Valuation in the Face of Insubstantial Proof

July 29, 2019 § Leave a comment

There is plenty of case law holding that the chancellor may rely on the parties’ evidence submitted at trial to value marital assets and make equitable distribution, even when that evidence is less than substantial. I posted on the subject here and here, and in other posts.

That precedent did not persuade the COA, however, in Mark Chism’s appeal from the chancellor’s ruling in the divorce case he filed against his wife, Landaria. In Chism v. Chism, decided June 4, 2019, the COA reversed and remanded the chancellor’s decision that adopted Landaria’s valuation of the parties’ jointly-owned chicken-wing business. Chief Judge Barnes penned the court’s opinion:

¶20. Mark argues that the chancellor erred in accepting Landaria’s valuation of the couple’s business without sufficient proof and therefore led to an inequitable division of the marital property. Thus, Mark claims the entire financial award must be reversed and remanded.

¶21. To resolve property division, the chancellor must: “(1) classify the parties’ assets as marital or separate, (2) value those assets, and (3) divide the marital assets equitably.” Burnham v. Burnham, 185 So. 3d 358, 361 (¶12) (Miss. 2015). Equitable division of property is governed by the factors articulated in Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 929 (Miss. 1994). The third Ferguson factor asks the chancellor to consider “[t]he market value . . . of the assets subject to distribution.” Ferguson, 639 So. 3d at 929. Three methods of valuation may be used to determine the market value of a business for this purpose: “(1) an asset-based approach, in which assets and liabilities are evaluated, (2) a market-based approach, in which the market is surveyed for similar sales, or (3) an income-based approach, in which a value is placed on earning potential.” Lacoste v. Lacoste, 197 So. 3d 897, 907 (¶34) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (citing Singley v. Singley, 846 So. 2d 1004, 1011 (¶18) (Miss. 2002)).

Regardless of what method an expert might choose to arrive at the value of a business, the bottom line is one must arrive at the “fair market value” or that price at which property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller when the former is not under any compulsion to buy and the latter is not under any compulsion to sell, both parties having reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts.

Id.

¶22. The chancellor found the total value of all marital property, including the business, was $1,176,598. Landaria was awarded fifty-percent of that value. Taking into account the Ferguson factors and distribution of other marital property, Landaria was ultimately awarded $521,299. Mark does not dispute that the chicken-wing business was a marital asset. However, he maintains that because the business was the couple’s main asset and source of income, a more specific business evaluation was necessary for an equitable distribution of marital property.

¶23. The chancellor found that the parties owned Memphis Best Wings. Although Mark had operated another chicken-wing business prior to the marriage, he started this new business jointly with Landaria during the marriage, and both parties contributed. In fact, Landaria quit her job as a teacher to work at the restaurant as a paid employee. However, not surprisingly, she was dismissed upon the parties’ separation. These facts are uncontested. The chancellor found the business’s value was $1,000,000 according to Landaria’s unsupported testimony and Rule 8.05 estimate. No details of how she arrived at this valuation were provided, and Mark did not even list the business on his Rule 8.05 form. The chancellor found that the business had “grown into a very substantial and profitable” one. He stated the $1,000,000 figure “has not been disputed” by Mark, who did not rebut this estimate at trial or offer his own estimate. Yet, there was no testimony from Landaria about how she arrived at that value for the business. Landaria even admitted, when asked by the chancellor, that her stated value was “just [her] estimate.” However, Mark’s 2014–2016 tax returns, provided during discovery, were admitted into evidence and included his profit and loss income statements. These evidence net profits of $60,291; $48,543; and $63,516, respectively, which does not appear to support a $1,000,000 valuation. [Fn omitted] During his examination of Mark, Landaria’s counsel tried to show that Mark was “keep[ing] the cash out of the business [account].” A photograph was entered into evidence showing Mark and his sister sitting at a table with a pile of cash on it, but none of these bills appear to be large ones. Statements showed that Mark made few cash deposits to the bank each month, but he maintained that he bought supplies and paid bills with the cash and did not keep it for personal use. Additionally, the chancellor speculated that the couple was not reporting all of their cash earnings from the business but using this money to fund their extravagant lifestyle.

