No Judgment of Modification = No Modification

October 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

You’re going to have to read for yourself the MSSC’s decision in Shumake v. Shumake, handed down September 18, 2014. It’s a dizzying scenario involving a divorce judgment ordering payment of alimony, bankruptcy, petition to modify, contempt hearing, a temporary reduction of alimony, and subsequent contempt. The Special Chancellor ultimately found that ex-husband Leslie Shumake owed his ex-wife Katarina Shumake $58,550, plus interest, in alimony arrearage. Leslie appealed.

The case was first assigned to the COA. The court noted some confusion arising from language that the special chancellor had used in effecting a temporary reduction in alimony while bankruptcy payments were being made. In its November 23, 2013, opinion, the COA held, among other things, that on the unique facts of this case, it ” … would be fundamentally unfair to charge Leslie with a $58,550 arrearage …” and reversed and rendered that part of the judgment.

The COA granted cert and reversed the COA. Here’s what Justice King said for the unanimous court (Lamar not participating):

¶11. Originally, the chancellor ordered Leslie to pay Katarina $5,750 per month in periodic alimony. Leslie never met this obligation. Instead, he paid Katarina $650 per week in alimony. Katarina filed a contempt complaint asking the chancellor to require Leslie to comply with the divorce judgment. In response to Katarina’s contempt complaint, Leslie requested a modification, claiming that his extreme economic hardship had resulted in a substantial and material change in his circumstances. The chancellor then entered an order requiring Leslie to transfer his interest in the marital home to Katarina to cover part of the arrearage at that time. Leslie was to pay the remaining amount of the arrearage from cash. Of particular note, the chancellor did not modify the alimony or specifically address Leslie’s request for modification. Moreover, the order states that the chancellor “reserves the right to make a ruling regarding any arrearage and/or future arrearage . . . .”

¶12. According to the parties, the chancellor entered another order in November 2010 which required Leslie to pay Katarina $750 per week. This order is not in the record, although it was discussed at length at an April 2011 hearing, and the docket reflects that the chancellor entered an order at that time. At the hearing, Leslie argued that the November 2010 order temporarily modified the alimony. Katarina, on the other hand, maintained that Leslie was still required under the divorce judgment to pay $5,750 per month in alimony. Thus, Katarina claimed that Leslie owed $58,550 in arrears.

¶13. The [special] chancellor, who was not the chancellor who entered the divorce judgment or prior orders in the case, ultimately found that the previous chancellor never entered an order permanently modifying the original divorce judgment which required Leslie to pay $5,750 per month in alimony. Thus, the chancellor found that Leslie was in arrears for $58,550 to Katarina. The chancellor ordered that Leslie, upon completion of his bankruptcy payments, pay Katarina for the arrearage in monthly payments of $1,500.

¶14. After reviewing the record in today’s case and considering our law with respect to alimony modification, we cannot find that the chancellor abused his discretion. An alimony payment vests on the day it is due. Bowe [v. Bowe], 557 So. 2d [793] at 794 [(Miss. 1990)]. And a court order is required to modify alimony. Id. Because no order expressly modified Leslie’s alimony obligation, the [special] chancellor in today’s case did not abuse his discretion in ordering Leslie to pay the arrearage.

¶15. Further, the Court of Appeals’ statement that it would be “fundamentally unfair and unjust” to require Leslie to pay the arrearage is supported by neither our caselaw nor the chancellor’s order. The order considers – and provides some allowance for – Leslie’s bankruptcy by allowing him to pay the arrearage when the bankruptcy is complete. Our caselaw addressing the effect of bankruptcy on alimony payments is consistent with this approach. See Varner, 666 So. 2d at 497-98. Finally, the chancellor’s decision not to punish Leslie through contempt does not absolve Leslie’s arrearage. See Hand, Mississippi Divorce, Alimony, and Child Custody § 14-6 (“If the responding party is found to be in contempt and refuses or fails without justification to pay the arrearages as previously required by the court, he may be punished by civil or criminal sanctions, or both.”) (emphasis added). Put simply, Leslie’s alimony payments vested on the day they were due and the record does not support a finding that the vested payments were or should have been modified. The chancellor did not abuse his discretion in ordering Leslie to pay the arrearage. [Emphasis added]

There is a handful of lessons here:

  • Never walk away from a case until you are sure that every order that should have been entered has gotten entered. You can not rely on opposing counsel to agree with you to the terms of a missing order so as to reconstruct it. Even if counsel opposite wants to “do the right thing,” memories fade with the passage of time, and two honest people can remember the same event in quite different ways.
  • Without an order in which to rely, your client has no cover for his actions. That November order might have saved Leslie a lot of money because alimony payments become vested when they are due, and they can not be modified except by express order of the court.
  • Note the language about bankruptcy. In ¶10, the court points out that bankruptcy does not in all cases rise to the level of substantial change in circumstances that would warrant modification.


