As far as the law is concerned, marriage is a financial partnership between two individuals.
If these two individuals then decide to file for divorce, it can often be hard to separate their now-combined lives, property, and assets.
In Virginia, courts will often follow several guidelines to create an “equitable distribution” of the couple’s property and assets.
One key element of creating an “equitable distribution” is to properly value any contested property so that the court can fairly divide that property between the spouses.
In this article, we’ll broadly cover the basic elements that the court will consider when valuing property for a divorce in Virginia.
Equitable Distribution Basics
To summarize a large amount of law into a single sentence:
The goal of any Virginia divorce is to achieve an “equitable” (“fair”) distribution of any and all contested marital and mixed property.
While this may sound like a simple statement, there are actually a few key terms which we should unpack:
- “Virginia Divorce” — Virginia has very specific processes in place for when, how, and where you can file for divorce. This is especially important for divorces that go through the equitable distribution process.
- “Equitable Distribution” — The “fair” division of property between two divorcing spouses. Note that “equitable” does not mean “equal,” and unequal divisions (such as 60/40 or even 70/30) are not uncommon.
- “Contested Divorce” — If you and your spouse disagree about any significant element of your divorce (such as how to split your property), your divorce automatically becomes “contested.” Often, you’ll have to appear before a judge to resolve the issue, or, alternatively, participate in an alternative dispute resolution such as mediation.
- “Marital and Mixed Property” — Only “marital” and “mixed” (i.e. “shared”) property are subject to the equitable distribution process. This means that otherwise “separate” property, such as inheritances, will fall outside the equitable distribution process, and do not need to be divided.
When working towards an “equitable” distribution of property, you will generally follow three broad steps:
- List and categorize all relevant property as either marital, mixed, or separate (as noted above).
- Assign a specific value to that property (the focus of this particular article).
- Divide that property in an equitable manner.
In this way, a necessary part of any Virginia divorce is the valuation of any relevant contested property.
A Quick Example of an Equitable Distribution
As a quick example of this process, consider a couple that is arguing over who should keep the shared family car in their divorce.
Using the three “steps” noted above:
- Each would bring up their argument about the car to their attorney, who would then likely categorize the car as “marital” due to the fact that it is, by definition, “the shared family car.”
- Each attorney (or, alternatively, each spouse) would then try to value the car. In this scenario, let’s say that Kelley Blue Book values it at $12,000 (we’ll outline other strategies below).
- When the couple appears in front of a judge, the judge will try to divide the “value” of this car in an equitable manner. So, for example, she could order one spouse to “buy out” the other spouse’s interest in the car.
In this example, each spouse would walk away with a “value” of roughly $6,000, since the judge would order an “equitable” division of the total “value” of $12,000.
There are a few ways that this division could be accomplished:
- Spouse A keeps the vehicle, and provides Spouse B with their share of the value of the vehicle, effectively buying them out.
- The parties agree to sell the vehicle, and split the proceeds of the sale evenly.
- Spouse A keeps the vehicle at full value. This is taken into account when dividing other assets, and Spouse B is granted some other benefit that is equal in value.
Since family court judges often have a great deal of discretion in deciding how to split property “equitably,” the above example is simply one of many possible solutions the judge may consider in your case.
How to Value Your Property for an Equitable Distribution
Unlike the “categorize” and “divide” steps noted above, the Virginia Code does not have a law which dictates how divorcing couples should value their property.
For this reason, spouses who disagree over the actual value of a piece of property will each have to make an argument in front of a judge, who will ultimately decide on a concrete number for that piece of property.
Put another way, “valuing” your property ultimately means convincing a judge, mediator, or arbiter that the property is worth a specific amount of money.
As a result of this fact, certain strategies and patterns have arisen for valuing different types of property.
For example, while you’ll probably want to hire a professional to value your home, certain pieces of personal property may require a different strategy.
How to Value a Home
Since property is often the most expensive asset you’ll have to divide, the value of your property can greatly affect the equitable distribution of all of your other assets.
There are several ways for you to value your property.
Generally, the “best” way is to hire an expert to do an appraisal.
However, this isn’t always cost-effective, so some couples choose other methods depending on the circumstances.
To list two of the most common:
- Comparative Market Analysis — While this may sound like a complex term, it’s actually rather simple. Basically, you can “value” your home by comparing it to the prices of similar homes in your area.
- Change in Value — Another common method is a “sum of its parts” approach. Basically, you’ll consider the value of any special features, such as a renovated kitchen, and add that to your estimate. The same goes for anything else that may increase the value of the home.
The “change in value” method is particularly useful if you devoted a considerable amount of personal effort to the home.
For example, even if you don’t have a claim on the total value of the house, you may be able to get a share due to any increases in the property’s value caused by work you performed on the home.
