Quo Vadis Gay Marriage in Mississippi?

March 2, 2015 § 3 Comments

The MSSC has the gay-marriage issue before it, as does the SCOTUS.

Last Thursday the Mississippi court issued an order calling for more briefing and indicating that it may well stay the Mississippi appeal until the SCOTUS can rule.

You can read the MSSC order in the case of Czekala-Chatham v. State of Miss. for yourself, with objecting opinions, but here is what the court wants briefed:

In light of Mississippi’s public policy of not allowing or recognizing a marriage between two persons of the same gender, what rational basis supports the interpretation or application of a law or constitutional provision so as to prohibit Mississippi courts from granting a divorce to a Mississippi resident who was lawfully married in another state to a person of the same gender?

So, what does this portend?

The only clear indication is in the three objections: Chandler clearly would uphold the Mississippi laws; King and Kitchens would not.

Oh, and the other pretty clear direction in this case is that it apparently will be sidetracked to let the feds decide the issue. Justice King decries that as a dereliction of duty.

It’s an interesting case. Stay tuned.

 

Designed to Fail

February 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

The COA case Miles v. Miles, handed down January 27, 2015, is a study in how not to draft a PSA.

Carlos and Brenda Miles had gotten an irreconcilable-differences divorce in 2000. The PSA included the following language:

“[Carlos] shall place [Brenda’s] name on his Individual Retirement Account (IRA) Certificate of Deposit at [the] Bank of Mississippi, as joint tenants with full rights of survivorship.”

When Carlos went to do what the language required of him, he was spurned by the bank because an IRA (note that the I stands for Individual, not joint) can only be in the name of the owner; there is no such thing as a jointly-owned IRA.

A dozen years later, Brenda had to go back to court to get the chancellor to re-jigger the arrangement to get what she should have been entitled to in the first place. That’s a second trip to court, with a second set of attorney’s fees and separate time away from work and other lifely activities to set right what could have been addressed in 2000 with effective language in the PSA.

Aside from the glaring fact that the agreement required the parties to do the impossible, it also failed to set out the balance in the account, or to state that each party was to own one-half (or any other percentage), or to establish who would have the tax responsibility. No date was set to carry out the agreement.

When you draft a PSA, don’t just take your client’s notes and couch them in legalese sufficient to pass your judge’s scrutiny. Engage your brain and bring your training, background, and experience to bear for the benefit of your client.

Your responsibility, as a competent lawyer, is to draft an agreement in such a way that it will do everything it is supposed to do with the result that your client intended, without any court ever having to guess what the language meant. That is a lofty responsibility, and to do it right requires a thoughtful, careful approach. Slapping some words together on a page to satisfy a client today will only buy that client grief and resentment against you later (hopefully after the statute of limitations has run).

If you approach every agreement you draft with this responsibility in mind, you will not achieve the goal 100% of the time. No lawyer is perfect. But if you aim for 100%, your success rate will be considerably better than most other attorneys, and unquestionably better than that of the word-slappers.

The needless train wreck in this case could have been avoided if the agreement had said that the IRA would be divided, one-half each (or even better, stating specific amounts), and that hers would be deposited (or rolled over) into her own qualified account, and that each party would be responsible for the tax consequences associated with his or her own share of the account.

If you don’t understand how these things work, I suggest you refer these type clients to someone who can do a competent job.

The Importance of a Hold-Harmless Clause

January 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Jeremy and Tiffiny Moseley entered into a property settlement agreement (PSA) that was incorporated into their 2000 irreconcilable differences divorce judgment. One of its terms was that Jeremy would have “exclusive use and possession of the 1998 Chevrolet Camaro,” and that he would be “solely responsible for the payment of all debt, insurance, and taxes associated with said vehicle. The agreement also provided that Jeremy would “hold [Tiffiny] harmless for any debt associated with said vehicle.”

Following the divorce, Jeremy filed for bankruptcy in Arizona, where he had moved. He listed as a creditor the lienholder on the Camaro, Trustmark, but he did not list Tiffiny as a co-debtor or separate creditor based on the hold-harmless language. Jeremy was discharged in bankruptcy in 2001. [Note that this was a pre-2005-amendment non-support obligation that was dischargeable in bankruptcy]

Trustmark sued Tiffiny and obtained a judgment against her for more than $15,000, plus interest.

Tiffiny sued Jeremy for contempt for non-compliance with the hold-harmless clause. The chancellor held that the bankruptcy had no effect on his obligation to Tiffiny under the hold-harmless clause, and awarded her a judgment against him, plus interest and attorney’s fees. He appealed.

In Moseley v. Smith, decided December 2, 2014, the COA affirmed, and Judge Maxwell’s opinion includes some significant language about hold-harmless clauses that you need to file away for future use:

¶16. We begin with the bankruptcy issue. Moseley seems to treat his financial obligations involving the Camaro as a singular debt—a debt he owed to Trustmark, which was discharged in his Chapter 7 bankruptcy. But Moseley actually had two debts connected to the Camaro—(1) the debt to Trustmark bank to repay the car loan, and (2) the contingent debt to Smith, which would arise if Trustmark went after her for repayment of the car loan. While Moseley listed the first debt to Trustmark on his bankruptcy petition, he omitted his second debt to Smith. He also failed to otherwise notify Smith that her rights as a creditor may be affected by his bankruptcy petition. Thus, his debt to Smith was not covered by his bankruptcy discharge. See In re Hill, 251 B.R. 816, 821 (Bankr. N.D. Miss. 2000) …

¶17. In bankruptcy terms, the provision in the property-settlement agreement that Moseley would hold Smith harmless for any debt associated with the Camaro “create[d] a ‘new’ debt, running solely between the former spouses.” In re Jaeger-Jacobs, 490 B.R. 352, 357 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. 2013) (citing In re Schweitzer, 370 B.R. 145, 150 (Bankr. S.D. Ohio 2007)). Under the version of the United States Bankruptcy Code in effect during Moseley’s 2001 bankruptcy, this type of debt was presumptively non-dischargeable as a non-alimony debt “incurred by the debtor in the course of a divorce or separation or in connection with a separation agreement, divorce decree or other order of a court of record[.]” In re Clark, 207 B.R. 651, 655 (Bankr. E.D. Mo. 1997) (quoting 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(15) (1994)).

