After announcing one useful alimony holding, which we discussed in Part 1, the appellate panel in Bortolotti v. Bortolotti speed-wrote six issues that are common to many divorce cases, and where the bench and bar could use some real direction. In this blog entry, we will focus on two of them:
The Appeals Court upheld both decisions, simply noting that each was within the Probate and Family Court’s discretion, but with the thinnest possible explanation, giving little critical value to the reader.
Bearing in mind that “unpublished” opinions are not formal precedent, but that the Appeals Court invites their use for “persuasive value”, why wouldn’t the appellate bench want to write its opinion persuasively? Why not share their actual analysis?
In our first example, trial court accepted the uncontested adjustments that a valuation expert made to the husband’s salary, in furtherance of an income-based valuation, for which salary “normalization” is an essential component. Normalization is an effort to approximate the owner’s actual economic yield, or more traditionally, that which a hypothetical buyer might fairly expect achieve in the future.
Common adjustments are one-off expenses, personal expenses written off against revenues and S Corporation tax effect. A potential business buyer uses this to measure likely return, so as to rationalize its investment, including acquisition debt. The divorce court does it to determine the value to the business owner who is cashing out the opposing spouse’s marital interest.
The Appeals Court owed no explanation for upholding the acceptance of the normalized salary in the valuation context because no one disputed the substance of the finding at trial. But, then, the panel addressed the trial court’s determination to use only half of the normalized sum for alimony purposes because “there was evidence that [the husband] did not derive any actual income from” his company.
What does this mean? Were the actual earnings zero? Were they normalized to a positive value, more than zero based solely on adjustments? Alternatively, did the expert find positive earnings, but zero salary and/or profit distributions made? If so, did the judge determine that half of the realized but undistributed income was retained for legitimate business purposes?
In short, it matters what the essential facts were, and why the Appeals court found the trial decision to be sound. Discretion is not unbridled; and appellate analysis is, or should be, an explanation of why the judge did not abuse it so that the bench and bar may learn from an elucidated point of view, from which they may analogize with intellectual consistency. Instead, we are left with bare bones, and a conclusory statement, which may create mischief in place of clarity.
Some lawyer soon will assert that Bortolotti supports the proposition that “actual income” and “realized income” are opposites (they are not) and that a rigorous application of JS v. CC is not really required for alimony matters, when a controlling owner does not distribute realized income. Neither is a healthy result.
It is possible the trial court did apply JS v. CC factors comprehensively and well, and this was not reported in keeping with the Rule 1:28 admonition that the opinion does not “fully” address the facts. Yet, the facts that are key to the decision should be discussed or at least identified. Otherwise, what is the point of making the decision publicly available?
Similarly, where the judge applied a two-year-old real estate appraisal value to the marital home, the Appeals Court simply opined that the date was halfway between the date of separation and the date of trial and that the judge was within his or her discretion. This conclusion leaves us wondering: Were all assets valued as of the interim date? Was there intrinsic significance to the halfway point? Was the Court choosing between bad alternatives (2-years-old v. older)? Did only one party offer a value? Was a more recent value offered, but on an infirm basis?
The answers to these questions, and others, matter; and we; and we suspect other curious minds would like to know the why as much as the what.