¶24. In Mark’s post-trial motion to reconsider, he argued the chancellor erred by appointing a business-valuation expert, and Mark moved to designate Robert Vance as such an expert. Vance submitted a valuation report which came to the conclusion that Memphis Best Wings had a fair market value of $1,898 as a going-concern entity, excluding goodwill. Vance used the asset-based approach for his valuation, claiming that the market-based approach and the income-based approach are inappropriate because they imply the existence of goodwill in the value of a business, which is prohibited under Mississippi law, citing Lacoste and Singley v. Singley, 846 So. 2d 1004, 1011 (¶18) (Miss. 2002). Landaria moved to strike the expert’s testimony and opinion because discovery had been completed for well over a year. Mark moved to proffer it, and a hearing was held on the matter. Although the chancellor denied Mark’s motion to reconsider, he allowed the expert’s proffered testimony and business valuation report, dated April 3, 2018, for identification purposes.

¶25. This Court and the Mississippi Supreme Court have reversed the chancellor when evidence on the valuation of the business in property distribution was insufficient. In Lacoste, this Court reversed and remanded a business valuation which the chancellor based on the previous year’s profit/loss statement. Lacoste, 197 So. 3d at 908 (¶38). Like here, the business was considered the couple’s main asset and source of income. Id. at 907 (¶34). However, the parties failed to present sufficient evidence to value the business by the approach the chancellor deemed best (the income-based approach). Id. at 908 (¶37). While we found “the chancellor did the best she could with the evidence presented,” this Court nonetheless found it necessary to reverse because of lack of support for the valuation. Id. at 909 (¶42). In Mace v. Mace, 818 So. 2d 1130, 1133 (¶¶13, 16) (Miss. 2002), the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the chancellor on the value placed upon a husband’s medical practice which was a marital asset. The value of $144,000 was determined solely by the husband’s testimony, did not appear to be based upon any reliable method, and it was unclear what physical assets were included in the valuation. Id. at 1134 (¶15).

¶26. Moreover, this Court, following the Mississippi Supreme Court’s directions, has stated that “the foundational step to make an equitable distribution of marital assets is to determine the value of those assets based on competent proof.” Dunaway v. Dunaway, 749 So. 2d 1112, 1118 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) (citing Ferguson, 639 So. 2d at 929). As stated earlier, the chancellor must determine the “fair market value” of the business, using one of the three approaches: an asset-based approach, a market-based approach, or an income-based approach. Lacoste, 197 So. 3d at 908 (¶34) (quoting Singley, 846 So. 2d at 1011 (¶18)).

¶27. Not all approaches will be applicable for all businesses. For example, in Lacoste, the chancellor found an asset-based approach was inapplicable because the business had few assets, owned little equipment, and had no employees or training facility. Lacoste, 197 So. 3d at 908 (¶36). The market-based approach was also ruled out as no comparable business sales were introduced, and the business’s success was largely due to the reputation of the owner and marketing. Id. The chancellor, therefore, considered only the income-based approach as appropriate. Id. at (¶37). We found, however, that given the drastic income fluctuations and possibility that income “may be intertwined with goodwill, as the business hinge[d] on [the husband’s] reputation and personal efforts,” the case had to be remanded for further evaluation. Id. at 910 (¶45).

¶28. Here, the chancellor was unable to adopt any of the three approaches as none were presented to him. Landaria offered only an unsupported estimate on her 8.05 form and testimony. Mark did not provide any value for the business on his Rule 8.05 form or give any testimony as to its value. As established in Lacoste and Mace, the chancellor should require that the parties utilize a reliable method of valuation and support it with adequate proof, or prove valuation through expert testimony. See Lacoste, 197 So. 3d at 910 (¶46); Mace, 818 So. 2d at 1134 (¶15). If they fail to offer such proof, the chancellor may appoint an independent valuation expert. Id. Accordingly, we reverse the chancellor’s $1,000,000 valuation of Memphis Best Wings and remand for further proceedings.

What this portion of the opinion omits is that Mark failed, refused and neglected to provide financial proof sufficient to value the business, and was even jailed for contempt for non-cooperation in discovery. He went through a succession of lawyers. It seems to me that he had his chance to offer proof of the value of of his business, but he chose to play cat-and-mouse games with Ladaria and the court. Unfortunately, those shabby tactics served him well on appeal. He actually benefitted from his evasion of discovery by getting a second bite at the apple.