The opinion goes on to analyze the notice requirements in effect at the time of Jeremy’s bankruptcy, and how failure to give Tiffiny notice affected her ability to file a timely objection. Those notice and objection requirements were changed by the 2005 amendments to the bankruptcy laws.

The important point here is that when you add hold-harmless language to your PSA you are creating a new debt between the parties that is most likely not dischargeable, is entirely separate and apart from the underlying obligation, and is enforceable via contempt in chancery court.

It would seem to me that even without the hold-harmless language the agreement between the parties is a separate contractual obligation that would be entirely enforceable; however, the authority cited by Judge Maxwell raises the point to a higher level and should remove all doubt if the hold-harmless language is included.

It’s simple to add that hold-harmless language to your PSA templates. It won’t hurt your client if she is the co-debtor who will not be paying the debt, and it just might make a crucial difference somewhere down the line — and that, after all, is your job.

The Unconscionable Pre-Nup

January 22, 2015 § 4 Comments

It has long been settled in Mississippi law that antenuptial agreements (or prenups) are enforceable in our courts. They are enforced and interpreted as are other contracts, with the added requirements that there be fair disclosure of finances and that they be voluntarily entered into. These heightened requirements are referred to as “procedural fairness.”

But what about the substance of the agreement itself? If the agreement is found to be procedurally fair, does that preclude further inquiry into the fairness of the instrument?

The case of Mabus v. Mabus, 890 So.2d 806 (Miss. 2003) did seem to hold that the trial court could not consider the substantive fairness of a prenuptial agreement, and a chancellor in a divorce action between Mr. and Mrs. Sanderson limited his analysis to the procedural fairness of the prenup, which he found to be fair. He enforced the agreement as written, despite the fact that it was one-sided in favor of Mr. Sanderson. Mrs. Sanderson appealed, charging that it was error for the chancellor not to consider the fairness of the contract.

In the case of Sanderson v. Sanderson, handed down December 11, 2014, the MSSC reversed and held that the substantive unconscionability of a prenup is a matter that should be considered by the trial court. Justice Coleman wrote for the majority:

¶17. Confusion has arisen in Mississippi as to whether courts should consider the substantive unconscionability of prenuptial agreements. The chancellor in the instant case stated in his Final Decree of Divorce that “some states look at both substantive and procedural unconscionability, Mississippi courts do not.” The lack of clarity in the law has arisen perhaps because of the Mabus Court’s use of the phrase “fundamental fairness” instead of “substantive unconscionability.” The Mabus Court wrote as follows:

The claim that the estates of the parties are so disparate that it questions fundamental fairness is of no consequence. An antenuptial agreement is as enforceable as any other contract in Mississippi. Of course, there must be fairness in the execution and full disclosure in an antenuptial agreement in Mississippi.

Id. at 821 (¶ 64) (internal citations omitted). The above-quoted language constitutes a holding that the Mabus prenuptial agreement was not fundamentally unfair but falls short of a blanket prohibition against considering substantive unconscionability in all prenuptial agreements. The Mabus Court’s language does not prohibit considering substantive unconscionability in prenuptial agreements as a rule of law. Mabus also makes two further assertions that have confused our law of prenuptial agreements.

¶18. First, Mabus states that a prenuptial agreement is a contract like any other contract that is subject to the same rules of construction and interpretation applicable to contracts. Mabus, 890 So. 2d at 819 (¶53) (citing Estate of Hensley, 524 So. 2d at 327). However, prenuptial agreements cannot be contracts like any other if courts cannot consider whether a prenuptial agreement can be substantively unconscionable. “The law of Mississippi imposes an obligation of good faith and fundamental fairness in the performance of every contract . . . this requirement is so pronounced that courts have the power to refuse to enforce any contract . . . in order to avoid an unconscionable result.” Sawyers v. Herrin-Gear Chevrolet Co., 26 So. 3d 1026, 1034-35 (¶ 21) (Miss. 2010) (emphasis added); see also Covenant Health & Rehab. of Picayune, LP v. Estate of Moulds ex rel. Braddock, 14 So.3d 695, 705 (¶13) (Miss. 2009).

¶19. Within contract law, there are many different types of contracts. The Legislature has carved out a remedy for unconscionable sales contracts. See Miss. Code Ann. § 75-2-302 (Rev. 2002). However, Section 75-2-302 has been applied to other types of contracts, such as arbitration contracts. Covenant Health & Rehab. of Picayune, 14 So. 3d at 706. Similarly, the Court has analyzed the unconscionablity of domestic relations contracts. See id. (“We also have found contracts to be unconscionable for clauses other than arbitration agreements.”); In the Matter of Johnson’s Will, 351 So. 2d 1339 (Miss. 1977) (considering unconscionability for a contract between a husband and wife preventing a wife from revoking her husband’s will); West v. West, 891 So. 2d 203, 213 (Miss. 2004) (“A contract may be either procedurally or substantively unconscionable.”). Accordingly, because prenuptial agreements are contracts like any other, substantive unconscionability must be considered.

