How to Estimate the Market Value of Assets in a Divorce
By Beverly Bird
Judges and attorneys are predominantly concerned with the value of significant assets when a couple breaks up. You might love the recliner you lounge in while watching television every night, and you might be willing to fight to the death to keep it, but that’s usually an emotional battle. Unless it's a priceless antique, it won't figure into the property distribution equation. Courts value assets such as real estate, automobiles, pension and retirement plans, and valuable collectibles to ensure that you and your spouse each walk away with assets of equal worth.
Determine your state’s cutoff date for valuation of your marital assets. This is usually the date your marriage officially ends, but “officially” means different things in different states. In some jurisdictions, it’s the date you file a complaint for divorce. In others, it may be the date you separate. The court divides your assets according to their value at this exact time. However, if you’re divorcing by marital settlement agreement, the date you choose is up to you.
Address any items that require appraisals first, because it usually takes some time for a professional to assess your property, then to write a report detailing its value. You’ll need appraisals for any real estate you own, as well as assets such as artwork or collectibles. An appraiser determines the "fair market value" of the asset -- what another individual would be willing to pay for it if you sold it as-is.
Contact a certified public accountant to ascertain the value of your retirement benefits. This is an extremely complex undertaking, so you’ll need a professional. When you select an accountant, make sure he's experienced in valuing pensions and retirement benefits specifically for division in a divorce. This involves a “coverture fraction” to determine what portion of the retirement benefits are marital and what portion you earned prior to your marriage or after its official cutoff date.
Establish the value of less significant assets last, because this won’t take you much time at all. You can value your automobiles by consulting a Kelly Blue Book or NADA Guide, then subtract any loan balances from their indicated values. Websites such as eBay and Craigslist can help you establish the value of electronics or furniture. Prices listed are indicative of what a buyer would be willing to spend to acquire your similar item in the same condition. You can value liquid funds in bank or investment accounts by their balances indicated in statements as of your cutoff date.
If you and your spouse are negotiating a divorce settlement, and if you want to save money on a real estate appraisal, you can have a realtor prepare a comparative market analysis of your home instead. However, if you end up litigating your divorce, courts usually prefer appraisals because they tend to more accurately reflect the home’s value.
The appraised value of your assets may or may not be what you paid for them, or what you think they’re worth. In the case of real estate, your property’s appraised value is usually much different frmo its tax assessed value. You may not like the values you come up with, but you’re probably stuck with them, especially if you end up divorcing by trial. Judges aren’t interested in your estimates of value. They require a professional opinion.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.