The Valuation Bugaboo — Again

October 13, 2014 § 2 Comments

It’s a never-ceasing source of wonderment to me how some lawyers devote so little attention at trial to valuation of assets when that proof is crucial to the outcome of the equitable distribution.

The latest object lesson on point is in the COA’s decision in Ilsley v. Ilsley, decided October 7, 2014. In that case, Susan and Timothy were in the throes of a divorce. Mediation had failed, and the two unhappy spouses appeared at trial as the only two witnesses.

The main equitable distribution battle ground was over an ING account with 21,225 vested (and some additional unvested) shares that Timothy had as part of his employment compensation with the Isle of Capri Casino. The COA opinion says that the “primary testimony and evidence presented at trial regarding the value per share” was Timothy’s testimony that it was worth $7.06 per share. A few months later, in his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, Timothy stated the share value as $5.30.

Before we go any further, take a minute to absorb what I just laid out: the evidence that the court had to rely on came from one of the parties. No expert, no agreed statement from a stock brokerage or the plan administrator, nothing other than the testimony of one of the parties.

Now, I am not taking the lawyers in the trial to task. It may be that the figures thrown out were what was developed in discovery and no further effort was needed. The end result though, is that the two figures injected into the record were the ones upon which the judge relied.

The chancellor concluded from the proof that the value of the vested shares in the ING account was $143,089, and awarded Susan $75,000, to be paid by Timothy as lump-sum alimony. The judge did not explain the value of the shares he applied to arrive at those figures, or the total number of shares he found. Susan appealed.

Judge Roberts, for the majority of the COA, said this:

¶10. Susan first argues that the chancery court erred in valuing and classifying stocks Timothy received as part of his compensation package from Isle of Capri. As part of his compensation package, Timothy was granted shares of stock each year that vest randomly over a three-year period and, once vested, are invested in an ING account. At trial, the parties stipulated that the number of vested shares in the ING account was 21,225 shares. In addition, there were 9,511 shares that granted after the date of the temporary order, but these shares had not yet vested. The chancery court found that these shares were marital, but awarded them to Timothy, as the shares had not yet vested. Timothy testified at trial that the value per share was approximately $7.06. This was the primary testimony and evidence presented at trial regarding the value per share. In his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, Timothy offered the value per share of $5.30. In its corrected final judgment of divorce, the chancery court found the total value of the ING account to be $193,497, and the value of the vested shares to be $143,089. The chancery court did not include in its judgment what the total number of shares or the price per share was in determing [sic] the total values.

¶11. As explained above, the two pieces of evidence presented to the chancery court as to the price per share were $7.06 as testified to at trial, and $5.30 as contained in Timothy’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law submitted several months after trial. “Where parties provide inadequate proof of an asset’s value, a chancellor’s valuation with ‘some evidentiary support’ will be upheld.” Dunn v. Dunn, 911 So. 2d 591, 597 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (quoting Dunaway v. Dunaway, 749 So. 2d 1112, 1121 (¶28) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999)). In Dunaway, we held:

To the extent that the evidence on which the chancellor based his opinion was less informative than it could have been, we lay that at the feet of the litigants and not the chancellor. The chancellor appears to have fully explored the available proof and arrived at the best conclusions that he could, and we can discover no abuse of discretion in those efforts that would require us to reverse his valuation determinations.

Dunaway, 749 So. 2d at 1121 (¶28). Without having additional evidence provided by the parties, the chancery court was in the position to select a value for the shares and determined the total values for distribution. Additionally, the chancery court found that each party “will be entitled each to one-half of those [vested] shares.” Thus, the actual value per share fluctuates based upon the market, so the total value of the shares would vary based upon the market price.

¶12. We find that the chancery court did not abuse its discretion.

In other words, if you want a shot at overcoming a bad trial result, you’d better make it your business to make an adequate record at trial. Susan in this case in essence left the judge no choice but to rely on the figures offered by Timothy, and she ineffectively argued that it cost her, because she offered no proof to the contrary.

A Few Interesting points in an ID Divorce

October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

The COA case of Massey v. Massey, handed down September 30, 2014, is a routine case for the most part, but it includes some interesting wrinkles that you might want to note.

Jennifer and Stephen Massey filed a joint complaint for divorce on the sole ground of irreconcilable differences. Later they entered into a written consent that settled a few issues and spelled out issues for adjudication by the court.