Contrast the court’s treatment of Mark’s coyness with values and the suggestion that the trial judge should appoint an expert with this language from Kimble v. Kimble, a COA case decided only 14 days after Chism:

¶8. “[T]he foundational step to make an equitable distribution of marital assets is to determine the value of those assets based on competent proof.” Dunaway v. Dunaway, 749 So. 2d 1112, 1118 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) (citing Ferguson, 639 So. 2d at 929). “[I]t is incumbent upon the parties, and not the chancellor, to prepare evidence touching on matters pertinent to the issues to be tried.” Benton v. Benton, 239 So. 3d 545, 548 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). When “a party fails to provide accurate information, or cooperate in the valuation of assets, the chancellor is entitled to proceed on the best information available.” Id. The chancellor possesses sole authority to assess both the credibility and weight of witness testimony. Culumber v. Culumber, 261 So. 3d 1142, 1150 (¶24) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). [My emphasis]

Admittedly, Kimble involved valuation of vehicles, not a business, but sometimes it’s difficult here at grass-roots level to figure out where we are supposed to draw the line. I posted about Kimble here.

How Much is Valuation Worth?

February 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

Valuation, valuation, valuation. It’s a subject I’ve talked about here often. I started to link some of my posts on the subject, but, instead, let me simply ask that you enter the word “valuation” above in the Search box and see for yourself the plethora of posts that pop up.

Most of the cases on which I have commented went up on a complaint by the disappointed party that the chancellor didn’t value assets correctly, or didn’t give proper weight to evidence presented, or whatever. The overwhelming number of cases decided on appeal say the same thing: the trial judge will do the best she can do with what evidence you present, so you’d better make a decent record.

The latest version of this old, sad tale comes to us courtesy of Mr. Timothy Benton, who appealed from a judgment assessing him with alimony and child support that he says are not supported by the evidence.

Tim and his wife, Beth were married in 2000. Tim was owner of two businesses, Tim Benton Tree Service and Benton Green, LLC, the income from which supported the family. Beth helped in the businesses from time to time, but she primarily cared for the parties’ four children.

Tim and Beth separated in 2013, and Beth filed for divorce in November, 2014, on the grounds of desertion, HCIT, and ID.

Following a temporary hearing on January 12, 2015, which both parties attended, Beth was awarded custody and Tim was ordered to pay her temporary child support of $3,500 and temporary alimony of $1,500. Because neither party could produce their tax returns at the hearing, the court reset the matter for February 18, 2015, with directions to produce them then. In addition, the judge directed Tim to produce any business financial records showing his income and operating expenses. When Tim appeared on the February date, he failed to produce the records, and the court continued the matter to April 6, 2015, with the same directions.

On April 6, 2015, Tim appeared yet again without financial records as directed. His attorney withdrew from representation.

The case proceeded to trial. Beth produced an 8.05 financial statement and some bank statements. Tim had neither 8.05 nor any financial records. The judge based her findings on the meager evidence presented, concluding that Tim had more than $17,000 a month in income. She ordered him to pay $2,500 a month in child support, plus all of the expenses and tuition of private schooling and all medical expenses of the children. The chancellor also ordered Tim to pay $6,000 per month in alimony and granted other financial relief.

Tim lawyered up and filed a R59 motion claiming that he had been unable adequately to represent himself at trial and needed a new trial to present CPA evidence.

Not surprisingly, the chancellor denied the motion, stating that, ” … the burden lied at the feet of the litigants to provide the Court with sufficient evidence in which to value the marital assets … during the course of the litigation [Tim] was afforded ample opportunity and time on multiple occasions to provide supplemental evidence, which he did not do.”

Tim appealed.

In Benton v. Benton, decided January 23, 2018, the COA affirmed. On the issue of the valuation used by the chancellor, Judge Irving wrote:

¶10. Tim argues that the chancery court erred in failing to value all material marital assets, including Benton Tree Services, and in rendering decisions of alimony and child-support awards accordingly. In response, Beth argues that the court properly distributed the marital assets in light of the fact that Tim refused to comply with the court’s orders to produce financial records. Thus, Beth maintains that the court’s subsequent alimony and child support awards were proper.

¶11. The Mississippi Supreme Court has stated that “the foundational step to make an equitable distribution of marital assets is to determine the value of those assets based on competent proof.” Dunaway v. Dunaway, 749 So. 2d 1112, 1118 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) (citing Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 929 (Miss. 1994)). “Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the parties, and not the chancellor, to prepare evidence touching on matters pertinent to the issues to be tried.” Id. “Where a party fails to provide accurate information, or cooperate in the valuation of assets, the chancellor is entitled to proceed on the best information available.” Stribling v. Stribling, 906 So. 2d 863, 870 (¶25) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) citation omitted).

