Buy-Sell Held Controlling Where Wife Signed

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently held that a business owner’s spouse who signed a buy-sell agreement was bound by the value in a divorce action. In Inzer (2009), the husband and wife both signed a buy-sell agreement when they formed an LLC to purchase a Sonic Drive-In franchise. The buy-sell agreement granted other partners a right of first refusal to buy the interests of a withdrawing partner for the lesser of book value or the offer procured by the withdrawing partner. The owner’s expert presented evidence that the owner’s 24% interest in the franchise was worth $120,000 to $135,000 using capitalized cash flow or market methods, but only $16,000 net book value after discounts. Wife’s expert testified to a value of more than $500,000 after making adjustments to the owners’ compensation and ignoring discounts for lack of marketability, lack of control or the restrictive operating agreement.

The trial court valued the owner’s interest at $200,000 without much explanation. The Tennessee Court reversed, holding that the franchise was worth $33,000 book value without consideration of intangible value or discounts (as specified in the buy-sell agreement). The appellate court distinguished cases in which buy-sell agreements were not controlling, since the non-owner spouse in those cases did not sign the buy-sell.

Consider whether it was appropriate for Wife’s expert to perform  Type I adjustments in his normalization of the income statement, i.e., adjusting the owners’ compensation. Could a purchaser of a 24% interest compel the other owners to reduce their compensation? Even if the Court had not held the buy-sell to be controlling, it seems unlikely that Wife’s expert would have prevailed.

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