When they appeared for trial, they announced that certain of the contested issues had been settled. They agreed to joint legal and physical custody of two of their children, and to legal custody of the third, but physical custody of him, as well as support for all three children, was left for the court to decide. Attorney’s fees were also agreed, but all other contested issues were left to the court.

Following a trial, the court adopted the parties’ agreement, and awarded Stephen custody of one child. He ordered Stephen to pay child support for the children in Jennifer’s custody, but ordered no child support for the child in Stephen’s care (she was to turn 21 within six months of the judgment). The chancellor divided the marital estate so that each party got an equal share, each in excess of $750,000. He awarded no alimony to Jennifer.

Jennifer appealed. The COA affirmed.

  • One of the questions that arises often is whether a written consent in an ID divorce may be amended via an announcement on the record, as was done in this case. I have heard the question in my court, and I have heard it among judges at study meetings. The problem is that there are plenty of cases that hew strictly to the line that the consent and any PSA emphatically must be in writing, yet it is quite familiar and common practice for parties to amend their pleadings verbally at trial (e.g., “My client withdraws her claim in her complaint for custody and will proceed only on her claim for visitation, your honor”). It is interesting that no one raised the verbal amendment issue here. I am thinking that the COA has raised that sua sponte in other cases. So, does this case signal that it is okay to make a verbal amendment to a consent at trial? I am doubtful. I think I’ll continue my practice of requiring the lawyers to reduce the agreement to writing and make it part of the record; making it meet the requirements of a codicil is even better.
  • This is another of many cases in which the hoary Lauro rule applies: Alimony should be awarded if a spouse is left with a deficit after equitable division. If there is no deficit found by the court, alimony is inappropriate. Here, the chancellor found expressly that Jennifer’s award of around $750,000 would do to eliminate any deficit, and the COA found that to be within the chancellor’s discretion.
  • Jennifer tried to argue on appeal that the award of child support was inadequate and erroneous. The COA held that since Jennifer did not raise the issue specifically by way of objection at trial, or in a post-trial motion, she was precluded from raising it on appeal. I find this confusing. Was this not a contested issue at trial? When a contested issue is tried with substantial proof what objection does the party have to make at trial? Object to what? And if the issue is fully developed at a bench trial, where in MRCP 59 does it require that the issue be raised again in a post-trial motion? I think R59 does not require it. See, Kiddy v. Lipscomb, 628 So.2d 1355, 1359 (Miss. 1993) [cited in the MRCP Advisory Committee Notes]. This is an issue that I wish the MSSC would address and clarify. If lawyers trying cases to a judge, without a jury, are required in essence to raise every possible issue that might be appealed in a R59 motion, despite the language of the rule, I think it is incumbent on the MSSC to tell lawyers so.
  • Jennifer argued that the chancellor erred in not finding that her husband’s payment of $30,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim against him was dissipation of marital assets. The COA did not consider it because she cited no authority. That’s unfortunate for her, because I think there’s a good argument to be made there that it was dissipation. BUT … I think the chancellor was within his discretion to find that it was not, based on the fact that it was a mere settlement, and not payment of a judgment; the settlement could be construed to be protective of the rest of the assets, and not in dissipation of them.

Those are my thoughts that percolate out of this case. Sometimes it’s helpful to read appellate court decisions critically, looking for loopholes in the arguments and reasoning of the courts (trial and appellate). That process stretches your critical-thinking processes, and adds to your ability to represent your clients.

The Bite of Draftsmanship

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

How you draft your legal instruments can have a huge impact on your clients’ future.

Take, for instance, the parties’ property settlement agreement (PSA) in the case of Aaron v. Aaron, a COA case handed down September 9, 2014. George and Annie Aaron were divorced in 2002 on the ground of irreconcilable differences. At the time, George was employed with the Amory Police Department, and was a participant in PERS. We don’t know from the court’s opinion the exact language of the parties’ agreement, but we know this much from ¶ 1:

As part of the divorce, George agreed to pay Annie one-half of his retirement funds acquired during the marriage. The judgment stated the funds would be transferred through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). At the time the judgment was entered, George was not receiving any retirement benefits. The judgment did not state which party was responsible for entering the QDRO.

We also can divine from the opinion that: the language of the PSA did not specify whether Annie was to receive 1/2 of the retirement accumulated during the marriage, or 1/2 of all George’s retirement, a significant portion of which would be earned after the divorce; it did not spell out what consideration would be given to future pay increases on George’s ultimate obligation to Annie; it also did not settle the question whether the payments were intended to be paid out in a lump sum as property settlement or whether they were intended to be paid monthly as benefits were paid out to George, in the nature of alimony.

