Zoldan v. Zohlman, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 1310995 (Fla. 3d DCA May 13, 2009)

In this case “husband” sued his second wife’s estate on undue influence grounds trying to get out of a post-nuptial agreement he signed obligating him to leave a share of his $40 million estate to second wife’s daughter. Husband died after filing his lawsuit, and his sons were substituted in as plaintiffs.

So by now the litigation is between two estates: husband’s estate vs. wife’s estate. But those are only legal titles, this fight is really between two sets of heirs: husband’s sons from a prior marriage (representing his estate) vs. wife’s daughter from a prior marriage (representing her estate). As the WSJ recently reported in The Right Steps, blended families are often a volatile mix (see also here), which may explain why the two estates battling it out in this case have by now gone through two full blown trials followed by two trips to the 3d DCA.

Wife’s estate won the first round [click here]. Perhaps emboldened by this win, wife’s estate then tried to make the best of its win by arguing that its share of husband’s estate (25% of a $40 million family limited partnership) shouldn’t be subject to the standard valuation discounts applicable to FLPs, but should instead be measured on a “fair value” basis (i.e., no discounts for lack of marketability or minority status) under F.S. 620.2114(1)Nice try, but no cigar. This time around husband’s side won:

Originally, the Estate disputed Ms. Zoldan’s right to obtain anything other than what each of the three sons had inherited, i.e. an interest in the limited partnership. Eventually, however, the Estate took the position that if monetary damages were ordered, it was a “fair market valuation” that should be utilized in determining that award. The parties attached a dollar amount to each valuation method, concluding that the “fair market valuation” of the interest was $2,247,573, while the “fair valuation” of the interest was $6,450,937. Thus, by mutual agreement, the only question before the trial court was which valuation method should be applied.

.   .  .  .  .

While the partnership agreement does not permit a limited partner to withdraw and demand distribution from the partnership, Mr. Zohlman’s sons, one of whom is the general partner with “sole and exclusive control of the Limited Partnership,” nevertheless agreed to distribute to Ms. Zoldan the “fair market value” of a one quarter interest of Mr. Zohlman’s 99% limited partner interest in the partnership, i.e., the amount a full limited partner would receive if that partner took the interest and attempted to sell it on the open market. FN4 See Rothschild v. Kisling, 417 So.2d 798, 801 (Fla. 5th DCA 1982) (recognizing that fair market value is generally “what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller” for an interest). Such a distribution would be consistent with paragraph 12 .03 of the partnership agreement which provides that although “[n]o Partner shall be entitled to demand a distribution be made in partnership Property … the General Partner may make or direct property distributions to be made, using the property’s fair market value as of the time of the distribution[ ] as a basis for making the distribution[ ].”

It would also be consistent with that portion of the partnership agreement governing permitted sales of limited partnership interests, which obligates limited partners to establish the market value of their interests by obtaining a bona fide offer from a willing buyer in the marketplace:
. . . . .

Here, the stipulated fair market value of Ms. Zoldan’s interest was put at $2,247,573. Based on the foregoing analysis, we find no error in the methodology used to make this determination.

We also reject the notion that there was no competent, substantial evidence to support the trial court’s determination that Ms. Zoldan’s interests should be valued using the fair market value method. The Estate presented the expert testimony of David Pratt, a seasoned trust and estate lawyer, who testified that fair market value is the valuation standard used when distributing trust assets and the assets of an estate. More specifically, Pratt testified that fair market value is the exclusive valuation method used for the purpose of determining distributions from a limited family partnership that is part of a trust or an estate.

Thus, we find no error in the valuation method used by the trial court. The promise made and broken was that Mr. Zohlman name Ms. Zoldan an heir equal to his three sons. Ms. Zoldan was offered and rejected an interest in the limited partnership which would have put her in the exact same position as the Zohlman brothers. Having rejected that offer, the Estate maintained that the measure of Ms. Zoldan’s damages would be the “fair market value” of the interest she rejected. With no dispute as to the dollar amount attached to the use of a “fair market valuation,” with that method being identified in the partnership agreement itself, and with that valuation method being supported by expert testimony, we conclude that it was properly employed. Accordingly, we find the trial court’s order was correct in its entirety, and affirm the order awarding Ms. Zoldan $2,247,573, plus pre-judgment interest.

Lesson learned?

Valuation issues involving FLPs are a BIG DEAL! to estate planners and probate lawyers alike. Florida trusts and estates lawyers will want to take note of this important valuation case. The 3d DCA’s opinion is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t go into much detail explaining the losing side’s “fair value” argument, for that you’ll want to read Appellees’ Answer Brief.

By the way, many of the issues raised in this opinion were the subject of an excellent Florida Bar Journal article by Rebecca C. Cavendish and Christopher W. Kammerer, as applied in the context of closely-held corporations: Determining the Fair Value of Minority Ownership Interests in Closely Held Corporations: Are Discounts for Lack of Control and Lack of Marketability Applicable?