How to Value a Business
There are several methods to estimate the value of a business.
One is to go over the actually bookkeeping of the business and adjusting for the wear-and-tear or appreciation of the business.
This can be time consuming and prone to errors depending on the business’ record keeping.
The more common method is to value the business by considering what a buyer would pay for it based on the business’ earning capacity.
This is done by hiring a certified valuation analyst (CVA) or a certified public accountant (CPA) who specializes in valuing businesses.
In addition to the basic valuation of the business, the judge will also consider the effort and money spent separately or jointly on improving or running the business.
For example, if one spouse devoted a disproportionately large amount of time and effort to growing the business, it may be “equitable” to assign them a larger share of that business’s value.
Finally, you should note that it’s relatively rare for a judge to order the sale of a business during a divorce.
In most cases, one spouse will have to “buy out” the other spouse’s share or take a similar deal that leaves the business itself in one piece.
How to Value Personal Property
There are several ways to value any remaining personal belongings.
Generally, these methods depend on the specific property that needs to be appraised.
For example, if you and your spouse disagree about the value of the family car, you may want to look up the car’s Kelley Blue Book value.
Alternatively, you could research the prices of comparable cars, or get an estimate or two from reputable car salesmen.
For other forms of personal property, you could look at what used versions of the item are selling for online, or find out how much it would cost to replace the item with something new.
In the case of rarer or collectible items, you may want to spend a little more time to find out what comparable items are selling for.
You could even search out an individual in that field to provide expert testimony to the item’s value (though the cost of this method rarely outweighs the benefit).
Additionally, from a purely practical perspective, it’s generally wise to divide small-value items without the assistance of an attorney or judge.
For example, you don’t want to pay your attorney’s hourly rate to fight over a $70 coffee maker.
Property Valuation FAQ
Your attorney will likely ask you several questions about your property as part of the divorce process.
Below, we’ll outline the reasoning behind the three most common.
What do you own?
The very first step in a divorce is creating a detailed list of all assets and property in the marriage.
In this list, you should also make your best possible case for why you or your spouse owns that particular piece of property.
Who bought it? When? Before the marriage or after? With shared funds or their individual “spending money”? Who contributed to it, either in funding or in maintenance? Do you have a receipt?
Gather what you can of this important information and go over it with your attorney.
They can help you develop your case and decide how you will handle the specifics of your divorce.
When did it end?
Your “date of separation” from your spouse is important for a variety of reasons.
The date of separation will serve as the date at which your assets will be valued for the purpose of equitable distribution.
For example, if you are wondering how much of your spouse’s retirement account you might be entitled to, you should look at the value of that account as of the date of separation.
It’s value now is (largely) irrelevant. What matters is how much it was worth then, as that’s the value that the court will be interested in.
However, you should note that this process might look a little different for real property, such as a home or vehicle.
For real property, the date of valuation for these items might vary depending on how you’ll be dividing the property.
For example, let’s say that Spouse A files for divorce. Two months later, Spouse B sells a boat that the couple bought and enjoyed together, and keeps the profits for themselves.
In this situation, the court would take the value of the boat and the profit that Spouse B made from the sale into consideration during the equitable distribution process.
This is because as of the date of separation (when Spouse A filed for divorce), the property was still “marital” in nature, and thus jointly owned by both parties.
So, if Spouse B sold the boat for significantly below market price, they still might owe Spouse A a share of the value of the boat, as determined by the estimated value of the boat as of the date of separation.
In the context of this article, if your spouse does anything to reduce the value of shared marital property (such as trashing the family home) after your “date of separation,” a judge may value the property using a pre-trashed estimate.
What do you care about the most?
You should take note that “value” is a particularly tricky term when it comes to Virginia divorces.
To quote the old phrase, “one woman’s junk is her husband’s treasure.”
“Value” does not directly correlate with “money,” since, as noted above, value is largely assigned at the discretion of the judge after hearing arguments from both spouses.
In this way, it’s often smart to make a list of the things you value most, and to talk over this list with your attorney.
Homes, businesses, collectibles, pets, and other forms of “property” are common things to include on such a list.
However, what about heirlooms, family photos, or mementos from when your children were growing up?
While certain sentimental items may not have a significantly large financial value, the emotional value of this property is certainly something you’ll want to bring up to your lawyer.
The only real way to properly “value” your property is to make a strong argument for why your property is worth that much.
For many, the best way to meet this goal is to hire an experience family law attorney to do the arguing for you.
However, you can also do much of the work on your own.
As we noted above, you can value most items by simply finding out how much similar items are selling for online.
For big ticket items such as houses, you could also hire an independent professional to value the property for you.
Regardless of which strategy you choose, you should always follow the advice of your attorney.
After all, only your attorney truly knows how much a specific valuation or piece of property will affect your overall divorce case.