The legal considerations that remained unaddressed in the parties’ agreement were, at least, the following:

  • PERS takes the position that federal ERISA and Mississippi law do not allow division of PERS benefits by QDRO. The agreement should have provided that it would be divided by payment, unless George left PERS employment and withdrew his account, at which time it would be divided by specified percentages between them.  No mention should have been made of a QDRO vis a vis the PERS benefits. Also, whose responsibility it was to trigger the payment of benefits should have been specified in the agreement.
  • Final calculation of the PERS benefit is based on the highest four years of earnings. Since George was not a retirement age at the time of the divorce (he did not retire until 2011), the parties should have negotiated and included in their agreement how Annie’s 1/2 benefit would be calculated, taking into account the probability of George’s future pay increases.
  • PERS benefits can not be paid out in a lump sum unless the employee leaves PERS employment. As mentioned above, this obvious point should have been addressed in the parties’ agreement. In essence, these parties had no choice but to have Annie’s share paid out over time. That is what the chancellor in Pruitt v. Pruitt tried to do, but was reversed by the COA. The problem, based on Pruitt, seems easy to address in a rational way, but is in reality deceptively difficult to resolve.

Every one of the foregoing deficiencies came back to bite these parties in the proverbial nether regions. Annie brought a contempt action against George because he did not initiate a QDRO, and for her unpaid benefits. George countered that he owed nothing, since PERS could not be divided by QDRO. The chancellor calculated what she concluded was Annie’s portion, and ordered that Annie receive that from George’s retirement payments as paid, and she awarded Annie a judgment with modest interest for the benefits that he had received and not shared with Annie. She died not find George in contempt.

George appealed, raising all of the points above. The COA affirmed.

It would have saved everyone involved a lot of legal fees, costs, aggravation, anxiety, and time if only some more attention and effort had been put into the drafting of the PSA in the first place. Yes, it would have required more time for negotiation and drafting, but it would have settled the issue as early as 2011 without the need for further litigation. It’s called draftsmanship.


A Primer on the Law of Pre-Nups

August 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Only a couple of weeks ago I posted some random thoughts on pre-nuptial agreements that I thought you might find useful.

Then, last week, as if on cue, the COA handed down its decision in McLeod v. McLeod on August 12, 2014, a case involving a pre-nuptial agreement. Judge Griffis’s opinion is a concise statement of the law that you would need in a case involving one of these agreements. Here it is, extracted for your use:

¶11. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that prenuptial agreements must be fair in the execution, and a duty of disclosure shall be imposed. Smith v. Smith, 656 So. 2d 1143, 1147 (Miss. 1995) (citing Hensley v. Hensley, 524 So. 2d 325, 327 (Miss. 1988)).

¶12. Prenuptial agreements are enforced like contracts: the first rule of interpretation of contracts is to follow the intent of the parties. Long v. Long, 928 So. 2d 1001, 1003 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). This intent was recognized initially by the prenuptial agreement, which provided:

Each of the parties shall retain all rights in his or her own separate property, as hereinafter defined, whether now owned at the time of the marriage of the parties or acquired thereafter, and each of them shall have the absolute and unrestricted right to dispose of such property during his or her lifetime and upon his or death, free from any claim which may be made by the other by reason of their marriage, and with the same effect as if no marriage had occurred between them, and such separate property shall not be subject to any division between the parties . . . as marital property subject to equitable distribution or division under the laws of Mississippi . . . .

¶13. “A contract may be either procedurally or substantively unconscionable.” West v. West, 891 So. 2d 203, 213 (¶26) (Miss. 2004). Procedural unconscionability deals with the formation of the contract. Id. (citing East Ford, Inc. v. Taylor, 826 So. 2d 709, 714 (Miss. 2002)). Substantive unconscionability is apparent “when the terms of the agreement are so one-sided that no one in his right mind would agree to its terms.” Id. (citing In re Last Will & Testament of Johnson, 351 So. 2d 1339, 1341 (Miss. 1977)).

*   *   *

¶15. Each party must enter a prenuptial agreement voluntarily. Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 23.02[2] (2nd ed. 2011). In In re Last Will & Testament of Cooper, 75 So. 3d 1104, 1108 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011), this Court affirmed the chancellor’s judgment and found that there was no evidence to support a claim of involuntariness, because neither party was “forced in any way to sign” the prenuptial agreement.