¶20. The Court has even gone further and defined an unconscionable contract in domestic relations contracts. “[I]t is also the law that courts of equity will not enforce an unconscionable contract. In Terre Haute Cooperage, Inc. v. Branscome, 203 Miss. 493, 35 So. 2d 537 (1948), this Court 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; see also West, 891 So.2d at 213 (¶ 27) (“Substantively, the terms of the property settlement agreement are less than desirable, but we cannot say that no spouse in his or her right mind would agree to what is, at worst, a begrudging but generous offer . . . to provide alimony . . . .”).

¶21. Second, the Mabus Court appears to have considered substantive unconscionability after stating fundamental fairness was of no consequence. In In re Johnson, the Court explained how to determine if a contract is unconscionable: “In determining whether this contract was unconscionable, it is necessary to analyze what the widow was to receive under the will in contrast to her rights absent the will under the laws of descent and distribution.” In re Johnson, 351 So. 2d at 1342. In other words, the Court considered what the wife would have received if the contract had not existed and if the wife was able to renounce her husband’s will. Similarly, even in light of the premarital agreement, the Mabus Court considered the White factors for lump sum alimony and the Ferguson factors for distribution of the marital property. Mabus, 890 So. 2d at 821-23 (¶¶65-71) (citing White v. White, 557 So. 2d 480, 483 (Miss. 1989); Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921 (Miss. 1994)). Also, in Estate of Hensley, in determining whether the prenuptial agreement between the husband and wife was enforceable, the Court noted that “a full reading of the record divulges that Mr. Hensley had actually been very benevolent.” Estate of Hensley, 524 So. 2d at 328. Thus, Mississippi has implicitly considered the substantive unconscionablity of premarital agreements. We hold that, given the contract law on unconscionability, substantive unconscionability for premarital agreements must be considered by trial courts.

¶22. Contract law has largely, with the exception of the sale of goods, remained common law. Therefore, inevitably, contradictions arise. Unconscionability looks at the terms of the contract. See West, 891 So. 2d at 213. Unconscionability also looks at the circumstances existing at the time the contract was made. Vicksburg Partners, L.P. v. Stephens, 911 So.2d 507, 517 (¶ 22) (Miss. 2005), overruled on other grounds by Covenant Heath & Rehab. of Picayune, LP v. Estate of Moulds ex rel. Braddock, 14 So. 3d 695 (Miss. 2009). We hold that substantive unconscionability feasibly could be measured at the time the prenuptial agreement is made; measuring it at the time the agreement is made would maintain consistency in the law. It also would ensure that the Court does not “relieve a party to a freely negotiated contract of the burdens of a provision which becomes more onerous than had originally been anticipated.” Mabus, 890 So. 2d at 819 (¶53) (quoting Estate of Hensley, 524 So. 2d at 328).

¶23. Because the chancellor in the case sub judice operated under the erroneous conclusion that the prenuptial agreement could not be analyzed for substantive unconscionability, we reverse and remand the case for him to do so. We decline the dissent’s invitation to conduct that analysis for the first time on appeal, because the error consisted of making no finding at all rather than the wrong finding. In other words, there is no decision on point for us to analyze for error.

There are some serious ramifications here for the drafting of antenuptial agreements. You will need to discuss the fairness of the agreement with your client, but that is a subject most clients do not care to address; after all, their primary concern is to maintain a status quo that is in all likelihood quite unfair. In Sanderson, for example, the husband’s pre-marital estate was in excess of $3 million, and the wife’s only around $120,000. He wanted to maintain that pre-marital wealth. Is that imbalance unconscionable?

Analyzing antenuptial agreements through the lens of contract law is problematical. The fact is that antenuptial agreements involve considerations that do not enter into negotiation of other types of contracts. As Justice Chandler’s dissent points out, “The decision to marry is not an arms-length commercial transaction, but rather is grounded in personal, moral, religious, and emotional considerations that are off-limits to strangers to the relationship.”

Justice Chandler goes on to add that the majority’s decision ” … leaves our chancellors to forage in the dark, with no guidance as to many issues[;] for instance, whether a prospective marriage partner with children from a previous marriage may protect and provide for those children in a prenuptial agreement, without fear that a court will void the agreement as unconscionable and leave the children at the mercy of the former spouse.” As a drafting or advising attorney, you likewise are in the dark as to whether a particular prenup will withstand scrutiny.

What it takes to Prove Habitual Drunkenness

December 11, 2014 § 7 Comments

Nikki Lee charged her husband, Chris, with habitual drunkenness. The chancellor found the proof supported the claim, and granted her a divorce on that ground. Chris appealed.

In Lee v. Lee, decided by the COA on November 25, 2014, the court affirmed the chancellor:

¶6. Chris asserts that it was error for the chancellor to grant Nikki a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness. Chris argues that Nikki did not meet her burden in proving habitual drunkenness. Alternatively, Chris argues that Nikki’s knowledge of his drinking habits prior to their marriage barred the suit.

¶7. On appeal, Chris argues the chancellor erred in finding sufficient grounds for divorce. “A court may grant a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness if the plaintiff proves that: (1) the defendant frequently abused alcohol; (2) the alcohol abuse negatively affected the marriage; and (3) the alcohol abuse continued at the time of the trial.” Turner v. Turner, 73 So. 3d 576, 583 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011).

¶8. In Sproles v. Sproles, 782 So. 2d 742, 744-45 (¶¶4,7) (Miss. 2001), the court found that the husband’s habit of drinking a case of beer each night, which caused him to become abusive and critical, constituted grounds for divorce under habitual drunkenness. On the other hand, in Culver v. Culver, 383 So. 2d 817, 817-18 (Miss. 1980), the court found that the husband’s habit of drinking four to five beers a night that did not negatively impact the marriage failed to support a divorce under habitual drunkenness.

