Buy-Sell Controls Value of Medical Practice in Texas Divorce

Texas has once again proven itself to be a haven for the affluent divorcee. In Mandell v. Mandell, 2010 WL 1006406 (March 18, 2010), the Texas Court of Appeals held that a professional spouse’s 25% interest in a medical corporation was limited under the terms of a buy-sell agreement to a nominal fixed price payable to shareholders upon divorce. The decision was summarized at BVLaw Blog as follows:

In a case of first impression, the Texas Court of Appeals considered a buy-sell agreement that purported to bind shareholders and their spouses in the event of divorce. As a further complication, the husband had signed an employment agreement with the private medical association—but neither he nor his wife had signed the shareholders’ agreement.  This unsigned agreement limited the value of a divorcing shareholder’s interest to the equity buy-in price (in this instance, a mere $11,000 for a 25% share in a business with an estimated $3 million to $5 million book value).

I share BVLaw Blog’s incredulity, but my analysis is somewhat different.

In the opinion, the Texas appeals court emphasized that the doctor, who signed the stock purchase agreement during the marriage three years before separation, tendered a check for his buy-in but never signed the shareholders agreement (which was referenced in the stock purchase agreement); and his shares were never issued. After separation, the corporation returned the shareholder’s fixed buy-in payment. At that point, the trial court  might have held that the shares were never acquired, and only the buy-in payment itself was community property.

Yet, during the pendency of the divorce litigation, the wife filed motions compelling her husband and the corporation to complete the transaction. The doctor returned the fixed sum to the corporation, and the corporation issued the shares. When the wife attempted to introduce expert testimony to prove the fair market value of the shares, she was met with a motion in limine, which was granted. The trial court held that the wife was bound by the terms of the agreements.

In Texas, the fair market value of a business is presumed to be zero if the shareholders are contractually obligated to sell back their shares upon retirement, death or divorce. A divorcing spouse may present evidence of book value or comparable sales to rebut the presumption, but in this case, the court held that the net asset value was the property of the corporation, not the shareholders.

It might be signficant that Texas is a community property jurisdiction. Since the marital community exists throughout the marriage in those jurisdictions, it could be said that the doctor’s wife was in privity with her contracting husband when he signed the stock purchase agreement. Furthermore, property in Texas apparently cannot be owned simultaneously by one legal entity (a corporation) and another legal entity (the marital community). These principles might not apply in common law (marital property) states, such as Pennsylvania, where it might be argued that the spouses were neither in privity nor intended third party beneficiaries of such contracts, and where marital property is merely a fictitious estate rather than a legal entity.

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