Double Dipping … again

At the Pennsylvania Bar Association Family Law Section Winter Meeting 2009, which took place at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh this weekend, a panel of judges, lawyers and CPAs discussed hot topics in family law and business valuation. One of the hot topics, presented by Pittsburgh valuation professional Richard F. Brabender, was double dipping. Specifically, this seminar discussed the theoretical/academic argument (which I have advocated in this blog) that a double dip exists where capitalized income which has been divided between the spouses as marital property is also counted as income for child support or alimony purposes.

Clearly, if there is a pension in pay status which is valued on the date of trial, and the pension annuity benefit is counted as income for calculating post-divorce alimony, the court has divided the same stream of income twice – a “double dip.” This same problem exists where business profits have been capitalized as part of the valuation process and also included in the business owner’s net income for child support and alimony purposes.

The twist that Dick Brabender brought to light in his presentation was the double dip that may occur during the separation, where the owner’s compensation substantially exceeds a market salary. For instance, if a business owner is drawing $500,000 per year from the business, but could hired a newly-minted MBA (because we all know how they can improve any business) to do the owner’s job for $70,000 a year, then the owner is receiving excessive compensation of $430,000 per year. Why shouldn’t the business owner’s spouse get 50% of the excess compensation during the separation period as an advance against his or her share of the marital property (assuming the business is entirely marital), subject to re-allocation at the time of trial? (The excess compensation would then be excluded from both spouses’ incomes for support purposes.) This is the likely result if there were a marital pension in pay status, which could be divided 50/50 during the pendency of litigation as an advance of marital property.

In order to accomplish this interim division of the business income stream, the court would have to conduct a hearing to determine that the owner’s compensation were excessive, something the court is unlikely to decide in motions court. Moreover, the excess compensation hearing would have to occur prior to the support or maintenance hearing so that there were no inconsistencies between the support order and the property advance. One of the panelists, eastern Pennsylvania lawyer Mark Ashton, suggested that the court would also have to look at whether the rents being paid by the business to the owner were consistent with market levels, whether the owner were working more than 40 hours a week, etc. Suddenly a simple hearing to determine a property advance has become a multi-day trial with multiple expert witnesses!

Another panelist, Jay Blechman, suggested an alternative: a lookback at the time of the final property division trial. In other words, if it were proven at the end of the case that the owner’s compensation during the pendency of litigation was above-market, then the court could re-designate the excessive income as marital property and award an incremental amount to the owner’s spouse. In Pennsylvania, a business owner’s spouse without children would receive 40% of the income stream as support or maintenance, but if the excess compensation were marital property, the spouse might 50%, 55% or more. So, Jay Blechman suggested that the business owner’s spouse could get 40% during the pendency of the case, and an additional 10%, 15% or more of the excessive compensation at the end of the case.

No case law supports this idea yet.

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