¶9. At trial, Nikki testified that Chris often made negative comments about her weight. While drunk once, Chris told Nikki that he only finds her attractive and wants to have sex with her when he is intoxicated. On a separate occasion, Chris woke Nikki by urinating on her leg, and, when Nikki protested, Chris started laughing. Chris testified that he had never heard of this incident until trial. On another night, Chris and Nikki got into an argument, and Chris took Will into the house so Nikki could cool off outside. When Nikki decided to go back inside, she found the door locked. After she called Chris and knocked on the door with no answer, she was forced to crawl inside through a back door. She found Chris passed out on their waterbed, with Will face down and wedged between the corner of the bed.

¶10. Nikki testified that Chris often drank five to six beers per day. Chris worked offshore for extended periods of time. When he would return home, he would always have alcohol in his hand. Nikki also testified that on several occasions, Chris would pass out drunk and not remember anything that happened. Finally, Nikki testified that being with Chris after awhile made her depressed, and when they separated, she felt happy again.

¶11. Chris contends that he did not drink as much as Nikki claimed he did. He argues that because Nikki’s testimony was not corroborated by any other witness, it is “wildly inconsistent at best.” However, Nikki’s father, Thomas Godleske, testified that on an icefishing trip Chris drank so much that he passed out in a stranger’s vehicle. Further, Chris testified that he continued to drink at the time of the trial.

¶12. Where there is conflicting testimony, the chancellor is the trier of fact and adjudicates the credibility of each witness. Bowen v. Bowen, 982 So. 2d 385, 395 (¶42) (Miss. 2008). “An appellate court is to affirm findings of fact by chancellors in domestic cases when they are ‘supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous or an erroneous legal standard was applied.’” Robison v. Lanford, 841 So. 2d 1119, 1122 (¶9) (Miss. 2003) (quoting Holloman v. Holloman, 691 So. 2d 897, 898 (Miss. 1996)).

¶13. In review of the record, we find that the chancellor had sufficient evidence to grant Nikki a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness: Chris’s alcohol consumption, combined with the negative impact it had on the family, and his continued drinking at the time of trial. Additionally, the chancellor, as the trier of fact, was in the best position to determine each witness’s credibility and to weight the conflicting testimony. Because the evidence supports the chancellor’s findings, we find that he did not commit manifest error in his findings on this issue.

The corroboration in this case seems to be on the weak side, yet it was strong enough to convince both the chancellor and the COA. The state of corroboration highlights an important consideration: Habitual drunkenness is not an easy case to prove because the offending behavior takes place in the privacy of the couple’s home, with few, if any, witnesses other than the parties. The task is made more difficult by the fact that the burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence.

Negative impact on the other spouse and the resulting havoc on the household are key items of proof. Don’t fail to gather witnesses who can help establish those points.

And don’t overlook that habitual use of alcohol that induces nasty behavior, even without drunkenness, can be HCIT if it has a negative effect on the offended party.

Affirmative Defenses in Divorces

December 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

MRCP 8(c) requires that you plead in your responsive pleadings any matters that constitute “an avoidance or affirmative defense.” Specifically listed in the body of the rule are matters such as statute of limitations, accord and satisfaction, res judicata, etc.

Some of those listed defenses may be available in chancery matters such as contract disputes, land matters, and business dissolution, but they have no application in divorce, as I posted here before; nonetheless, some lawyers plead them in mechanical fashion, raising some humorous implications.

In a divorce case, there are some well-established affirmative defenses to grounds for divorcethat are not listed in R8, but that need to be pled in order to invoke them. They include:

  • Prior knowledge. This applies where the spouse knew, for instance, that the wife was pregnant by another man when he married her, and yet married her anyway. Or that the wife knew before the marriage that the husband was a drug addict, and went ahead with the marriage despite the knowledge.
  • Ratification and condonation. Two closely related concepts. A party gives up a ground by continuing to live with the other after knowledge of fault. These defenses have somewhat limited application in HCIT.
  • Recrimination. An archaic defense no longer favored in our law, by which the proponent may be denied a divorce if he is guilty of a ground for divorce.
  • Reformation. Applicable primarily in habitual drunkenness and drug use cases, where the accused party has quit abusing the substance.
  • Connivance and collusion. Where the parties have conspired either for one to allow the other’s wrongful conduct so as to create a ground, or where the parties have agreed to perjure themselves to do so.
  • Res judicata. Same parties and same issues in a previous matter that was reduced to a final judgment.

A comprehensive look at these and several lesser-known defenses is found in Professor Bell’s Mississippi Family Law, 2d Ed., § 4.03, pp. 99-104. If you practice any family law, and you don’t have a copy of her definitive treatise, you need to get one asap.

The clear and obvious thread running through the affirmative divorce defenses listed above is that they each are “an avoidance or affirmative defense” to a ground for divorce.

If you fail to plead affirmative defenses to grounds for divorce on behalf of your client, the only way you may present them at trial is if they are tried by consent. If, on the other hand, the other side objects, the judge will have to sustain the objection and exclude the testimony.

In the case of Lee v. Lee, decided by the COA on November 25, 2014, Nikki Lee charged her husband, Chris, with habitual drunkenness. He did not plead any affirmative defenses, but at trial he attempted to put on proof that Nikki knew when she married him of his drinking habits. Nikki objected, and the chancellor excluded the evidence, ruling that Chris had waived the defense by not pleading it affirmatively. Chris appealed.

Judge Griffis, for the unanimous court:

¶15. Condonation or antenuptial knowledge, as affirmative defenses, must be specifically pleaded or else the defenses are waived. Carambat v. Carambat, 72 So. 3d 505, 511 (¶27) (Miss. 2011) (citing M.R.C.P. 8(c); Ashburn v. Ashburn, 970 So. 2d 204, 212 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007)). “Affirmative defenses that are neither pled nor tried by consent are deemed waived.” Ashburn, 970 So. 2d at 212 (¶23) (quoting Goode v. Village of Woodgreen Homeowners, 662 So. 2d 1064, 1077 (Miss. 1995)).

