Double Dip and Goodwill Considered by Wisconsin Supreme Court

Last month the Wisconsin Supreme Court weighed in on two issues that are important to family lawyers and their clients who operate professional practices like physicians, lawyers, dentists and accountants. In Marriage of McReath, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that “saleable” goodwill would be considered marital property, in a case where a dentist argued that “personal” goodwill should not be counted as part of the marital estate. The Court also held that it was not double dipping to include the dentist’s business earnings as part of his income for post-divorce alimony, after dividing the fair market value of the business based on capitalized earnings.

Lawyers, judges and valuation professionals use many different terms – often imprecisely – to describe goodwill, the intangible value of a business that exceeds the value of hard assets like inventory, equipment and receivables. Some courts distinguish between “enterprise” goodwill and “personal” goodwill; other refer to “professioinal” goodwill. As lawyers and judges have advanced along the learning curve, their usage of these terms has improved. Still, the historical record remains a fertile source of confusion.

Wisconsin’s highest court, and the advocate who must have guided the Court’s analysis, Richard J. Auerbach, Esq., of Madison, admirably honed in on the most important aspect of goodwill: whether it is transferable to a buyer. In this case, the husband had purchased two dental offices for a purchase price of more than $900,000. Thirteen years later, Wife’s expert opined that the practice was worth just under $1.1 million and testified that much of the value would be associated with a noncompete clause. While recognizing that some of the saleable goodwill might be fairly characterized as “personal” goodwill, the Supreme Court refused to assume that personal goodwill is necessarily nontransferable. The fact that Husband purchased his practice from another dentist, in a transaction where most of the purchase price was allocated to goodwill, was proof enough that personal goodwill may be transferable.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin court’s analysis of double dipping was not especially well-reasoned. The Court made little effort to rebut Husband’s argument that it should not include earnings from the dental practice in his income when determining post-divorce alimony, after having divided up the fair market value of the business based on capitalized earnings. The Court cited its own precedent where it cautioned about an inflexible application of the prohibition against double dipping, given the “infinite range of factual situations facing circuit courts in dividing property.” The Supreme Court found that a business is more like an income-producing investment than a pension.

Actually, that analogy does not hold up upon close scrutiny. The value of an investment is equal to the account balance on a particular date, and any interest income generated after that date would be counted as income to the owner of the investment because it can be consumed without decreasing the principal of the investment. If the interest or dividends generated by an investment are counted as income, there is no double dip. On the other hand, a pension is valued by taking the net present value of the future annuity payments. Theoretically, the value of the pension is diminished as payments are received. Therefore, pension payments cannot be counted as income if the pension has been divided as property.

Generally, a business is valued in the same manner as a pension. The value of the business is equal to the net present value of the cash flow or profits that the business generates. A business valuation is a hypothetical sale of the businessin which¬† the owner sells the business to a hypothetical buyer, who might retain the owner as a employee (paying “reasonable market compensation”) or simply hire a new employee to do the owner’s job. If the business is sold, the owner is not entitled to receive profits, so counting those earnings as income for alimony purposes is clearly double dipping. The Wisconsin court got it wrong.

To get even more sophisticated, the courts might have examined what a dentist like this gentleman was capable of earning as an employee of someone else’s dental practice. Alimony based on earning capacity would not be a double dip. It may be reasonable to believe that a professional could sell his practice and go to work for someone else. The salary that the professional could earn elsewhere might be equal to the “reasonable compensation” that a hypothetical buyer would pay to a replacement employee, or it might be more or less (depending upon the hours, duties and skills that the owner would bring to his new job).

Furthermore, the court might consider the investment return that the owner, having sold his business for cash, would earn on the sales proceeds. That argument might have gotten more traction ten years ago than today (when CD’s pay less than 1%) but it is still worth considering.

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