Basics of Pennsylvania Law: Double Dip, Part II

This is the second in a series of posts containing summaries of Pennsylvania case law on the issue of double dipping in divorce. “Double dipping” occurs when an income-producing asset (such as a pension or business) is counted as marital property subject to equitable distribution, as well as income subject to an alimony or child support obligation.

Cerny v. Cerny, 656 A.2d 507 (Pa.Super.1995).

            Prior to separation, the husband received a cash severance payment, which was counted as income in determining his support obligation. The severance payment was excluded (in a prior, unpublished Superior Court decision) from the marital estate to avoid double dipping. Subsequently, the IRS issued a tax refund to the husband, as the severance payment was not taxable income. The trial court held that the tax refund should be counted as marital property. On appeal, the Superior Court reversed, holding that the tax refund retained the same nonmarital nature as the income from which it was derived. The opinion does not reveal whether the tax was deducted from the payor’s income when determining his support obligation, but if so, then the result may have been inequitable.

Basics of Pennsylvania Law: Double Dip, Part I

The concept of a “double dip” is logical and intuitive. If an income-producing asset has been awarded to a party in equitable distribution, the same asset cannot be counted as a source of income from which alimony may be paid. For instance, a pension in pay status cannot be counted as income for alimony purposes if it was also a marital asset that has been divided in equitable distribution. This concept has been recognized and adopted by the Pennsylvania courts at the trial and appellate levels. Butler v. Butler, 541 Pa. 364, 663 A.2d 148, 156 (1995)(professional goodwill); Diament v. Diament, 816 A.2d 256, 277 (Pa.Super.2003)(advance of marital assets); Miller v. Miller, 783 A.2d 832 (Pa.Super. 2001)(proceeds from sale of marital property); Rohrer v. Rohrer, 715 A.2d 463 (Pa.Super. 1998)(retained earnings of a business); Kokolis v. Kokolis, 83 Pa.D. & C.4th 214 (Ally. 2006)(pension in pay status), affirmed, 927 A.2d 663 (Pa.Super. 2007); cf. McFadden v. McFadden, 563 A.2d 180 (Pa.Super.1989)(pension in pay status).

This post is the first of a series describing Pennsylvania case law concerning the double dip.

Berry v. Berry, 898 A.2d 110 (Pa.Super.2006).

The husband in this case was terminated from his employment as a partner in an accounting firm just weeks after the commencement of a support claim within a divorce action. Upon his termination, the husband received a distribution of his partnership capital account plus a cash severance payment equal to seven months’ base salary. The wife argued at the trial court level that neither of these items should be included in the husband’s income when determining his child support obligation. (The husband had secured other employment paying a salary sufficient to justify a Melzer analysis.) The trial court held that the capital account distribution and cash severance were income for support purposes. The wife appealed, prompting the Superior Court to vacate and remand the case.

The Superior Court held that the partnership capital account was marital property which should not have been included in the husband’s income because doing so would constitute a double dip.  On the other hand, the Superior Court held that the cash severance payment was strictly income. In its decision, the Court distinguished between money earned prior to the marital separation (in this case, a partnership capital account) and money acquired after separation (in this case, a severance payment). Since the partnership capital account was acquired prior to separation, it fell within the statutory definition of marital property. The cash severance acquired after separation did not.  The Superior Court held that the capital account was marital property while the severance payment was income. In both of its findings, the Superior Court refused to double dip.

And you thought you were paying support…

A fun story about a New York wife who needs $53,000 – per week! – in support from her husband, the former United Technologies chairman George David. Well, she’s a countess, after all.

Another Big Decision: Personal Goodwill in Kentucky

Apparently the new frontier in divorce litigation is personal goodwill. Following closely on the heels of May (W.Va.2003) and other divorce decisions, the Supreme Court of Kentucky held recently that the non-transferrable goodwill of a professional practice was properly excluded from the marital estate.