¶16. Chris did not raise condonation or antenuptial knowledge as an affirmative defense in his pleadings. However, parties may try an affirmative defense through implied consent. Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure 15(b) provides:

When issues not raised by the pleadings are tried by expressed or implied consent of the parties, they shall be treated in all respects as if they had been raised in the pleadings. Such amendment of the pleadings as may be necessary to cause them to conform to the evidence and to raise these issues may be made upon the motion of any party at any time, even after judgment; but failure so to amend does not affect the result of the trial of these issues.

See also Lahmann v. Hallmon, 722 So. 2d 614, 691 (¶15) (Miss. 1998).

¶17. In his order, the chancellor found that Chris had waived the affirmative defense of condonation, because he did not plead it as an affirmative defense. The chancellor ruled:

“Chris did not plead condonation as a defense in his pleadings. Therefore, to the extent that Chris may have been attempting to raise a defense of condonation, the Court finds that this defense has been waived.” The chancellor did not address a defense of antenuptial knowledge or if the parties tried condonation by express or implied consent.

¶18. From the record, there is no indication the parties agreed to try condonation or antenuptial knowledge by express consent. Therefore, the question remains whether the parties tried the issue through implied consent. While issues not raised in the pleadings may be tried by implied consent, the party relying on implied consent for an issue must demonstrate certain requirements.

¶19. First, in order to find the parties tried the issue by implied consent, this Court must determine if the parties knew “‘that a new issue was being litigated at trial.’” Mabus v. Mabus, 890 So. 2d 806, 814 (¶32) (Miss. 2003) (quoting Setser v. Piazza, 644 So. 2d 1211, 1217 (Miss. 1994)). Further, this Court will not find implied consent “where the ‘questions asked or the evidence presented at trial are relevant to the issues actually raised in the pleadings.’” Id. (citation omitted).

The court went on to analyze the record, and concluded that the issues had not been tried by implied consent, and the chancellor’s ruling was affirmed.

Next time you represent a Chris in a case similar to this, be sure to assert in your responsive pleading every matter you feel may raise a legitimate affirmative defense. I say legitimate because it seriously detracts from your credibility to plead things like accord and satisfaction, or assumption of risk, or injury by fellow servant in your answer to a divorce complaint. But it makes perfect sense to spell out with whatever label you apply that the other party had pre-marriage knowledge, or that he condoned the conduct, or any other matter that legitimately constitutes “an avoidance or affirmative defense.” You are not limited to the classic defenses, but the matter must be an actual, arguable defense.

If you represent a Nikki, object vociferously to any attempt to put on proof of unpled defenses. Protect your record. In this case, Nikki’s attorney protected her record, and the outcome was favorable to Nikki.

Divorce Defendant in Default

December 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Larry Bolivar filed for divorce from his wife, Teresa, on February 19, 2013. She was served with process on March 21, 2013. The R4 process was in the usual form that included the admonishment to file an answer within 30 days, or the relief requested could be granted.

On May 8, 2013, Teresa had filed no response to the divorce complaint, and Larry appeared in court and presented his case. The chancellor granted him a divorce from her.

In June, 2013, Teresa filed a motion to set aside the divorce, an answer denying the allegations of the complaint, and a counterclaim for divorce. In her motion to set aside the divorce, she complained that she had not been properly served with a summons or notice of hearing for the May 8, 2013, proceeding.

At the hearing on her motion to set aside the divorce judgment, Teresa acknowledged that she had been served with process on the complaint, and the judge found on that point that she had been served with process. As to her argument that she should have been given notice of the May hearing, the chancellor denied the motion on the basis that her failure to file an answer precluded her from asserting that claim. Teresa appealed.

On appeal, Teresa raised for the first time the issue whether Larry should have had her declared to be in default per MRCP 55 before proceeding against her.

In the case of Bolivar v. Bolivar, decided November 25, 2014, the COA affirmed the chancellor’s rulings. Judge Ishee wrote the opinion for the court.

On the issue of whether Teresa was entitled to notice, pursuant to MRCP 5, of the May hearing, the court said this:

¶11. Rule 5(a), in pertinent part, provides that “every written notice . . . shall be served upon each of the parties.” Nonetheless, Rule 5(a) also states that “[n]o service need be made on parties in default for failure to appear[.]” At the hearing regarding Teresa’s motion to set aside the divorce judgment, Teresa testified that she was served properly with process. Although she contends that she had obtained an attorney whom she believed was handling her case, the record does not reflect that any action was taken on her behalf in the thirty days following her receipt of the summons. As such, she was in default for failing to answer or appear. Nonetheless, Teresa argues that she was not properly declared in default pursuant to Rule 55.

As to whether she was properly declared in default per MRCP 55:

¶12. Rule 55 governs default judgments, and provides that when a party “has failed to plead or otherwise defend as provided by these rules and that fact is made to appear by affidavit or otherwise, the clerk shall enter his default.” M.R.C.P. 55(a). However, “[i]f the party against whom judgment by default is sought has appeared in the action, he [or his representative] shall be served with written notice of the application for judgment at least three days prior to the hearing of such application[.]” M.R.C.P. 55(b). Teresa contends that Larry should have applied for an entry of default with the chancery clerk or applied for a default judgment in the chancery court. She maintains that his failure to declare her in default meant that she was not in default and his duty to serve her notice remained intact. As such, she argues that the judgment in his favor is void. We disagree.

