What’s it worth?

A major part of most divorces in today’s world center around valuing and dividing property that was accumulated during the marriage.  In Missouri, the trial court’s role in your divorce includes both assigning a value to your assets and liabilities and also deciding who gets what.

Oftentimes the question is raised, “who’s value will the court use?”  The courts in Missouri (and many other states) are supposed to value property using a standard commonly referred to as fair market value.  That is, if you were to place the property on the open market, what could you expect a willing buyer to pay for it?  This is not to be confused with “retail value.”  So, in the case of many household goods (like furniture for example), even something you bought very recently, the fair market value is probably well below what you paid for it.

Some assets are easier to value than others.  Take for example, automobiles.  There are entire books and websites that will provide you with a value for your car based upon the year, make, model, features and mileage.  While these values may not be admissible in court (for a variety of reasons), they are often a starting point for negotiation, and at least can provide a starting point that is objective.

Other assets can be more difficult to value.  Homes can be appraised, and although real estate appraisers are all licensed by one body, there are several different approaches to valuing real estate, and so values can vary widely.  The unfortunate occurrence in many cases is that if each party has a recent real estate appraisal of property, the Judge is likely to split the difference between the two appraisals.  Occasionally you will find a Judge who is unwilling to do this and therefore just chooses one of the appraisals to use, but this is rare in my experience.

In today’s world, many divorcing couples also own household goods (i.e. furniture, electronics and jewelry) that must be valued by an independent appraiser.  Such appraisals are usually not cost-prohibitive and can give both parties a place from which to start settlement negotiations.  It can also be objective evidence of value that can be used in trial, if necessary.

Probably the most complex valuations today are related to businesses and securities.  Increasingly we find men and women who have business interests and/or stock options.  There are business evaluators whose sole job is to provide parties to divorces with the information they need to effectively litigate their case.  In today’s world of retirement assets, it also becomes necessary to value retirement assets such as pensions.  For instance, if an autoworker has worked at a company for 12 years during the marriage and 4 years prior to the marriage, what is the marital value in the pension?  Accountants and actuaries can give us precise figures on what “cash value” a pension has in cases where we do not want to divide the asset equally but rather offset it against another asset.  In which case, we need to know current cash value since most companies define their pensions as X dollars per month and not in current cash value.

Having said all of this, I would simply summarize by saying how important it is to have legal counsel who can discuss these issues with you and perhaps utilize various professionals to the benefit of your case.  Most attorneys have a handful of preferred experts who assist them in their valuation needs.  These experts can have an enormous impact upon your case, so it is important to find an expert who is well-qualified and has credibility.

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