Why Good Drafting Counts

A recent decision issued by Florida’s intermediate appellate court, Craissati v. Craissati, amply demonstrates the importance of good contract writing skill. The husband and wife in this case entered into a marital settlement agreement, in which the husband agreed to pay alimony for eight years. Like most alimony agreements, this agreement provided that the alimony would terminate upon the death of the recipient, her remarriage, or cohabitation for a period of three months or more.

The wife in this case was incarcerated after a DUI conviction, and the husband petitioned the court for termination of his contractual alimony obligation. The parties stipulated that wife was, technically, “cohabiting” with her cell mate for a period in excess of three months, and that the termination clause of the marital settlement agreement was unambiguous. Still, the trial court held, the termination of alimony due to incarceration would be an absurd result not within the contemplation of the parties. The trial court modified the amount of alimony (since wife’s needs had been temporarily curtailed) but refused to terminate the obligation.

On appeal, the Florida appellate court reversed, adopting a literal construction of the agreement. Adding insult to injury, the author of the opinion found that driving under the influence was a voluntary act known to possibly result in incarceration, so the wife should have known that her criminal behavior could result in the termination of alimony.

If only the prisons were less crowded, the wife could have maintained her alimony award, I guess.

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Shadle – NAV Accepted by Divorce Court

In Shadle v. Shadle (108 PDDRR 102), a Bucks County divorce decision, the main issue was the valuation of an HVAC contracting business owned by the husband. The contracting business generated revenues from two primary sources: prepaid service contracts, and residential repair and replacement of HVAC systems. The company employed seven technicians, including the parties’ two adult sons. An ancillary issue was whether the husband had made an enforceable agreement with his sons to transfer the business to them upon his retirement.

On the latter issue, the trial court found no consideration for the promise made by husband to transfer the business to his sons. The trial court noted that each son had received adequate compensation for his services in the course of employment. The suggestion that the sons may have sacrificed other career opportunities in exchange for the promise was deemed speculative.

On the issue of valuation, there was a battle of experts. Wife’s expert considered three valuation approaches and concluded that the value of the business was $200,000. (The opinion does not reveal which approach(es) yielded this result.) The net asset approach, which is utilized when “liquidation is contemplated in the not-too-distant future,” as Wife’s expert explained, would yield a value of $130,000.

The testimony of Husband’s expert is not discussed at all in the opinion.

The trial court found that the fair market value of the HVAC business was equal to the NAV of $130,000, reasoning that “Husband will likely transfer the business to his sons rather than an independent buyer at some point in the future.” The trial court thus demonstrated a misunderstanding of valuation concepts, overlooking the fact that all parties contemplated an ongoing concern, not liquidation. It will be interesting to see whether the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reverses this erroneous decision, and whether, on remand, the issue of personal goodwill is raised.

Mercer Capital Publication: Buy-Sell Agreements

A recent edition of Value Matters, a periodical published by Mercer Capital Group, illustrates the reasons for having a buy-sell agreement and what options might be available. Buy-sell agreements are advisable for the same reason as prenuptial agreements: they structure the consequences of a possible future incident such as shareholder disharmony, death, or divorce.

The valuation provisions of a buy-sell agreement, which may dictate the share price in the event of partner withdrawal, death or divorce, must reconcile competing concerns. On one hand, a book value formula might be desirable in the event of divorce or the buyout of a withdrawing shareholder. On the other hand, a below-market share price may result in excessive estate taxes for the beneficiaries of a deceased shareholder. An agreement can provide different formulas for different situations, but must presumably reconcile those inconsistencies or suffer close scrutiny of the courts or IRS.

Trigger events, valuation method, and purpose are some of the important elements of a successful buy-sell agreement. Extensive details are provided, presumably, by Chris Mercer’s book, Buy-Sell Agreements.