¶13. This rule is “not directly applicable” to divorce proceedings. Stinson v. Stinson, 738 So. 2d 1259, 1262 (¶12) (Miss. 1999). Specifically, the Mississippi Supreme Court has held that a judgment entered in an action for divorce following a defendant’s failure to answer is “a special kind of default judgment.” Id. at 1263 (¶13) (quoting Mayoza v. Mayoza, 526 So. 2d 547, 548 (Miss. 1988)). A defendant’s failure to answer does not drag a divorce case to a halt. Instead, the plaintiff must, at a hearing, prove the allegations that support the receipt of a divorce. If that is done, then the chancellor has authority to grant the divorce despite the absence of the defendant. Id. at (¶15). This reasoning is supported by Rule 55(e), which provides that “unless the claimant establishes his claim or rights to relief by evidence,” a default judgment will not be entered in a suit for divorce. “Furthermore, a divorce will not be granted on the uncorroborated testimony of the claimant.” Lindsey v. Lindsey, 818 So. 2d 1191, 1194 (¶13) (Miss. 2002).

¶14. Since Teresa failed to answer or appear, we find that she was in default and not owed notice of the divorce hearing. Further, after a review of the record, we find that Larry established his claim to a judgment of divorce despite Teresa’s absence. Larry’s testimony, in addition to the corroborating testimony of Parker, clearly established a divorce on the grounds of desertion. As such, we find this issue is without merit.

Note that if the defendant does enter a timely appearance, and then stops participating, you must give the defendant notice of further proceedings per R5.

Lump-Sum Alimony = Alimony?

December 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Most of us tend to think in the 21st century that lump-sum alimony is a tool for equitable distribution; however, it does retain a small role in alimony itself, as the court’s analysis in a recent case illustrates.

In the November 6, 2014, MSSC case, Davenport v. Davenport, the chancellor had conducted a Ferguson analysis, and ordered Tammy Davenport to pay her ex, Richard, lump-sum alimony in the sum of $1,515,914.33, payable in monthly installments of $8,421.75 over 180 months. Tammy appealed, arguing on this point that the chancellor had erred by not making on-the-record findings of Tammy’s ability to pay applying the Armstrong factors.

Justice Randolph addressed the argument:

¶30. Lump-sum alimony can serve two distinct purposes. The first purpose is to aid the chancellor in equitably dividing the marital estate under the Ferguson factors. See Haney, 907 So. 2d 948. The second purpose is to aid the chancellor in correcting an equitable deficit, resulting from the equitable distribution of the marital estate under the Armstrong factors. See Rogillio v. Rogillio, 57 So. 3d 1246, 1249 (Miss. 2011).

Let’s pause right there and look at that second stated purpose. Lump-sum alimony has also been used as a replacement or supplement for permanent or rehabilitative spousal support, and to award a spouse’s substantial contribution to asset accumulation. See Bell on Mississippi Family Law, 2d Ed., § 9.02[2][b][ii]-[v], pp. 244-245. So it does retain a role in the award of alimony.

The analyses of equitable distribution and alimony pass through two entirely different filters. Equitable distribution is conducted applying the Ferguson factors. Alimony requires analysis of the Armstrong factors. Only if the equitable distribution leaves a deficit for one spouse may the court then proceed to consider alimony.

The Davenport decision continues, explaining the factors applicable to lump-sum alimony, and how they fit into the picture:

¶31. In Haney v. Haney, this Court found that the chancellor’s award of lump-sum alimony was allocated to equitably distribute the marital assets. Haney, 907 So. 2d at 952. This Court discussed how, prior to Ferguson, lump-sum alimony was the central mechanism through which marital property was divided. Haney, 907 So. 2d at 952. In Cheatham v. Cheatham, the Court set out factors to be taken into account when considering an award of lump-sum alimony. Cheatham v. Cheatham, 537 So. 2d 435, 438 (Miss. 1988). Based on the factors later presented in Ferguson, this Court stated:

Clearly, the Cheatham factors were simply an earlier attempt by this Court to provide a chancellor with guidelines for awarding what today is called an equitable distribution of marital assets, under appropriate circumstances. Indeed, we see no Ferguson factor which would be inappropriate in evaluating lump sum alimony. Although we continue to refer to certain payments as “lump sum alimony,” these payments are really no more than equitable distribution in the form of lump sum cash, rather than an equitable portion of certain property which cannot be divided equitably.

Haney, 907 So. 2d at 955.

¶32. This Court later considered an award of lump-sum alimony and reiterated that ” . . . the chancery court was obligated to apply the appropriate factors . . . the Cheatham-Ferguson factors. Yelverton v. Yelverton, 961 So. 2d 19, 25 (Miss. 2007). See also Dickerson v. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d 637, 647-48 (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (After reviewing Haney and Yelverton, the court concluded that chancellors should consider lump-sum alimony under the Ferguson factors; however, an analysis under Cheatham is not reversible error.); George v. George, 22 So. 3d 424, 427-30 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (Lump-sum alimony was analyzed under this Court’s ruling in Haney, considering the Cheatham factors, while periodic alimony was analyzed under the factors set forth in Armstrong.); Dunn v. Dunn, 911 So. 2d 591 n.4 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (acknowledging that, pursuant to Haney, the Ferguson factors should be considered when determining an award of lump-sum alimony).

¶33. In Lauro v. Lauro, this Court described alimony as something which is contemplated subsequent to the equitable division of marital property. Lauro v. Lauro, 847 So. 2d 843, 848 (Miss. 2003). Lauro relies on the language set forth in Johnson v. Johnson, quoting:

If there are sufficient marital assets which, when equitably divided and considered with each spouse’s non-marital assets, will adequately provide for both parties, no more need be done. If the situation is such that an equitable division of marital property, considered with each party’s non-marital assets, leaves a deficit for one party, then alimony based on the value of non-marital assets should be considered.

Lauro, 847 So. 2d at 848 (emphasis original) (quoting Johnson v. Johnson, 650 So. 2d 1281, 1287 (Miss. 1994)). Lauro further explains that the Armstrong factors must be considered when awarding alimony. Lauro, 847 So. 2d at 848. See Lowrey, 25 So. 3d at 280. (“Failure to make an on-the-record . . . analysis is manifest error.”).

