Set the Standard of Value in Shareholder and Partnership Agreements

Set the standard of value in business agreementsDefining “value” can help you avoid negative consequences

Do the valuation provisions of your shareholder or partnership agreement specify a standard of value? If they do, is the standard of value “fair value,” “fair market value,” or something else? If the standard of value is not fair value or fair market value, does the agreement define the standard of value to be used in the event a valuation of the business is required?

The Internal Revenue Service defines fair market value as “The price at which property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller when the former is not under any compulsion to buy and the latter is not under any compulsion to sell, both parties having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.”

Court decisions frequently state in addition that the hypothetical buyer and seller are assumed to be able, as well as willing, to trade and to be well informed about the property and concerning the market for such property.

Depending on the characteristics of the ownership interest being valued, minority and marketability discounts may be applied in valuing the ownership interest under the fair market value standard. The amounts of these discounts are fact sensitive, but discounts between 30% and 40% are not uncommon.

The impact of Brown v. Brown

The fair value standard was created in New Jersey in the case of Brown v. Brown 348 N.J. Super. 466, which is basically fair market value without discounts. The Court’s logic in this divorce case was that since the business was not being sold, the nontitled spouse should not suffer discounts in the distribution of marital property.

I have also been involved in a situation in which the agreement used the term “value” without definition. The parties in that dispute spent a significant amount of money on professional fees that resulted in an arbitrator deciding on a definition.

As you can see, the use of the single word “market” in the standard of value may have a huge impact on the valuation result. What does your agreement say, and is that what you intend?  Although discussing this issue and updating business agreements may be uncomfortable for some, it is far better than ignoring this issue, because doing so may very likely end up in litigation.