¶16. This Court has held that “it is well established that ‘a person is under an obligation to read a contract before signing it, and will not as a general rule be heard to complain of an oral misrepresentation the error of which would have been disclosed by reading the contract.’” Ware v. Ware, 7 So. 3d 271, 277 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting Oaks v. Sellers, 953 So. 2d 1077, 1082 (¶17) (Miss. 2007)). And, as this Court has stated, “it is not now and never has been the function of this Court to relieve a party to a freely negotiated contract of the burdens of a provision which becomes more onerous than had originally been anticipated.” In re Cooper, 75 So. 3d at 1107 (¶9).

*   *   *

¶21. … While disclosure is of “paramount importance,” this Court has found that a prenuptial agreement can still be valid even if a financial disclosure is not attached. Mabus v. Mabus, 890 So. 2d 806, 819-21 (¶¶53, 59, 64) (Miss. 2003).

¶22. Here, the agreement stated that a full disclosure was made. Specifically, it provided:

[Willie] hereby states: that he has been fully informed regarding the property and estate of [Jeanell] and has examined the statement of her assets set forth in Exhibit “A” annexed hereto prior to signing this Agreement . . . .

[Jeanell] hereby states: that she has been fully informed regarding the property and estate of [Willie] and has examine the statement of his assets set forth in Exhibit “B” annexed hereto prior to signing this agreement.

*   *   *

¶24. Prenuptial agreements “must be fair ‘in the execution’ or procedurally fair.” Bell, at § 23.02[5] (citing Mabus, 890 So. 2d at 821; Smith, 656 So. 2d at 1147). Fairness in the execution can be affected by the presence of individual counsel, whether the parties had time to review the agreement, education of the parties, and whether the agreement was explained. Id.

*   *   *

¶26. This Court in Ware, 7 So. 3d at 277 (¶20), found that there was no evidence to suggest that one of the parties was forced to sign the prenuptial agreement, although one party admitted that she did not read the contract nor take it to an attorney to review it before she signed it. This Court held that “it is well established that ‘a person is under an obligation to read a contract before signing it, and will not as a general rule be heard to complain of an oral misrepresentation the error of which would have been disclosed by reading the contract.’” Id. (quoting Oaks, 953 So. 2d at 1082 (¶17)). Additionally, “independent counsel is not required to fairly execute a prenuptial agreement.” Id. (quoting Mabus, 890 So. 2d at 821 (¶63)).

*   *   *

¶29. Substantive unconscionability is apparent “when the terms of the agreement are so one-sided that no one in his right mind would agree to its terms.” West, 891 So. 2d at 213 (¶26) (citing In re Johnson, 351 So. 2d at 1341). The Mississippi Supreme Court has defined an unconscionable contract as “one such as no man in his senses and not under a delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest and fair man would accept on the other.” In re Johnson, 351 So. 2d at 1341 (quoting Terre Haute Cooperage, Inc. v. Branscome, 203 Miss. 493, 503, 35 So. 2d 537, 541 (1948)).

¶30. Two clauses were included in the agreement that provided what would happen if one of the parties died:

Upon the death of either party during their marriage, with the other Party surviving, the Parties agree that all property which is joint tenancy with right of survivorship property or survivorship marital property shall pass to the surviving party by right of survivorship.

Both parties agree that a Will of the estates and properties will be executed at a later date that will outline estates, beneficiaries, survivorship, and or any other grounds not covered by this agreement.

¶31. In his order, the chancellor stated:

Under the prenuptial agreement, Jeanell was entitled to only that which Willie promised he would leave her in his Last Will and Testament, whenever he decided to have that document prepared. No specifics regarding what he intended to leave her in order to provide for her as she had requested were provided and are purely speculative. As written, this provision is inequitable and unenforceable and does nothing to provide for Jeanell at the time of a divorce or at the time of his death. On the other hand, under the laws in Mississippi, without a prenuptial Jeanell would be entitled to an equitable share of the marital estate at the time of divorce.

. . . As such the court finds that the prenuptial agreement “ . . . was such an agreement that no wife in her senses and not under a delusion would agree to and no fair-minded husband would propose.”

¶32. In Crisler v. Crisler, 963 So. 2d 1248, 1252-53 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007), this Court stated:

[P]arties are bound by what they promise in writing. But, we are not bound to adopt a construction not compelled by the instrument in which we would have to believe no man in his right mind would have agreed to. A construction leading to an absurd, harsh or unreasonable result in a contract should be avoided, unless the terms are express and free of doubt.

