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Valuations in Divorce Cases Pose Unique Challenges

Business valuations completed in connection with divorce proceedings can be especially complex. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The South Carolina State Supreme Court weighed in recently on the long-simmering tension between recognized standards of business valuation and the goal of equity in dividing marital assets in divorce proceedings.

The decision In Clark v Clark (Appellate Case No. 2019-000442), addresses the division of marital assets, specifically the valuation of a minority interest in a family business. The Supreme Court reiterated a lower court’s assertion that the applicability of discounts for lack of control (DLOC) and marketability (DLOM) are to be determined on a case-by-case basis, then affirmed one part of that court’s ruling regarding discounts and reversed another.

The Family Business

George and Patricia Clark were married in 1987. During the marriage, Mr. Clark began working for the family business, Pure Country, a manufacturer of custom tapestry blankets and other items. His father founded the business and eventually transferred his 75 percent interest in it to Mr. Clark. A family court determined at the time that the transfer was a gift, and therefore the interest was not marital property. Mr. Clark purchased the remaining 25 percent of the business from his sister. In 2009, he transferred a 25 percent interest to Mrs. Clark. The related stock agreement limited any subsequent sale of that interest to other shareholders, immediate family members or the business.

In 2012, Mr. Clark filed for divorce. Both spouses hired experts to value Mrs. Clark’s interest in the business. The husband’s expert applied a DLOC and a DLOM. In support of the DLOM, she noted that the sale of interests in privately held companies require more time and resources and involve higher transaction costs than do sales of publicly traded interests. She also considered the restrictive language in the stock agreement from the 2009 transfer.

The wife’s expert applied a smaller DLOM, but later argued that the value should not be discounted at all. He did not apply a DLOC.

The family court found the husband’s expert more credible and agreed with her use of discounts. While it did acknowledge the “debate as to whether … discounts should apply in a divorce setting as the business is actually not being sold,” the court recognized that the valuation standard in such cases is fair market value, which assumes a hypothetical transaction between two willing parties. 

Mrs. Clark appealed the decision to the court of appeals, which agreed that a minority shareholder would not have control over the company and therefore upheld the family court’s decision to apply a DLOC, but reduced the size of the discount. The court of appeals rejected the DLOM, noting the husband did not intend to sell the business and relying on a precedent set in Moore v Moore. “To the extent the marketability discount reflected an anticipated sale, Moore deems it a fiction South Carolina law no longer recognizes.” The court found that because the husband did not plan to sell the business, the restriction on transfers of stock was moot. 

The decision compelled both parties to file appeals to the State Supreme Court.

Split Decision

The husband argued that the court of appeals erred in rejecting the DLOM when each party’s expert had applied one. The wife contended that the DLOM should not be considered because a DLOM accounts for the higher transaction costs inherent in a sale of an interest in a private company, and her husband did not intend to sell.

The Supreme Court affirmed the family court’s decision to apply a DLOM and a DLOC and the appeals court’s decision to reduce the DLOC. The decision states that a party’s interest in a closely held company is valued based on its fair market value, which has been well established as “the amount of money which a purchaser willing but not obligated to buy the property would pay an owner willing but not obligated to sell it, taking into account all uses to which the property is adapted and might in reason be applied.”

That said, the court acknowledges the tension between this principle of valuation and “the desire to fairly and justly apportion marital assets.” The court refuses to draw a bright line on the issue, stating that the applicability of such discounts is to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The Supreme Court’s decision was not unanimous. Two of the five justices issued a dissenting opinion rejecting the application of either discount, stating that “under certain facts, faithful adherence to the concept of fair market value must yield to reality.”

The decision, while not directly applicable to New York cases, speaks to the complexities involved in divorce-related valuations and the need for valuation professionals to weigh competing considerations. If you have questions regarding the valuation issues in a divorce or another context, Advent’s professionals are here to help.

Read the Decision

You can read the rather colorful decision here:

https://adventvalue.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Op.-27969-George-W-Clark-v.-Patricia-B-Clark.pdf

Court Addresses Stock Compensation in Divorce

Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash

Divorce is almost always complicated, especially when there is a lot at stake. In today’s article, we will explore the handling of stock compensation in divorce proceedings.

