Basics of Pennsylvania Law: Double Dip, Part V

This is the last 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.

Steneken v. Steneken, 873 A.2d 501 (N.J. 2005).

Although it is not a Pennsylvania decision, no discussion of double dipping would be complete without Steneken, a 2005 decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court. In this case, the husband was the sole owner of a business which was marital property subject to equitable distribution. The valuation expert performed a normalization of the owner’s compensation in his report, reducing the company’s salary expense and thereby increasing the value of the company. In determining an alimony award, the husband argued that the court should consider his lower, normalized compensation instead of his actual salary (since the excess compensation had been capitalized as part of the business valuation and divided as marital property). The trial court accepted the husband’s argument and used his normalized salary instead of his actual salary.

An appeal ensued, and the case was remanded to the trial court because the intermediate appellate court held that the record was not fully developed. On remand, the trial court reversed its earlier position and used the husband’s actual salary to determine the proper amount of alimony.

The intermediate appellate court, reviewing New Jersey’s divorce statute, held that the prohibition on “double dipping” extended only to pensions and affirmed the trial court’s decision. The husband appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court to extend the principle to double dipping arising from the capitalization of earnings in the context of a business valuation. Since an income capitalization approach had been used by the valuation expert endorsed by the trial court, and was not challenged, the husband argued that he should not have to pay alimony from the excess compensation that had been capitalized and distributed as part of the value of the business.

The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, affirming the trial court’s decision to permit double dipping. Rather than adopting the intermediate court’s rationale, the New Jersey high court attacked the husband’s reasoning.

The logical flaw in defendant’s argument lies at its core. Defendant mistakenly equates the statutory and decisional methodology applied ni the calculation of alimony with a valuation methodology applied for equitable distribution purposes that requires that revenues and expenses, including salaries, be normalized so as to present a fair valuation of a going concern. Simply said, defendant’s charged mischaracterization of the issue here as one of “double counting” both misstakes the issue and ignores the fundamental principles that undergird related yet nonetheless severable alimony and equitable distribution awards.  As our statutory framework and decisional precedent make clear, the proper issue is whether, under the circumstances, the alimony awarded and the equitable distribution made are, both singly and together, fair and consistent with the statutory design. . . . Because we embrace the premise that alimony and equitable distribution calculations, albeit interrelated, are separate, distinct, and not entirely compatible financial exercises, and because asset valuation methodologies applied in the equitable distribution context are not congruent with the factors relevant to alimony considerations, we conclude that the circumstances here present a fair and proper method of both awarding alimony and determining equitable distribution.

The New Jersey court’s opinion is not convincing; other reasons might have been more forceful. For instance, the court might have started with the observation that a business valuation expert ordinarily has no expertise in executive compensation. To identify part of the owner’s salary as excessive is tantamount to saying that the business could hire someone to do the job for less, or conversely, the owner would earn less if he or she sought employment elsewhere. Such determinations are beyond the expertise of most valuation experts, and should not be relied upon to determine the owner’s earning capacity for alimony and support purposes. Yet, if those normalization adjustments are not suitable to determine the owner’s earning capacity, why should we rely on them for the business valuation?

The New Jersey court noted that if a different valuation methodology had been applied, there might be no normalization adjustment to the owner’s salary. That is true, in the case of an asset approach. However, an asset approach assumes liquidation of the company, not ongoing concern value. The owner’s excess compensation does not get capitalized under the asset approach, so there is no possibility of double dipping. In the market approach, normalization of the income statement or cash flow is performed before applying a multiplier. Therefore, the potential inconsistency perceived by the Court is illusory.

In a vigorous and well-reasoned dissent, three of the seven Justices enunciated a compromise position: that the trial court need not use normalized compensation when computing the owner’s alimony obligation but should have discretion to adjust the value of the business or the alimony award to alleviate the double dip.

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About the Author: Brian C. Vertz

Loyalty and work ethic are the traits that Brian C. Vertz is most proud of. Clients who work with Brian remark on his tenacity and unwavering dedication to their financial and emotional well-being. In the legal community, Brian is known as a pragmatic and creative “problem solver” who won’t play games or engage in rhetoric. Coming from a blue collar background, Brian knows the importance of using each billable hour effectively to advance the client’s objectives.

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