(Citing Frazier v. Ne. Miss. Shopping Ctr., 458 So. 2d 1051, 1054 (Miss. 1984)). Further, in Hensley, the court stated: “[I]t is not now and never has been the function of this Court to relieve a party to a freely negotiated contract of the burdens of a provision which becomes more onerous than had originally been anticipated.” Hensley, 524 So. 2d at 328.

The COA reversed the chancellor’s ruling that this particular agreement was unenforceable. I recommend you read the opinion to see how the COA reached its conclusion. You will find it instructive as to how the court views these contracts.

I stand by my previous recommendations, however. You should be careful to see that every i is dotted and every t crossed. Even though every desirable formality was not observed in McLeod, there was adequate language in the agreement to overcome Ms. McLeod’s objections to it on appeal, and the facts were found by the COA to be in favor of enforcement. Sloppy drafting and unfavorable facts would probably have produced a different outcome.

Checklists, Checklists, Checklists

August 12, 2014 § 9 Comments

You can skip over this post if you’ve been paying attention to this blog for any appreciable length of time.

For you newcomers and oblivious long-timers, you need to know and appreciate that proving many kinds of cases in chancery court is a matter of proving certain factors mandated from on high by our appellate courts. I’ve referred to it as “trial by checklist.” 

If you don’t put on proof to support findings of fact by the chancellor, your case will fail, and you will have wasted your time, the court’s time, your client’s money. You will have lost your client’s case and embarrassed yourself personally, professionally, and, perhaps, financially.

I suggest you copy these checklists and have them handy at trial. Build your outline of the case around them. In your trial preparation design your discovery to make sure that you will have proof at trial to support findings on the factors applicable in your case. Subpoena the witnesses who will provide the proof you need. Present the evidence at trial that will support the judge’s findings.

If the judge fails to address the applicable factors in his or her findings of fact, file a timely R59 motion asking the judge to do that. But remember — and this is critically important — if you did not put the proof in the record at trial to support those findings, all the R59 motions in the world will not cure that defect.

Here is an updated list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Child Support.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

And here are two checklists that will help you in probate matters:

Closing an estate.

Doing an accounting in a probate matter.

What has to be Re-addressed in an Equitable Distribution Remand?

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

When equitable distribution is reversed and remanded for a do-over, alimony has to be redone also, because the two are inextricably intertwined; as equitable distribution expands, alimony contracts, and vice versa.

But what about child support?

The COA’s decision in Rodrigue v. Rodrigue, handed down July 29, 2014, reminds us that child support and attorney’s fees have to be revisited, as well:

¶47. Deidi argues that the chancellor committed error in the computation of child support and by not awarding her attorney’s fees. As set forth above, in Lauro [v. Lauro, 847 So.2d 843, 850 (¶17) (Miss. 2003)], the Mississippi Supreme Court determined that since the case was remanded for further consideration of equitable division, the chancellor should be instructed “to revisit the awards of alimony and child support after he has properly classified and divided the marital assets.” Lauro, 847 So.2d at 850 (¶17). Thus, since this case has been remanded for further consideration of equitable division of assets and alimony, on remand, the chancellor will have all the tools of marital dissolution available: equitable division, lump-sum alimony, and periodic alimony. Likewise, the chancellor may revisit the awards of child support and attorney’s fees.

I was aware of the language in Lauro that requires the remand court to look not only at equitable distribution, but also at alimony and any child support. I was unaware that the remand also embraced attorney’s fees. It is logical, though, that the judge on remand, after completing a re-analysis of the division of the marital estate, and after the award of alimony and child support, could arrive at a different conclusion about ability to pay attorney’s fees.

An interesting feature of this case is that the chancellor did not treat a private-school debt, apparently for tuition, as a marital debt. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I will bet that stems from the chancellor’s confusion over how exactly to treat private school expenses. It’s a confused area, with cases going every which way. If we need some bright line guidance in an area, private school expenses is one.

Fixing Your No-Show

July 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

It can happen to the most diligent lawyer. Date of the trial is mis-calendered, or failed to get calendered, or you get busy doing something else and — oops — you are a no-show when the trial is scheduled to go.

A no-show is what happened in the case of Reed v. Reed, handed down by the COA June 24, 2014.

Jimmy Reed and his lawyer did not appear at the time appointed for Jimmy’s divorce trial. Jimmy’s lawyer believed that the case would not proceed as scheduled because, at the time, the chancellor was gravely ill. The lawyer even approached the district’s other chancellor and asked him to sign a continuance order in the belief that the case had been reassigned to him. The other chancellor demurred, however, and advised the lawyer to await appointment of a special judge by the MSSC.