¶12. Here, it is undisputed that the chancellor did not value Tim’s businesses. However, we refuse to hold her in error because of a party’s failure to cooperate in providing the necessary documents for proper valuation, and we reiterate the applicable caselaw set forth by the chancery court in its order denying Tim’s motion for a new trial. See Jenkins v. Jenkins, 67 So. 3d 5, 13 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (declining to find a chancellor in error for failing to conduct a marital-property valuation where the parties failed to provide the relevant evidence); Common v. Common, 42 So. 3d 59, 63 (¶¶12-13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (holding that a chancellor was not in error for valuing marital assets solely from the parties’ 8.05 financial statements, because the parties failed to provide the necessary evidence, and further holding that the former husband could not “now complain that the chancellor’s valuations [were] unfair when no reliable evidence of the value of the property was presented at trial”); Dunaway, 749 So. 2d at 1121 (¶28) (holding that, “[f]aced with proof that was far less than ideal, the chancellor made a valuation of the marital estate that finds some support in the record,” and refusing to hold a chancellor in error due to the former husband’s failure to produce evidence). It is this Court’s opinion that the chancellor did the best she could with the little information presented to her, and that she did not abuse her discretion. Accordingly, we affirm.

Not much to add, except this:

  • It is always a losing, self-destructive strategy to play cat-and-mouse games with financial proof, withholding all or some. The chancellor’s attitude and reaction in this case is about what one should expect in the face of repeated failure to present financial records, especially after having been ordered by the court to do so.
  • Forgive me for repeating what I often have said here: it is up to you to make a record of financial values. It’s not the judge’s job. Don’t expect your opponent to do it for you. It’s “at the feet of the litigants,” as the learned chancellor so eloquently put it.

ANOTHER NAIL IN THE GOODWILL COFFIN

February 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

“Goodwill” is the term used in accounting to describe the “prudent value” of a business over and above that attributable to the value of its assets, such as its reputation with customers and the value of its brand.  An example would be the value that Coca Cola’s planet-wide brand recognition adds to the company’s value over and above the value of its assets. 

Ever since the landmark decision in Singley v. Singley, 846 So.2d 1004 (Miss. 2002), in which the supreme court reversed the court of appeals and held that goodwill is not to be considered in business valuations for divorce, the courts have wrestled with the breadth of that decision.  Singley, which involved a dental practice (in Meridian), accurately reflects the way professional practices are valued by valuation experts, who consider that the value of a professional practice depends heavily on the participation in it of its principal, so that it has no goodwill.  The question lingered, however, as to how the court would apply the no-goodwill concept in other business valuations.

It is beyond the scope of this post to analyze Singley’s progeny, the most notable of which are Watson v. Watson, 882 So.2d 95 (Miss. 2004), and Yelverton v. Yelverton, 961 So.2d 19 (Miss. 2007).  If you’re going to handle any divorce cases involving a busines, you will have to acquaint yourself with those decisions.

This post address the latest pronouncement on goodwill, which comes in the case of Lewis v. Lewis, handed down by the supreme court on February 3, 2011.    

Lewis, which was before the court on certiorari from the court of appeals, involved valuation of a business enterprise jointly owned by the divorcing husband and wife to develop residential real estate.  The court of appeals had reversed and remanded for the chancellor to correct errors in the valuation of the business.  On cert, the supreme court, by Justice Randolph, upheld the court of appeals’ reversal and remand in part, but reversed the court of appeals to add that the trial court was precluded from considering goodwill in its analysis of the valuation.  

In a cogent dissent, Justice Kitchens pointed out that Singley and the cases following it had correctly appled the exclusion of goodwill to the professional practices involved in those cases.  The business in Lewis, however, was not a professional practice.  Kitchens urged the court to recognize that Singley should be limited to solo professional practices or businesses that are closely analogous. 

Justice Randolph referred sympathetically to Justice Kitchens’ dissent, pointing out that he had raised similar concerns in his own dissent in Watson to no avail.  He pointed out that, if Singley lacked clarity on the point, the court’s decisions in Watson and Yelverton laid aside any doubt, and that goodwill is not to be considered.  He went on to say that “Stare decisis demands this result.”  Waller, Carlson and Graves joined Randolph in the opinion.  Lamar and Chandler concurred.  Only Kitchens dissented.  Pierce did not participate.    

Our appellate courts have not been presented with a business valuation involving nationally or even regionally recognized business entities based in Mississippi on a par with companies such as Viking, or Mississippi Chemical, or Structural Steel or Yates Construction.  In such a case, it would be difficult to understand how the court could overlook “enterprise goodwill” as opposed to the “personal goodwill” in the precedent to this point.  Yet our case law now is that any form of goodwill is to be ignored in valuing businesses in divorces.

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