What to Consider When Divorcing Parties Have
Ownership Interests in Privately Held Companies
This article focuses on concepts and issues that are important for family law attorneys to understand when navigating cases that involve divorcing clients with ownership interests in privately-held entities. One of the first questions that arises is whether we need to retain a valuation expert? This is an important question, where experts can provide attorneys and the parties important guidance and address expectations, preferably early in this emotional process.
Remember the excitement and mystery you felt when receiving a giftwrapped present as a child? You probably had an idea of what was inside based on what you had begged your parents for or how heavy the box felt, but you still needed to tear through the wrapping paper to find out for sure (although sometimes you could shake the package to get a better idea). Your guess may have been spot onâ€¦or way off. The box you thought might have held that shiny new toy you wanted might have just concealed a sweater. Or, the present that felt like it was just a few pairs of socks could have turned out to be that baseball jersey you had been hoping to get. You learned that sometimes the look and feel of a giftwrapped present could be deceivingâ€”you needed to open it up to confirm or deny your expectations.
There are many similarities between trying to decipher the contents of gifts as children and determining the value of a privately-held business in a divorce. Sometimes â€śjudging the book by its coverâ€ť can lead to a reasonable expectation of value and sometimes looks can be deceiving. Unlike a portfolio of publicly-traded securities, the value of an ownership interest in a privately-held business is not readily ascertainable. Therefore, while each party involved in the divorce process (clients, attorneys, etc.) has his or her own expectation of a privately-held companyâ€™s value based on how it looks and feels, one invariably needs to â€śopen it upâ€ť and dig into the financial details in order to determine its actual value. The differences in expectations that the parties may have, which are sometimes driven even further apart by the intense emotions that often accompany the divorce process, can make the valuation of a privately-held ownership interest one of the most significant hurdles that must be cleared in order to reach a resolution.
This article will focus on concepts and issues that are important for family law attorneys to understand when navigating cases that involve divorcing clients with ownership interests in privately-held entities.Â
Why is Business Valuation Relevant in Family Law?
When couples going through a divorce hold an ownership interest in a privately-held business, one spouse typically retains the ownership interest and an equivalent value comprised of other marital assets is allocated to the other spouse as a part of the property division. This creates a natural source of tension as the spouse who will retain the ownership interest understandably seeks a low value while the other spouse seeks a high value. Yet, it is very common that neither party has a good idea of the companyâ€™s true fair market value (particularly one that is accurate and realistic). Considering that an ownership interest in a privately-held company is often a coupleâ€™s most asset, valuation issues can take center stage in these divorces, with significant dollars at stake.
Do I Need to Hire a Valuation Expert?
When an ownership interest in a privately-held business is identified as a marital asset, counsel must decide whether it is necessary to hire a valuation expert. From a valuatorâ€™s perspective, the answer to this question is almost always â€śyesâ€ť. In evaluating the necessity for such expertise, it is also fair to consider the following factors in making this case-specific determination:
- What is the potential value of the business and is it material to the marital estate?
- Do the parties have similar expectations of the businessâ€™s value?
- Is there any concern that the spouse involved with the business may not be providing accurate financial information or running personal expenses through it?
- What is the quality and availability of the businessâ€™s financial information?
- Does the spouse not involved with the business have a solid understanding of its operations and financial position?
- Have there been any recent transactions or valuations that provide an indication of the value of the ownership interest?
- Does the company have a buy-sell agreement in place?
- What is the valuation experience of counsel on both sides of the case?
- Will opposing counsel hire a valuation expert?
If the decision is made to hire a valuation expert, a few additional factors should be considered:
- Does it make sense to hire joint expert? (This typically produces a quicker resolution, gives the expert direct access to both parties to consider their input and concerns, and results in lower overall expenses.)
- Is the valuation expert credentialed in valuation? (Simply being a CPA does not qualify someone as a valuation expert.)
- By what date will the valuation need to be complete? (Preparing a proper valuation analysis often takes several weeks.)