The ill chancellor, however, did appear on the day set for the trial, as did Jimmy’s estranged wife and her attorney. The chancellor tried unsuccessfully for an hour to contact Jimmy’s lawyer, delaying the start of the trial. When he could not make contact the judge let Mrs. Reed proceed, and he rendered a judgment granting her a divorce on terms not very favorable to Jimmy.

Jimmy’s counsel learned what had transpired the next day when he received a fax from counsel opposite. He filed a timely R59 motion, explaining the reason for the failure to appear, and attacking the judgment as inequitable. The chancellor overruled the motion, and Jimmy appealed.

Citing Lee v. Lee, 78 So.3d 326, 328 (Miss. 2012), the court noted that ” … [a] divorce judgment entered when a party fails to appear is a special kind of default judgment. And to obtain relief from such judgments, absent parties are required to raise the issues in post-trial motions …” Since Jimmy had done exactly that, the COA accepted the case and reversed the chancellor’s ruling because he ” … failed to support his [equitable distribution] findings with any analysis, discussion, or mention of the Ferguson factors or the evidence before him …”

A few points to take away from this case:

  • If you find yourself in a no-show predicament, timely file a R59 motion and ask for rehearing. Don’t stop at explaining your unattendance; attack in the motion every aspect of the judgment. If you don’t, you will probably be barred from raising any claims of error that you did not mention in your motion.
  • The ASS-U-ME principle was at work here (ask somebody; they can explain). If I were Jimmy’s lawyer, I would have prepared for trial and shown up unless I had an agreed, signed, filed order of continuance in hand. I admit that I can be obsessive-compulsive about these things, but by assuming that the case was off, Jimmy was jeopardized unnecessarily. It all turned out okay, but it took an appeal to get Jimmy back to the starting line.
  • When the other side is a no-show, make sure that you put enough proof into the record (and do make a record) to support the judge’s findings. Then insist that the judge address and analyze all of the factors that apply in your particular case. Jimmy’s appeal would have been for naught had the chancellor simply analyzed the proof through the filter of the Ferguson factors.
  • I think most judges give an ordinarily diligent lawyer the benefit of the doubt in these cases. Everyone can screw up occasionally. On the other hand, lawyers who are chronically late or don’t attend to their business, or who make it a habit not to show up don’t get that favorable treatment. I have no idea why the chancellor in this particular case rejected the explanation for Jimmy’s non-appearance, so I can’t say whether the benefit-of-the-doubt principle was in play.

One nice subtlety in this case is Judge Ishee’s description of Jimmy’s post-trial motion as one for “rehearing,” as opposed to “reconsideration,” as is the common term for it. You can read another post on rehearing vs. reconsideration here.

Three Cases of Note

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

The MSSC handed down three decisions in the past year or so that will significantly change your practice. You need to take note of each of them and study how you can use them to your client’s advantage or defend against their operation in cases you are handling.

The first case is Collins v. Collins, handed down May 9, 2013. This is the case that said, once and for all, that the demarcation line for valuation of assets in a divorce is to be determined by the chancellor, based on the facts in the case.

Why is this case significant? Because it expressly overrules the COA decision in Pittman v. Pittman that laid down the rule that entry of the temporary judgment was a bright line where accumulation of marital asset value ceased.

How can you use this case to your client’s advantage? Look at values and find the date to your client’s advantage, and then have your client testify why the judge should select the preferred date. For example, if your client’s 401(k) has greatly appreciated in value over the course of the litigation, pick an early point and develop proof about why that is the most equitable date. And vice versa for the other side.

A previous post about Collins is here.

The second case is Sanford v. Sanford, decided October 31, 2013. Sanford  finally puts an end to the practice of dictating into the record consents to divorce and property settlement agreements in irreconcilable differences divorces. MCA 93-5-2 specifically requires written agreement, and a verbal acquiescence, even on the record, will not do the job.

Why is this case significant? It marks the demise of Bougarde v. Bougarde, the lone case in which the practice had been okayed. Bougarde gave rise to uncertainty among many judges and lawyers as to whether and when a settlement announcement might pass muster as a final agreement.

How can you use this case to your client’s advantage? Bring a laptop computer to court with you and be ready to capture a settlement in the form of a written agreemment. You get to do the drafting, which means that you get to choose the language. You will have the advantage over the dinosaurs who still don’t know what a laptop (computer) is.

A previous post about Sanford is here.

The third case is Huseth v. Huseth, rendered April 10, 2014. In this case, the MSSC returned to the principle that the child support statutory guidelines are just that — guidelines — and that it is up to the chancellor to set child support after first addressing the factors set out in Gillespie v. Gillespie, 594 So.2d 620, 622 (Miss. 1992).