Compensation for executives in medium and large corporations often goes beyond standard payroll and perquisites (the special rights that come with the position). It can also include forms of payment to reward the executive for prior performance or to encourage strong future performance. This compensation can take the form of stock options or restricted stock units (RSUs).

In New York (an equitable distribution state for purposes of dividing marital assets) stock options and RSUs acquired during the marriage are presumed to be marital property, unless the holder can prove they were acquired as a gift or inheritance or in exchange for other non-marital property. One can determine if the options were granted as a reward for past services by examining the plan documents, such as the Stock Options Plan and the Options Statement. These documents should address exercise price, expiration date and other terms, including some that may pertain to divorce.

If the stock is publicly traded, its value is based on the fair market value of the stock – the amount at which a share of stock is being traded – usually at the date of trial or the date of the legal action. Valuation of the stock of a privately held company is more problematic, and will necessitate a business valuation. When performing the business valuation, the appraiser examines a host of factors, including the type of business, prior sales of company stock, the future outlook for the company and goodwill.

The non-propertied spouse must be watchful for deception, particularly in smaller companies, where the executive can negotiate, sometimes orchestrate, their compensation package. In other words, were the stock options granted as a reward in addition to normal compensation? Or is the executive receiving the options in lieu of a raise?

The New Jersey Appellate Court recently decided a case regarding how RSU compensation should be evaluated and divided in a divorce. In M.G. v. S.M., the plaintiff’s employer had issued RSUs to the plaintiff over the course of an eight-year period. These RSUs were subject to a vesting schedule established by the employer. After a stated period of time, vesting would occur and the employee would take ownership of the stock.

Although eight years’ worth of RSUs had been granted to the plaintiff, at the time of the filing of the divorce complaint, only three years of the grants were vested. At trial, the judge heard testimony from the plaintiff about the stock units, including the plaintiff’s agreement that the defendant was entitled to share in the value of the vested units.

However, the plaintiff argued that the non-vested RSUs were not distributable to the defendant. The plaintiff submitted evidence that his company issued the RSUs to employees to incentivize future performance and encourage them to remain with the company so that their interests in the RSUs would vest. The trial court’s opinion was that all of the RSUs were “the result of prefiling, marital efforts, and are thus subject to equitable distribution,” regardless of when they vest.

There is a lack of significant guidance in the form of case law with respect to how RSUs are divided in divorce in many states. The Appellate Court explored the possible methods by which to value and divide the assets. The court ultimately deciding to rely on guidance from a Massachusetts case that dealt with the same subject. The New Jersey Appellate Court held that the following is the appropriate analysis to consider when dividing RSUs in a divorce:

  1. Where a stock award has been made during the marriage and vests prior to the date of complaint, it is subject to equitable distribution.
  2. Where an award is made during the marriage for work performed during the marriage, but becomes vested after the date of the complaint, it, too, is subject to equitable distribution.
  3. Where the award is made during the marriage, but vests following the date of complaint, there is a rebuttable presumption that the award is subject to equitable distribution, unless there is a material dispute of fact regarding whether some or all of the award was consideration for future performance.

The Appellate Court went on to state that the party who wants to exclude the assets – i.e. the party to whom the RSUs were granted – must demonstrate that they were issued for work performance after the filing of the complaint for divorce.

Based on the Appellate Court’s decision, it is likely that the plaintiff in M.G. v. S.M. will be successful in excluding at least a portion of the unvested RSUs from equitable distribution of the marital estate, as his trial testimony stated that his employer’s intent in issuing RSUs was to encourage positive future performance.

Therefore, the purpose for which the executive compensation is issued by the employer may also impact the division of those assets in divorce. If you have questions about how your executive compensation package may be valued, contact Advent Valuation Advisors today.

The case is Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division Docket No. A-1290-17t1, December 26, 2018. The decision is available here:

adventvalue.com/MG-vs-SM.pdf