Kentucky appeals court explains state’s goodwill law

BVWireIssue #226-3
July 28, 2021

marital dissolution/divorce
goodwill, enterprise goodwill, expert testimony, personal goodwill, professional practice

An unpublished opinion from the Kentucky Court of Appeals provides important insight into the court’s thinking as to the goodwill analysis trial courts must perform under the applicable state law when valuing business entities. Under controlling Kentucky law, only enterprise goodwill is a marital asset subject to marital distribution.

Scope of Gaskill: During the marriage, the ex-spouses started a chimney business. The husband worked as a chimney sweep, and the wife performed other tasks, including bookkeeping. The valuation of the company was important both for marital distribution purposes and determining alimony to the wife.

The wife relied on expert testimony from a CPA whose testimony and expert report included statements that 70% of the company’s value was personal goodwill and 30% was enterprise goodwill. The trial court accepted this expert’s overall valuation. At the same time, in determining the value of marital assets for property distribution’s sake and calculating income for alimony’s sake, the trial court disregarded the expert’s goodwill allocation.

The husband appealed the court’s findings on a number of grounds, including assigning error to the trial court’s decision to ignore the opposing expert’s goodwill analysis.

The Court of Appeals sided with the husband. The reviewing court first noted that the controlling case is the state Supreme Court’s Gaskill v. Robbins decision, which involved the valuation of an oral surgery practice that was organized as a sole proprietorship. In Gaskill, the high court adopted the distinction between enterprise and personal goodwill. Under the facts of Gaskill, the court found: “[T]here can be little argument that the skill, personality, work ethic, reputation, and relationships developed by [the owner spouse/doctor] are hers alone and cannot be sold to a subsequent practitioner.” Further, “[t]o consider this highly personal value as marital would effectively attach [the owner’s] future earnings, to which [the nonowner spouse] has no claim.”

In the instant case, the Court of Appeals invalidated the trial court’s judgment on this ground.

Moreover, the Court of Appeals dismissed the wife’s argument that Gaskill did not apply here because Gaskill dealt with a professional business whereas the contested business was a nonprofessional entity. The appeals court said it knew of no authority that definitively addressed whether Gaskill applied to valuing professional and nonprofessional business entities alike.

But, according to the appeals court, “though the issue may more often arise when valuing a professional entity, we conclude that Gaskill also applies to valuing nonprofessional entities.” Here, ignoring the expert’s unrebutted goodwill conclusions resulted in an approximately $200,000 increase in the marital portion of the company’s value, the Court of Appeals noted. In remanding, the appeals court ordered the trial court either to accept the expert’s goodwill conclusions and make the requisite apportionment of value or reject the goodwill analysis and provide a good explanation for doing so.

A digest of Maginnis v. Maginnis, 2021 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 378; 2021 WL 2483877 (June 18, 2021), and the court’s opinion will be available soon at BVLaw. Subscribers also have access to a digest of Gaskill v. Robbins (II), 282 S.W.3d 306 (Ky. 2009), and the court’s opinion.

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