Why is this case significant? In a long line of cases since 1992, our appellate courts have applied the child support statute as mandatory, and cases that deviated without the proper finding of basis for deviation were reversed. Huseth says that before looking to the statute the chancellor must first consider and address the Gillespie factors. The statute then supplies a guideline for the judge to apply his or her discretion. As a practical matter, I think most judges will follow the guidelines. But that’s not a sure thing post-Huseth.

How can you use this case to your client’s advantage? Be sure to put on proof of the Gillespie factors. Make sure your client’s 8.05 is credible, because it’s unlikely that chancellors are going to take it at face value that your client really is going $800 in the hole every month so that he can’t afford to support his children. You might hear the judge advise your client to quit smoking and drinking, sell his truck, and cut off his cable and internet service so that he can pay child support.

A previous post about Huseth is here.

A Helpful Primer on HCIT

June 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

Judge Maxwell of the COA often includes lucid, concise explanations of the law in his opinions. I find his statements of the law to be a helpful guide in resolving issues that come before me.

One of the most confusing areas of domestic law is how to define what is and is not habitual cruel and inhuman (not “inhumane”) treatment (HCIT), per MCA 93-5-1. In the case of Harmon v. Harmon, handed down June 3, 2014, the COA affirmed the chancellor’s award of a divorce in favor of Linda Harmon against Courtney Harmon on the ground of HCIT. Judge Maxwell, for the unanimous court, set out this helpful exposition on what constitutes HCIT under our law:

¶14. Courtney first argues the chancellor wrongly granted Linda a divorce based on habitual cruelty. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-1 (Rev. 2013). To prove cruelty, a party mustshow conduct that either:

(1) endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of such danger, rendering the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or (2) is so unnatural and infamous as to make the marriage revolting to the non[]offending spouse and render it impossible for that spouse to discharge the duties of marriage, thus destroying the basis for its continuance.

Smith, 90 So. 3d at 1262 (¶10) (quoting Richard v. Richard, 711 So. 2d 884, 889 (¶22) (Miss.1998)). “The conduct must consist of something more than unkindness or rudeness[.]” Jackson v. Jackson, 922 So. 2d 53, 56 (¶4) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (quoting Horn v. Horn, 909So. 2d 1151, 1155 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)). Want of affection or incompatibility is not enough. Id. The complaining party must prove one of these two prongs by a preponderanceof the credible evidence. Smith, 90 So. 3d at 1262-63 (¶10).

¶15. Generally, habitually cruel conduct must be “routine and continuous.” Jackson, 922So. 2d at 56 (¶4) (citing Moore v. Moore, 757 So. 2d 1043, 1047 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App.2000)). However, a pattern is not always required. Sometimes, a single act of physical violence is sufficient. Smith, 90 So. 3d at 1263 (¶13) (citing Curtis v. Curtis, 796 So. 2d1044, 1047 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001)). But in cases like this where there is no physical violence, we consider the frequency and severity of the conduct, and the impact on the offended spouse. Id. “[V]erbal abuse, neglect, and the like,” considered independently, willnot amount to cruelty. Id. (quoting Jackson, 922 So. 2d at 57 (¶8)). But if these combinedacts manifest a course of revolting conduct, they may give rise to cruelty.Id.

¶16. In reviewing a cruelty-based divorce, “there is a dual focus on the conduct of the offending spouse and the impact of that conduct on the offended spouse.” Id. at 1263 (¶11)(quoting Bodne v. King, 835 So. 2d 52, 59 (¶24) (Miss. 2003)). This specific inquiry is subjective. Id. (citing Faries v. Faries, 607 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Miss. 1992)). Instead of using an ordinary, reasonable-person standard, we concentrate on the conduct’s effect on the particular offended spouse. Id. (citing Faries, 607 So. 2d at 1209). Though a party alleging cruelty must generally corroborate his or her testimony, an exception is made “where corroboration is not reasonably possible because of the nature of the accusation.” Id. at(¶12).

On that last point — corroboration — Judge Maxwell adds this helpful footnote: “For example, corroboration may be unnecessary in unusual cases, such as isolation. Jones v. Jones, 43 So. 3d 465, 478 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Further, “‘the corroborating evidence need not be sufficient in itself to establish the ground,’ but rather ‘need only provide enough supporting facts for a court to conclude that the plaintiff’s testimony is true.’” Id. (quoting Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 4.02[8][d] at 74(2005)).

That is essentially a hornbook on HCIT, complete with supporting authority, that you can use to your client’s benefit next time you have an HCIT case. 


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