Another Big Decision: Personal Goodwill in Kentucky

Apparently the new frontier in divorce litigation is personal goodwill. Following closely on the heels of May (W.Va.2003) and other divorce decisions, the Supreme Court of Kentucky held recently that the non-transferrable goodwill of a professional practice was properly excluded from the marital estate.

The subject business in Gaskill v. Robbins (2/17/09) was an oral surgery practice, operated by the wife, without associate professionals. The wife’s expert presented an asset-based valuation, giving no value to goodwill because “Gaskill’s role in the business amounted to a ‘non-marketable controlling interest.'” The wife’s expert reasoned that no buyer would pay more than the fair market value of hard assets when the wife could set up shop down the hall and attract her patients away from the old practice.

The husband’s expert considered several approaches: capitalization of earnings, excess earnings, net asset value, and market comparables. He averaged these approaches to arrive at a valuation that included goodwill and a non-compete agreement. He also criticized the opinion of the wife’s expert who had doubled the compensation of the wife’s non-professional staff, thereby depressing earnings.

The trial court adopted the valuation of the husband’s expert, reasoning that the salary adjustment made by the wife’s expert was unreasonable, and noting that Kentucky law did not recognize a distinction between enterprise goodwill and personal goodwill.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed, holding that not all businesses have goodwill; and the Supreme Court of Kentucky affirmed that reversal on other grounds.

In its Opinion, the highest court of Kentucky examined the fair market value standard and the meaning of “goodwill” in the context of business valuation. The Kentucky court noted that none of its prior decisions had specifically considered the difference between enterprise goodwill and personal goodwill but none had prohibited such an analysis. The Court recognized that the reputation and skill of this professional practice were closely associated with the wife and might not be transferrable to a buyer. The Court also noted that professional degrees are not regarded as marital property to be divided upon divorce under Kentucky law.

The Kentucky Supreme Court also considered the decision of the West Virginia Supreme Court in May v. May (2003), which contained a survey of cases dealing with goodwill nation-wide. May, in turn, relied heavily upon the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in Yoon v. Yoon (1999), which distinguished between transferrable enterprise goodwill and non-transferrable personal goodwill. Ultimately, the Kentucky court aligned itself with these courts in reaching that distinction.

See also Helfer (W.Va.2007); Stewart (Idaho 2007); Hess (Maine 2007).

Gaskill joins a long list of cases that distinguish personal goodwill from enterprise goodwill in the context of professional practices. It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether these courts will extend this rationale to other types of businesses, where the reputation, skills and efforts of the business owner spouse are not so easily associated with the goodwill of the business.

Contact Us