The subject business in Gaskill v. Robbins (2/17/09) was an oral surgery practice, operated by the wife, without associate professionals. The wife’s expert presented an asset-based valuation, giving no value to goodwill because “Gaskill’s role in the business amounted to a ‘non-marketable controlling interest.'” The wife’s expert reasoned that no buyer would pay more than the fair market value of hard assets when the wife could set up shop down the hall and attract her patients away from the old practice.

The husband’s expert considered several approaches: capitalization of earnings, excess earnings, net asset value, and market comparables. He averaged these approaches to arrive at a valuation that included goodwill and a non-compete agreement. He also criticized the opinion of the wife’s expert who had doubled the compensation of the wife’s non-professional staff, thereby depressing earnings.

The trial court adopted the valuation of the husband’s expert, reasoning that the salary adjustment made by the wife’s expert was unreasonable, and noting that Kentucky law did not recognize a distinction between enterprise goodwill and personal goodwill.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed, holding that not all businesses have goodwill; and the Supreme Court of Kentucky affirmed that reversal on other grounds.

In its Opinion, the highest court of Kentucky examined the fair market value standard and the meaning of “goodwill” in the context of business valuation. The Kentucky court noted that none of its prior decisions had specifically considered the difference between enterprise goodwill and personal goodwill but none had prohibited such an analysis. The Court recognized that the reputation and skill of this professional practice were closely associated with the wife and might not be transferrable to a buyer. The Court also noted that professional degrees are not regarded as marital property to be divided upon divorce under Kentucky law.

The Kentucky Supreme Court also considered the decision of the West Virginia Supreme Court in May v. May (2003), which contained a survey of cases dealing with goodwill nation-wide. May, in turn, relied heavily upon the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in Yoon v. Yoon (1999), which distinguished between transferrable enterprise goodwill and non-transferrable personal goodwill. Ultimately, the Kentucky court aligned itself with these courts in reaching that distinction.

See also Helfer (W.Va.2007); Stewart (Idaho 2007); Hess (Maine 2007).

Gaskill joins a long list of cases that distinguish personal goodwill from enterprise goodwill in the context of professional practices. It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether these courts will extend this rationale to other types of businesses, where the reputation, skills and efforts of the business owner spouse are not so easily associated with the goodwill of the business.

SRR Answers “Taxing” Year-End Questions

The forensic accounting firm of Stout Risius Ross Advisors LLC has published an excellent guide to year-end tax questions that separated and divorcing spouses may have:

1.) What is my filing status for 2008? Your filing status is determined as of the last day of the calendar year. You are considered unmarried for the whole year if, on the last day of your tax year, you are unmarried or legally separated from your spouse under a divorce or separate maintenance decree. Your filing status will be either single or head of household.

2.) How can I qualify to file as head of household? In general, you must meet the following requirements to file as head of household.

1. You are unmarried or “considered unmarried” on the last day of the year.

2. You paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year.

3. Your home was the main home of your child for more than half the year.

4. You must be able to claim an exemption for the child. However, you meet this test if you cannot claim the exemption only because you waived the right to claim the child pursuant to your divorce decree.

3.) What if my ex and I have the child an equal amount of time?
If the child lived with each parent the same amount of time during the year, the parent with the higher adjusted gross income has the right to the head of household filing status.

4.) Who claims the exemptions for our children? In most cases, a child of divorced or separated parents will qualify as a dependent of the custodial parent under the rules for a qualifying child. However, the noncustodial parent may be able to claim the exemption for the child if the special rule (discussed next) applies. Special rule for divorced or separated parents. A child will be treated as the qualifying child or qualifying relative of his or her noncustodial parent if all of the following apply.

1. The parents: a. Are divorced or legally separated under a decree of divorce or separate maintenance, b. Are separated under a written separation agreement, or c. Lived apart at all times during the last 6 months of the year.

2. The child received over half of his or her support for the year from the parents.

3. The child is in the custody of one or both parents for more than half of the year.

4. The custodial parent signs a written declaration, discussed later, that he or she will not claim the child as a dependent for the year, and the noncustodial parent attaches this written declaration to his or her return.

