between the parties, and for which there was no appraisal. Each party accused the other of undervaluing the items that he or she would keep, while overvaluing the items that the other would receive.
The chancellor averaged Phillip’s claimed $40,000 value with Gail’s tax receipt value of $61,110, and adjudged the value of the Alabama property at $50,550. She also averaged the parties’ valuations of the personalty.
Phillip appealed, complaining that the chancellor was in error in averaging the values.
Judge Fair, for the COA, addressed the issue this way:
¶31. In McKnight v. McKnight, 951 So. 2d 594 (Miss. App. Ct. 2007), we held that the averaging of proposed appraisals was allowed in valuation of marital realty. Even more recently we held chancellors are required only to do the best they can with what is introduced into evidence before them:
[T]he chancellor cannot be blamed for the failure of the parties to present evidence of valuation. Faced with similar circumstances, this Court held as follows in Dunaway v. Dunaway, 749 So. 2d 1112, 1121 (¶28) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999):
[T]he 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.
It was not the chancellor’s duty to obtain appraisals of the marital property. Willie cannot now complain that the chancellor’s valuations are unfair when no reliable evidence of the value of the property was presented at trial. This issue is without merit. Common v. Common, 42 So. 3d 59, 63 (¶¶12-13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010).
¶32. We find the chancellor’s averaging of valuations provided on Rule 8.05 forms submitted in the record and discussed on the record an acceptable course of action and within her discretion.
¶33. Overall, we find Phillip’s objections to the characterization, valuation, and division of marital property to be based on the evidence and within her discretion under Hemsley, Ferguson, and their progeny.
I get it that in some cases the cost of obtaining appraisals can seem disproportionate to the advantage to be gained. And there are some cases where one side, if not both, would prefer for the proof to be fuzzy in hopes that the chancellor will fall their particular way.
When you leave it up to the trial judge to resolve inconclusive or incomplete evidence, you get what you get. As long as the chancellor “explored the available proof and arrived at the best conclusions that he could,” and did not otherwise abused discretion, you will be stuck with the results.