Courts have wide discretion to set valuation dates for residential property
In part 1 of this post, we introduced the question of home valuation as it impacts property division in a divorce. We talked about how a solid grasp of how the court might choose a fair and equitable date for home valuation is a good place to begin settlement negotiations.
Setting dates for determining the marital estate and property valuation
Florida statute requires that the court first decide what is in the marital estate, which will contain all marital property divisible between the parties. Marital property is generally all real estate, personal property, and other things of value, plus money brought in jointly or by either spouse alone during a valid marriage. Sometimes separate or nonmarital property may become blended or transformed into marital property when marital assets are used to enhance or maintain nonmarital property. Other complex legal rules may also apply to determining the nature of property.
The date the judge determines the content of the marital estate is either the date the parties sign a separation agreement or the filing date of the petition for divorce, whichever is earlier. The parties may otherwise set this date in their separation agreement.
Judges have wide latitude and discretion to decide as of what date they will place value on an asset, including the family home, normally a significant asset. The real estate market may fluctuate between the date of separation and the date the divorce decree is issued, or the house’s value may rise or fall due to actions of either party or from forces beyond their control. The Florida standard for choosing valuation dates is “as the judge determines is just and equitable under the circumstances.”
It’s all about fairness
The judge in choosing a valuation date has broad discretion so they can consider the unique circumstances of the family at issue. Some may be rare or unique and the judge has the power to adjust valuation dates to create equity between the spouses.
One example that comes up more frequently is when one spouse pays for home expenses, including home maintenance, insurance, repairs, taxes, utilities and upkeep of the family home after separation and even to the end of the divorce proceedings. Often without this spouse’s contributions to the home, it could have become subject to foreclosure sale for defaulting on the mortgage or failing to pay property taxes.
In this scenario, Florida courts mandate that the court use the separation date as the valuation date. It would not be fair for the nonpaying spouse to potentially benefit from the increase in value (and preservation of the home as part of the marital estate) that was only possible because of the other spouse’s sweat equity and financial contribution to the residence.
Conversely, if one spouse lets the home deteriorate or fails to pay mortgages or property taxes after separation, the decrease in value or even loss of the asset should not harm the innocent spouse. In this situation, the separation date would still be fairer as the other spouse should not be stuck with the loss solely caused by the negligent spouse. The home valuation before the house neglect would give the innocent spouse credit for the value lost by the other spouse’s failure to care it.
The factors are endless that the court can consider in picking a home valuation date. A lawyer can assist the client by consulting with experts and presenting complex evidence of valuation factors at trial. They can also help the client understand what is likely to happen at trial if the judge were to choose the valuation date, so the client is wiser in negotiations involving the disposition of the family home.
Finally, if the home’s value changes in either direction through no action of either party, the judge will likely choose a date that would allow the adjustment in value to be split between them.