January 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
The valuation date for equitable distribution is important to establish, as we have discussed before, here and here, among others. Asset values can fluctuate, significantly affecting the landscape of equitable division.
We’ve also discussed the MSSC holding that the date of the temporary judgement does not necessarily impose a demarcation date for valuation. That date is left to the sound discretion of the chancellor based on the evidence in the record.
The two principles arose together in the COA case of Stout v. Stout, decided December 10, 2013. In that case, Henry and Tracey Stout were before the chancellor on a consent, leaving equitable distribution for the judge’s adjudication. A temporary order had been entered in 2009, and the divorce trial was not held until 2012. In 2009, the marital home’s value was around $30,000 more than its value at the time of the final hearing. The chancellor elected to use the 2012 value, which caused Tracey to receive a smaller share of assets, resulting in an award of alimony.
Henry appealed, complaining that it was error for the chancellor to use the trial-date value as opposed to the temporary-order-date value. He also argued that it was error for the chancellor to use different valuation dates for different assets. Judge Roberts wrote for the majority:
¶15. First, Henry claims that the chancellor improperly valued the marital home at its 2012 value as opposed to its value in 2009 when the temporary order was entered. He claims that due to the incorrect valuation, Tracey received a lower value of assets making it more likely that alimony would be necessary. Two appraisals were done on the home: the 2009 appraisal valued the home at $132,000; the 2012 appraisal valued the home at $105,000. The chancellor used the latter value when assessing the home’s value to Tracey. Henry admits that the chancellor had the discretion to set the dates for valuation of assets, and he cites to no other authority for his proposition that the chancellor is required to use the same date for valuation of all property. In using the 2012 value, the chancellor specifically noted that the house had significantly depreciated, that Tracey had been responsible for the mortgage payments since the separation, and that Henry had abandoned the house. The supreme court has stated that “the chancellor enjoys broad discretion to value property as of any date that, in the chancellor’s view, equity and justice may require.” In re Dissolution of Marriage of Wood, 35 So. 3d 507, 516 (¶20) (Miss. 2010). We can find no case law that a chancellor must use the same date when valuing all the property. Therefore, this issue is without merit.
A few observations:
- As important as the valuation date is in an equitable distribution case, I reiterate that I seldom hear any proof as to what date a party wants me to impose, and why. It can make all the difference in the world to your client, yet, if you do not put anything in the record to support a finding favorable to your client, you are leaving it up to the judge’s unfettered discretion. I am not saying that is what happened in this case; we don’t have enough information to tell.
- It was enlightening to read that the COA could find no authority for one, global valuation date. I have never been able to divine an answer from the case law on the point either. In most cases, I am presented with valuation dates all over the ballpark. An example might be: a real property appraisal of the marital residence from 2012; IRA statements from June, 2013; personal property appraisal 3 months before the November, 2013 trial; securities account statements dated December, 2012. In a case like that, it seems that the judge has no choice but to use the best information available for the dates provided, unless the judge orders the lawyers and parties to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, to gather some more current info as of a given date.
- The most grateful clients are the ones whom you save lots of money. The clients who come to hate you are the ones you cost a lot of money. Valuation of the assets, and making the case for a valuation date favorable to your client’s best interests, are sure-fire ways to save — or make — a lot of money.