¶34. If lump-sum alimony is awarded as a mechanism to equitably divide the marital assets, then chancellors may conduct their analysis under the Ferguson factors. Haney, 907 So. 2d at 955. However, if the alimony, lump-sum or otherwise, is awarded subsequent to the equitable distribution of the marital assets, then chancellors must conduct their analysis under the Armstrong factors. Lauro, 847 So. 2d at 848.

¶35. In the instant case, the chancellor fully considered the award of lump-sum alimony under the Ferguson factors because the award served as a means to equitably divide the marital property. Therefore, the chancellor appropriately conducted a Ferguson analysis in the findings of facts and conclusions of law incorporated it into the final decree; thus, the chancellor did not fail to adequately consider Tammy’s ability to pay the award. This issue is without merit. [Emphasis added]

I think it would simplify everything if we would:

  1. Leave the term “lump-sum alimony” exclusively to describe that post-Armstrong-analysis use of a lump-sum payment to supplement or replace true alimony or to reward substantial contribution to accumulation of assets; and
  2. Use the term “equalizing payment” or some similar phrase to apply to payments ordered under a Ferguson analysis to balance out the equitable division.

To continue to call something alimony that we all know has nothing to do with an Armstrong analysis invites confusion and the continued need to explain and clarify it in our case law, for no good reason. Lump-sum alimony was judicially created in 1856 to address a void in the law of alimony. It was created to allow lump-sum payments of true alimony in lieu of periodic payments. In the pre-Ferguson days, the court looked for a way to adjust equities around our title rules, and transmuted lump sum alimony into a tool to do that. Ferguson, however, changed this area of the law, yet the old terminology has remained confusingly in place. With the change ushered in by Ferguson, it’s appropriate that we should change our nomenclature.  

Can Homosexual Behavior be HCIT?

November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Rosie Jackson charged her husband Michael with habitual cruel and inhuman treatment based on allegations of Michael’s homosexual behavior, which he denied.

The allegations arose from three sources: (1) Rosie testified that in 2008, she received a call from Michael’s friend John, who complained that he wanted Michael to leave him alone, but John testified at trial that he and Michael had not had sexual contact; (2) Rosie said that one of Michael’s former students, James, told her that Michael had molested him 26 years earlier, and the individual did testify to that effect at trial; and (3) Alma Flowers, the Jacksons’ daughter overheard a 3-way conversation, without Michael’s knowledge, in which Michael solicited a man for oral sex.

Rosie testified that, after she confronted Michael about the allegations, Michael bullied and tried to intimidate her, and she experienced problems with blood sugar and blood pressure, sleeplessness, and anxiety, for which she was prescribed medication.

The chancellor found from the evidence that Rosie had proven Michael guilty of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Michael appealed, claiming that the judge erred in finding that Rosie was entitled to a divorce.

The COA affirmed on November 4, 2014, in Jackson v. Jackson. Judge Ishee’s opinion addressed the adequacy of proof to support the judge’s findings on grounds for divorce:

¶13. “The chancellor’s determination of whether a spouse’s conduct rose to the level of cruel and inhuman treatment is a determination of law.” Jones v. Jones, 43 So. 3d 465, 469 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citations omitted). Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-1 (Rev. 2013) provides twelve fault-based grounds for divorce, including habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. In order to establish a divorce on such ground, the offended spouse must show 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.

Jones, 43 So. 3d at 469 (¶9) (citations omitted).

¶14. In reviewing whether the conduct reaches that of cruel and inhuman treatment, the chancellor must consider: “1) the conduct of the offending spouse and 2) the impact of that conduct upon the plaintiff.” Fisher v. Fisher, 771 So. 2d 364, 367 (¶10) (Miss. 2000) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The evaluation of the impact of the conduct on the plaintiff is subjective. Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1263 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Faries v. Faries, 607 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Miss. 1992)). “The focus is on the effect the conduct has on the particular spouse, not its effect on an ordinary, reasonable person.” Id.

¶15. “The ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment may be established by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than clear and convincing evidence, and the charge means something more than unkindness or rudeness or mere incompatibility or want of affection.” Fisher, 771 So. 2d at 367 (¶9). The chancellor granted Rosie a divorce based on a finding that Michael’s homosexual relations were such that they made the marriage revolting to Rosie. Therefore, we will focus on the second prong of the test for habitual cruelty – whether Michael’s conduct was so unnatural and infamous as to make the marriage revolting to Rosie.

¶16. There has only been one case where the Mississippi Supreme Court has found that a homosexual affair, alone, constituted habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. See Crutcher v. Crutcher, 86 Miss. 231, 231, 38 So. 337, 337 (1905). In Crutcher, the supreme court found that “[u]nnatural practices of [pederasty] are an infamous indignity to the wife . . . which would make the marriage relation so revolting to her that it would become impossible for her to discharge the duties of wife.” Id. Since Crutcher, this Court has found that evidence of homosexual affairs, when combined with other misconduct, can justify a divorce based on habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Morris v. Morris, 783 So. 2d 681, 689 (¶¶27-28) (Miss. 2001).

¶17. The record here reflects it was not only alleged that Michael was involved in homosexual affairs, but that he had also molested a child. Rosie testified to learning about both allegations within rapid succession of one another. We find that the combination of this conduct was so repugnant to Rosie that it rendered her unable to perform her marital duties. However, it is well settled that a spouse’s testimony regarding an offending spouse’s behavior must be corroborated when habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is asserted. Pace v. Pace, 16 So. 3d 734, 741 (¶31) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citation omitted).