If the parents divorced or separated during the year and the child lived with both parents before the separation, the custodial parent is the one with whom the child lived for the greater part of the rest of the year.

More answers are available at SRR’s website.

Standard of Value dictates Use of Discounts in Divorce Case

The Alabama Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in Grelier v. Grelier, holding that the parties’ agreement to employ the fair market value standard in a divorce case precluded wife from arguing on appeal that the trial court should not have applied marketability and minority discounts.

In Grelier, the parties appointed a neutral expert to determine the value of the husband’s business, a retail and commercial real estate development company. The husband owed a 25% interest; his father, brother and college roommate owned the other interests. The consent order appointing the expert specified that he would determine the fair market value of the business. Husband and Wife each hired independent experts to offer their opinions of value as well.

The court-appointed expert testified that marketability and minority discounts should not be applied to the husband’s interest in the real estate business, but the opinion does not reveal why. Wife’s expert testified that the court-appointed expert’s valuation was flawed because it relied on out-dated appraisals and verbal statements of value but agreed that discounts should not be applied. Husband’s expert testified that a minority interest discount was appropriate because the wife had not proven that the husband had a right to act independently from the majority stakeholders; and that a marketability discount was standard practice when determining the FMV of close corporations. Husband’s expert suggested a 25% minority discount and 25% marketability discount, but the trial court reduced the combined discounts to 40%.

On appeal, the wife argued that the trial court should have utilized the fair value standard instead of FMV; and that the minority interest and marketability discounts should not have been applied. The Alabama Court of Appeals held that the wife’s argument was waived for failure to raise it in the trial court, where she had consented to a FMV standard in the order appointed the expert. Moreover, the appellate court held that the trial court had not abused its discretion in applying the discounts to arrive at FMV.

Can the Court Award Legal Fees in a Child Suppot Modification Proceeding?

An interesting, and perhaps unanswered, question which may arise in a child support modification proceeding is, “Can the court award legal fees to the prevailing party?” Since 1997, there has been statutory authority for awarding legal fees in a child support case. Previously, no statutory authority existed.

23 Pa.C.S. 4351 authorizes an award of legal fees where “an obligee prevails in a proceeding to establish paternity or to obtain a support order.” Soon after the enactment of this law, it was tested in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by a lawyer who advocated an automatic award of legal fees to all support recipients, based on a simple disparity in their net incomes.

The Supreme Court rejected that notion in Bowser v. Blom, a case that established several criteria for determining whether a support recipient should receive reimbursement of legal fees.

Factors which the court may consider include: (1) whether the obligor’s unreasonable or obstreperous conduct impeded the determination of an appropriate support order; (2) whether the obligor mounted a fair and reasonable defense in a child support order; (3) whether the obligor’s failure to fulfill his moral and financial obligation to support his children required legal action to force him to accept his responsibilities; and (4) whether the financial positions and financial needs of the parties are disparate.

Subsequently, the Superior Court was asked to determine, in Krebs v. Krebs, whether the trial court should have forced a father to reimburse the mother’s legal fees, in a case where child support was modified retroactively for several years because the father had concealed an increase in his income. The Superior Court vacated and remanded the case, instructing the trial court to consider whether the mother’s claim for legal fees was appropriate under 23 Pa.C.S. 4351 or 42 Pa.C.S. 2503 (a different statute authorizing an award of legal fees as a sanction for dilatory, obdurate or vexatious conduct by a litigant).

More recently, in Sirio v. Sirio, the Superior Court was again asked to decide whether the mother should have been awarded legal fees in a child support modification proceeding. Once again, the Superior Court vacated and remanded the trial court’s decision not to award fees, instructing the trial court to consider 23 Pa.C.S. 4351 as well as 42 Pa.C.S. 2503. The Sirio Court alluded to Krebs, suggesting that it answered the question of whether fees could be awarded in a modification proceeding (despite statutory language that refers to “establishing” paternity or “obtaining” a support order).

I think both Krebs and Sirio have asked the question, but I have yet to see an authoritative decision (or, for that matter, a strong policy argument).