How is a share in a partnership valued in a divorce? How are professional practices valued in a divorce?
People facing a divorce are often concerned about their financial futures. One such financial concern regards how shares in a partnership are valued in a divorce. Parties may also wonder how professional practices are valued in a divorce.
Say, for example, that Taylor and Alex have shares in a financial management business. Also, Taylor owns a medical practice. Now that they are divorcing, Taylor and Alex want to know how their assets will be divided, and specifically, how the shares in the financial management business and the medical practice will be divided.
In Massachusetts, assets are divided on an equitable basis. A judge’s decision as to what is equitable will not be reversed unless “plainly wrong and excessive.” A court may assign all or any part of the estate of the other, including, but not limited to, retirement benefits, military retirement benefits, pension, profit-sharing, annuity, deferred compensation, and insurance. The definition of estate is broadly defined, however. In fact, Massachusetts courts allow the division of premarital property and post-marital property on a case-by-case basis. With regard to the division of shares in a partnership, courts will generally interpret G.L. c. 208 § 34 to include partnership assets within the scope of the possible assets that may be divided in a divorce.
Shares of a partnership and business practice interests are part of the marital estate and may be valued by a valuation expert to assess the market value of the asset. A professional practice, like a medical practice, is considered in Massachusetts to be subject to division during the divorce process. Massachusetts courts may order one of the parties in a divorce to relinquish their share of ownership in the business and receive payment either as a lump sum or in a series of installment payments. A court may order that the business be sold and the spouse receives the profits. One spouse could buy-out the business from the other spouse or offset the business with other assets.
During the valuation process, there are generally three valuation methods: the market approach (estimates business value by comparing the business to a similar business that is recently sold); the income approach (estimates business value by converting economic benefits into a value); and the asset approach (estimates business value based on the assets and liabilities of the business).
In the above example, Taylor and Alex have several possible options afforded to them. A Massachusetts Probate and Family Court will divide the estate equitability based upon the parties’ needs and what is most equitable based on their individual case.
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 Adams v. Adams, 459 Mass. 361, 371 (2011) (citing to Bowring v. Reid, 399 Mass. 265, 267 (1987))
 Adams, 459 Mass. at 371 (citing to Redding v. Redding, 398 Mass. 102, 108 (1986))
 M.G.L. c. 208 § 34
 Rice v. Rice, 372 Mass. 398, 400 (1977) (holding that an estate is all property to which the party holds title, however acquired.)
 Moriarty v. Stone, 41 Mass. App. Ct. 151, 156 (1996) ; Brower v. Brower, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 216, 218 (2004)
 Goldman v. Goldman, 28 Mass. App. Ct. 603, 613 (1990).
During the divorce process, most parties want to ensure that the end of the marriage won’t result in the end of their preferred lifestyle. How are automobiles treated during property division? How are other personal items of value, such as jewelry and antiques valued in a divorce?
Say, for example, that Alex and Jamie were married for twenty years and have filed for divorce. They appreciate their belongings and want to know how their material items will be divided. Alex is a collector of antiques and also owns two expensive automobiles. Jamie drives the family van and also owns jewelry. Because they cannot agree on the division of their property, they want to know how the antiques, vehicles, and jewelry will be divided by a Massachusetts family court during the divorce process.
If the parties in a divorce agree to their own division of property, the courts in Massachusetts will usually support the fair and reasonable distribution of their agreement related to the property division. However, if the parties cannot agree, Massachusetts courts will make the determination as to how assets should be divided. This division is known as an “equitable division.” Equitable does not necessarily mean that each party is entitled to “equal” or 50/50 division of assets. Instead, the courts will use several factors to determine the fair division of assets. Although the list is not exhaustive, courts determine what is fair by examining the following factors:
- length of the marriage;
- conduct of the parties during the marriage;
- age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of the parties;
- opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income;
- amount and duration of alimony;
- present and future needs of dependent children of the marriage; and
- contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates and the contribution of each of the parties as a homemaker to the family unit.
If one former spouse believes that she is entitled to more property than a judge initially awarded, another judge may order that without a clear and adequate explanation for the amount of property awarded between the parties, the division of property may not be equitable.
If they cannot agree, Alex and Jamie would experience the Massachusetts court-imposed “equitable division” standard. Their twenty years married, their conduct during the marriage, and the personal items and property shared between them, including the antiques, cars, and jewelry, would be evaluated and divided.
The value of the personal items is dependent on the circumstances which arrant division of property in recognition of the marital partnership concept [. . .] Therefore, Alex’s and Jamie’s tangible property could be valued at a fair market value rate, which means that the amount that the property would sell within an open market. If the amount of an item cannot be determined, a judge could look to professional appraisals, receipts, and other material documentation to reach the property monetary amount.
If you have any questions about the divorce process or assignment of property, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete our contact form online, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.
 Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 34
 Bowring v. Reid, 399 Mass. 265, 268 (1987) (remanding a decision so that a judge may articulate the rationale for the Section 34 alimony and property awards, especially because the plaintiff alleges that the defendant was unfaithful and abusive and the plaintiff’s contribution to the marriage, her needs, and her sources of income were not considered.); See, Redding v. Redding, 398 Mass. 102 (1986).
 Davidson v. Davidson, 19 Mass.App.Ct. 364, 370 (1985) (citing to Inker, Walsh & Perocchi, Alimony and Assignment of Property: The New Statutory Scheme in Massachusetts, 10 Suffolk U.L.Rev. 1, 8 (1975))
May the calculations for alimony payments include a spouse’s unvested stock options, particularly if those options were not considered to be part of marital property for purposes of equitable distribution? This question was recently answered by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In Ludwig v. Lamee-Ludwig, the Court said yes. 