- Has the expert prepared valuations for litigated cases in the past and does he/she have testifying experience?
Critical Valuation Concepts
Attorneys are not expected to be experts in valuation, but they should be familiar with the following valuation concepts:
- Valuation Dateâ€”The valuation date is important because the value of a company fluctuates over time (just as the prices of publicly-traded stocks change regularly). More significantly, governing valuation standards generally preclude a valuation expert from considering any facts that were not known or knowable as of the valuation date.
- Valuation Approachesâ€”Each of the following valuation approaches are required to be considered (although not necessarily applied or relied upon) in a valuatorâ€™s conclusion of value:
- Asset Approachâ€”Focuses on the assets and liabilities of the business.
- Income Approachâ€”Uses cash flow and risk/required return to determine value.
- Market Approachâ€”Considers valuation multiples indicated by comparable public companies or the sale of similar businesses.
- Normalizing Adjustmentsâ€”Normalizing adjustments are made to a companyâ€™s historical and/or projected financial statements in order to better reflect economic reality and account for non-recurring or non-operating income and expense items. A company that reported losses historically may be very profitable on a normalized basis (or vice versa). A common normalizing adjustment involves adjusting officer/owner compensation to fair market value if there is overcompensation (or under compensation) relative to fair market value, which may occur as a result of tax planning, temporary cash flow shortfalls, or other factors.
- Valuation Discountsâ€”When valuing ownership interests in privately-held companies, discounts for lack of control and lack of marketability may be applicable. These discounts consider the detriment to value associated with (a) not having control of the company (when valuing a non-controlling ownership interest); and (b) the lack of a ready market for the sale of ownership interests in privately-held companies.
- Separate vs. Marital Assetsâ€”When an ownership interest was acquired with marital funds, it is common that the entire value of that interest is included as a marital asset. When an ownership interest was brought into the marriage by one spouse or was acquired with separate funds during the marriage, however, it may be necessary to value the company on multiple dates (often the date of marriage and the current date) in order to determine the appreciation in the ownership interest that may be includable in the marital estate.
Common Valuation Misconceptions to Avoid
There are a handful of common valuation misconceptions that family law attorneys should keep in mind when dealing with cases that involve business valuation:
- Just because a company is (a) privately-held or (b) not for sale, does not mean that an ownership interest in that entity has no value. Discounts for lack of control and lack of marketability can consider the detriment to value associated with holding an ownership interest in a privately-held company.
- The value of a non-controlling ownership interest in a company is rarely equal to its pro-rata share of the companyâ€™s overall equity value. The application of discounts for lack of control and lack of marketability, the extent of which is facts and circumstances specific, can result in a significantly lower value for a non-controlling (minority) ownership interest.
- The value of a business is not typically reflected in a companyâ€™s financial statements or tax returns (including K-1s). These documents serve as a starting point, but additional valuation analysis and adjustments are almost always necessary in determining value.
- The book value of a company is rarely the same as its fair market value. Book value and fair market value will be the same only by coincidence.
- Just because a company was valued in the past does not mean that value is still relevant today. Valuations can become stale over time as changes in the company, industry, and economy cause value to fluctuate.
There are many complicated issues that must be navigated by family law attorneys and no two engagements are ever the same. When an ownership interest in a privately-held business is present in a divorce, it adds another layer of complexity. It is important that family law attorneys develop a plan for addressing valuation issues early in the engagement so that the guesswork related to business value is minimized and client expectations are appropriately managed.
This was originally published in the July/August 2016 edition of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Journal and is republished here with permission.
Sean Saari is a partner at Skoda Minotti and manages the firmâ€™s Valuation & Litigation Advisory Services group. He assists a diverse client base in valuations for litigated matters, domestic disputes, shareholder disputes, estate and gift tax planning, financial reporting and strategic planning. In addition to being a CPA, Mr. Saari is Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) and is a Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA). He became a CMBA member in 2015.
Mr. Saari can be contacted at (440) 449-6800 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.