¶18. Rosie’s testimony was supported by both Flowers and James. Flowers corroborated the allegations of a homosexual affair by testifying to the conversation she heard where Michael solicited sexual favors from another man. In support of the child-molestation allegations, James gave detailed testimony regarding the molestation that occurred at the hands of Michael when James was only ten years old. In addition to relying on this testimony, the chancery court also relied on other statements made by Rosie. However, we will address the other testimony in Michael’s next issue. We find that Rosie’s testimony, coupled with the corroborating testimony of both Flowers and James, was sufficient alone to support that Michael’s conduct was cruel and inhuman.

¶19. Michael contends that, even if his conduct was found to be inhuman or cruel, Rosie failed to establish a causal connection between his conduct, the separation, and how it impacted her. We disagree. There is no longer a requirement that a specific act caused a separation but “[i]t is, instead, habitual or continuous behavior over a period of time, close in proximity to the separation, or continuing after a separation occurs, that may satisfy the grounds for divorce.” Fisher, 771 So. 2d at 367-68 (¶10). Rosie testified that, upon learning of these sexual allegations, she began to experience adverse physical reactions to learning about Michael’s sexual relationships and history. She also noted, once she confronted Michael, the atmosphere in the home changed and she gave examples of how Michael treated her.

¶20. Michael also asserts that, if his conduct were found to be true, Rosie condoned his behavior by remaining in the marital home for nearly a year after learning about the homosexual affairs and child molestation. The chancellor noted, however, that Rosie had already left the marital bedroom in 2007 and had not engaged in sexual relations since 1999. Further, she was living with her disabled sister, Marian, in the marital home that had been specifically been renovated to accommodate Marian’s disabilities. The chancellor also commented that Rosie may have been in financial duress since she had to take a second job to cover her expenses following the separation. In his final judgment, the chancellor acknowledged that there was no evidence presented by either party as to why Rosie waited to leave Michael. Nonetheless, the chancellor concluded that each of these factors played a role in his finding that Rosie had not condoned Michael’s conduct.

¶21. The chancellor found that the evidence, Michael’s conduct, and the impact it had on Rosie established a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Although Michael denied the allegations, and several witnesses testified on his behalf, the chancellor found Rosie’s testimony to be credible. The supreme court has held that “[i]t is the role of the chancellor to ascertain whether witnesses and evidence are credible and the weight to give each.” Robinson v. Lanford, 841 So. 2d 1119, 1122 (¶9) (Miss. 2003) (citing Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 860 (Miss. 1994)). For these reasons, we find Michael’s overall conduct sufficient to support a divorce based on habitual cruelty.

The COA found that the chancellor erred in allowing in Rosie’s testimony of the hearsay conversation with John, but that it was harmless error since the other testimony of Rosie, corroborated by James and Alma, was sufficient. The court also rejected Michael’s objection that James’s allegations were remote in time.

This case presents a classic analysis of the second prong of HCIT. It’s something you can try to apply when that first prong involving danger to life or limb simply does not exist.

Your Client’s Financial Well-Being

November 20, 2014 § 4 Comments

In family law, we see the intimate details of people’s financial pictures every day. So I’m always interested in how developments in the national economy affect people we see in our courts.

Looking at the Federal Reserve Board’s triennial 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, I found these conclusions revealing:

  • Mean family income rose 4% between 2010 and 2013, after adjustment for inflation, but median income fell 5%. In my experience, incomes around here have been flat, except in high-paying jobs, which have increased in pay. Since the mean is usually skewed by outlying figures, and the median tends not to be, I would trust the median in this case to be closer to accurate. Also, that adjustment for inflation is misleading. The experts use prices of certain commodities to gauge inflation, and inflation has been fairly non-existent (ask anyone who lived through the 80’s). There is a hidden price creep, though. For instance, the price of a bag of coffee has remained fairly constant over the past several years, but the bag has shrunk from 16 oz to 12 oz, a reduction of 25%. You need to spend 25% more to buy same amount of coffee beans, but the shelf price for a bag has not gone up. An 18 oz box of cereal is now 14 oz, but at the same price it was when it was 18 oz. So you need to spend 22% more to buy the same amount of Froot Loops you did a while ago. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. When I pointed this phenomenon out to a grocer not too long ago, he said he had done his own calculations and concluded that shrinkage is averaging closer to 30%. So your paycheck is buying 30% or so less, but the government happily tells us that inflation is near zero.
  • Debt obligations fell during the three-year period. Many people retrenched during the recession, shedding debt as best they could, but the 8.05’s I see still have breathtaking amounts of debt, particularly consumer debt.
  • Fewer families had debt secured  by a primary residence, and those who did have home-secured debt owed less. I would be absolutely surprised if that held true in our little corner of the republic. From what I see, many middle-income folks refinanced when rates were low, and used the refi to tap into equity, increasing debt.
  • Education debt increased, both in terms of the numbers of people with such debt, as well as the average value of the debt. College education has increased by a stunning amount. We all know about how professional school expenses have escalated. Some people who think they can not afford or can not get into a legitimate academic institution turn to commercial operations that hold themselves out as “colleges” or “universities” but have no more valid academic credentials than a pool hall. In one case in my court, a young lady had spent $17,000 toward a “degree” as a lab tech from one of those diploma mills, only to learn that they had changed the requirements for that degree so that she would have to spend another $10,000 to complete it. She dropped out because she could not afford it, but she still has to pay the $17,000 in student loan debt. I pointed out to her that the “university” is bound by the catalog when she was admitted, and she should see a lawyer. That drew a blank stare. I wonder whether any laboratory worth its salt would consider a graduate of one of those places to be even minimally qualified.

From where I sit, I see life in the middle class as tough and getting tougher, from a financial standpoint. The financial statements I see show people with not a lot of income, but expanding expenses.

It’s important to be aware of how the changing financial environment is affecting your clients. What made sense to demand 10 years ago simply will not work today.

 

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