At issue was a practice colloquially known as “double-dipping,” which brings up “the seeming injustice that occurs when property is awarded to one spouse in an equitable distribution of marital assets and is then also considered as a source of income for purposes of imposing support obligations.”  As an example, double-dipping would occur where a party’s unvested stock options were divided equitably during the divorce, and later, when vested, counted as the party’s income for purposes of calculating alimony payments.
In the case at hand, the parties were divorced in 2014. Under their separation agreement, the wife was awarded alimony based on a portion of the husband’s annual base salary, and also awarded additional alimony based on a sliding-scale calculation of the husband’s bonuses and other forms of compensation. The trial court applied “the time rule” to this case: this rule considers the number of unvested options, as well as the length of time the employee spouse has owned those options PRIOR to the dissolution of the marriage.
The Court noted that because the trial judge did not consider the unvested stock options as part of the marital property to be divided among the parties during the divorce, no double-dipping occurred. “Here, there is no such injustice because the contested shares were not part of the equitable distribution of assets; by operation of the time rule, they were assigned to and retained by the husband outright.”  The source of property assignment only included options which were attributable to the marital partnership, and did not include stock options which were given for post-marital efforts. Therefore, the Court noted, those unvested options could be considered income for alimony calculation purposes.
Interestingly, the Court also pointed out that the practice of double-dipping is not prohibited as a matter of law—it may be done, so long as the trial judge considers the equities of each situation.
 Ludwig v. Lamee-Ludwig, No. 15-P-1177 (October 17, 2016-February 7, 2017).
 Id., at 5, quoting Champion v. Champion, 54 Mass. App. Ct. 215, 219 (2002).
 Id., at 5.
This question was recently answered by the Massachusetts Supreme judicial Court in Pfannenstiehl v. Pfannenstiehl, decided in August 2016. This case is extremely helpful for divorce practitioners dealing with trusts because the court explains the application of the law to a variety of trust concepts, such as spend thrift provisions, irrevocable trusts, ascertainable standards, all of which may be making your head hurt as you read this sentence.
Ultimately, the court concluded that whether a trust should be distributed as “marital property” depends on whether the trust benefit is speculative or alternatively whether it’s sufficiently certain. We will dive deeper into this analysis but essentially, the specific language of a trust must be analyzed to determine whether a spouse’s benefit due to one of the spouses should be considered part of the marital estate. Generally, if the benefit is so speculative that it is difficult (or impossible) to determine whether the spouse will actually get it sometime in the future, it probably will not be considered part of the marital estate. If, however, the benefit can be determined by some sort of ascertainable standard, then it more likely will be part of the marital estate and divided through equitable distribution.
This particular case was pretty fascinating because the husband and wife, without the existence of the trust, live a not uncommon upper-middle class lifestyle. The husband works for a family business, making about $190,000 a year. The wife worked part time as an ultrasound technician earning about $20,000 a year. She additionally received a few thousand dollars a year in rental income that was solely in her name. The parties have two children, one of whom has down syndrome, and so the wife seems to have tended more to the children. While they made a good living, the lifestyle they lived was significantly higher because of the husbands benefit from a family trust.
In 2000 for a trust was established by The husband’s father, funded by the father’s businesses, life insurance policies, and a cash account. The trust was irrevocable, meaning that the husband’s father wasn’t unable to dissolve it and take his money back. The beneficiaries of the trust were a class of people, of which the father was one of 11. Basically, the class was made up of all the husband’s father’s descendants. There were two co-trustees Who essentially had complete discretion on distributions. There was also a spend thrift provision which protected the beneficiaries from their creditors standing between them and their benefit.
In this particular case, the SJC found that the husband’s interest was too speculative to be included in the marital estate. That is pretty significant because the trial court had valued the husbands interest at over $2.2 million. The court found that because it was within the sole discretion of the trustees to distribute funds to the husband, it was speculative as to whether he would receive anything further in the future. That speculative nature didn’t, notably, mean that the court could not consider the trust interest in the equitable distribution, only that the court could not distribute that interest as part of the marital estate. The court also notably found that, although it had dispensed with an award of alimony, the court could reconsider that issue and potentially award alimony considering that trust interest would not be distributed as part of the marital estate.
So what does this all mean in plain terms? It means that if a trust benefit, like income from from a trust, can be determined and defined, it can generally be distributed as marital property. If it’s unclear whether the spouse will receive a trust benefit in the future, it would be too speculative to be part of the marital estate. In that situation, the court can still properly consider the interest, including the likelihood of a party receiving it in the future, when the court distributes the rest of the estate. The likely result is that, where it seems likely a party would get a sizable benefit in the future, although it may be speculative, the court would be more prone to giving the other spouse more of the marital estate. Same deal with alimony. Although a trust interest may be too speculative to give to either party, the court can consider the likelihood of the expected income in awarding alimony. So in this case, I’d imagine the trial court, when they get the case back to figure it out, will give more than half of the remaining marital estate to the wife to account for the likely benefit the husband will receive from the trust.
This case did a very good job of illustrating the vast discretion of the court, while defining the boundaries of the marital estate. Really, the overall finances of the family are always to be considered by the court. While the court can’t distribute something that is too speculative, the court can do other things to balance the speculative nature of an interest and whether one spouse will likely receive it. There were many lessons from this case and we will continue to discuss it on this blog.
Once again the complexity in family law cases is illustrated by the Supreme Judicial Court. And when financial issues become complex, having a great divorce lawyer becomes essential. If you have trust interests at issue in your case, consider scheduling a free consultation with our team of divorce attorneys. Schedule yours today by calling 978-225-9030 during regular business hours, or complete this contact form and we will contact you back at our earliest opportunity.