No More Heightened Scrutiny, But …

November 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Back in April of last year I pondered the COA’s decision in Burnham v. Burnham, which affirmed the chancellor’s rulings on child support and equitable distribution in a divorce, but subjected his findings to “heightened scrutiny” and “less deference” because he adopted one side’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law verbatim. That post is here.

Dissatisfied with the COA’s affirmance, Matthew Burnham filed a petition for cert, which the MSSC granted. One issue he raised was the chancellor’s verbatim adoption of the other side’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

In ¶7 of the MSSC’s opinion in Burnham v. Burnham, handed down November 12, 2015, Justice Dickinson stated:

In Bluewater Logistics, LLC v. Williford, we abandoned the rule that a chancellor’s decision to adopt a party’s proposed findings of fact was subject to “heightened scrutiny.” A chancellor’s factual findings , even those adopted from a party, are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. [footnotes omitted]

So that would seem to be the last word on that subject.

This case does, however, highlight a pitfall of proposed findings. The MSSC reversed because several of the chancellor’s findings of fact, particularly those upon which he based a finding of dissipation of assets, were unsupported by evidence in the record. Those findings of fact were submitted to the chancellor by the attorneys for Mrs. Burnham. Although the chancellor had the duty to satisfy himself that the proposed findings he adopted were accurate and supported in the record, the first duty was on her attorneys to ensure that their proposed findings were accurate. As the outcome of this case illustrates, if you play loose with the facts, it can cost your client down the road.

Chancellors have different approaches to proposed findings. Some ask for them in many cases, particularly complicated ones. Others have told me that they do not like them because lawyers tilt them in favor of their clients. Still others, as I do, call for them selectively.

If you’re going to offer proposed findings, make sure you draft them like the judge is supposed to — relying only on facts in evidence and drawing fair inferences, and applying the law as it is applies. If you use proposed findings as a partisan opportunity, you just might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Disappearing Child Support Arrearage

November 12, 2015 § 3 Comments

Occasionally some lawyer will approach me and ask that I sign an Agreed Judgment, signed off by all concerned, that settles a contempt issue. The petition charged that the respondent had something like a $3,500 arrearage, but now the judgment says he is current. “What happened to the arrearage?” I ask. The answer is something like, “Oh, we agreed to let that go if he would agree to supervised visitation from now on,” or “He really owes $3,500, but we agreed to forgive that if he would just pay on time in the future.”

Well, you just can’t do that, not even by agreement.

In the recent COA decision in Caldwell v. Atwood, handed down November 3, 2015, the court noted at ¶20 that, “While the law allows for credit to be made for child-support payments through additional physical support by the noncustodial parent, it does not permit those payments to simply be ‘purged,’ whether by an agreement or order.”

This is a subject about which I have posted here before. You simply can’t contract away an arrearage, and, for that matter, you can’t contract away your minor children’s right to future support.

In Caldwell, the chancellor had found Thomas Atwood in arrears in child support, but did not adjudicate an amount, or order him to pay it. Instead, the chancellor ordered him to “purge” himself of contempt by paying future support equal to 14% of his adjusted gross income. The COA reversed, holding that it was error for the judge in essence to forgive the arrearage. As the court went on to say in its decision:

¶19. It is well settled that “court-ordered child-support payments vest in the child as they accrue and may not thereafter be modified or forgiven, only paid.” [Harrington v. Harrington, 648 So.2d 543, 545 (Miss.1994) … at (¶14) (quoting Varner v. Varner, 588 So. 2d 428, 434 (Miss. 1991)). “Such benefits belong to the child, and the custodial parent has a fiduciary duty to hold them for the use of the child.” Id. at (¶13) (quoting Smith v. Smith, 20 So. 3d 670, 674 (¶13) (Miss. 2009)).

The COA remanded the case for the trial court to determine the amount of arrearage owed to Caldwell, and to formulate a payment plan.

On a related point, there seems to be a vogue whereby the divorcing parents agree to joint legal and physical custody, and they use that arrangement to justify no child support, I guess due to the “shared custodial arrangement.” I do not believe in most cases that this is in the best interest of the children. To me, the custody arrangement is being driven not by what the parents truly believe is best for the children, but rather by the desire to create a mechanism that the judge will approve that will eliminate child support. I look at these with great skepticism. The parents have to convince me that the arrangement is genuinely in the best interest of the children. And, if there is a discrepancy in income, I require the parent with greater income to pay child support based on the difference. When parties learn that there is a way to get out of paying, they will exploit that loophole to gain an advantage in divorce negotiations that can have a negative effect on the children.


The Next Obergefell Shoe Falls

November 9, 2015 § 5 Comments

Before the US Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges on the constitutionality of same-sex-marriage bans and recognition of same-sex-marriages contracted in other states, Mississippi had its own same-sex-marriage case, Czekala-Chatham v. State of Mississippi, about which I posted previously. At the trial level, the chancellor had refused to recognize the parties’ marriage in another state, as required by the language of our state Constitution, and the appellant appealed, claiming that the Mississippi provision was contrary to the US Constitution. The State of Mississippi countered, taking the position that the ban was constitutional. As you may recall, the MSSC put that case on hold after the SCOTUS granted cert in Obergefell.

Then Obergefell came down in June, 2015, ruling unconstitutional state bans on issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and requiring states to recognize the lawful marriages of same-sex couples in other states. Mississippi then confessed the appellant’s position in Czekala-Chatham, and the appellant then moved to dismiss the complaint and render judgment in favor of the appellant. The case has sat on the MSSC docket since then. In the four months since SCOTUS ruled, our court had been silent on its same-gender case.

On November 5, 2015, in Czekala-Chatham v. State of Mississippi, the MSSC did finally rule on the case, but only via an order that says, in essence, that, since the state had agreed that the case should bee reversed and remanded for further proceedings, “We find that no contested issues remain for resolution, and that the [appellant’s] motion should be granted. End of case for now.

The order, signed by Justice Randolph, was joined by Lamar, Chandler, and Pierce. Pierce agreed, with a separate opinion joined by Chandler. Justices Dickinson, King, and Coleman objected to the order.

All writing separate opinions would have preferred to render an opinion in the case to discuss its merits. Justice Coleman offered his objecting opinion as what he would have written to find Mississippi’s laws on the subject unconstitutional.

From the majority’s viewpoint, I suppose, the order narrowly rests on the vehicle that was presented to the court: i.e., the appellant’s motion to dismiss, and the majority did not want to venture out into areas not encompassed in the motion.

To the objectors, however, the court missed an opportunity to settle this area of law in our state so that litigants, lawyers, and judges would have a clear beacon by which to navigate.

All of the ramifications of Obergefell will become clear over time, but it will take more appeals than Czekala-Chatham to get there, it appears.

Relief in a Vacuum

October 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

If the separate maintenance is denied, may the chancellor nonetheless order financial relief?

In Spotswood v. Spotswood, decided by the COA on September 1, 2015, the chancellor at trial ruled that Lori and Robert Spotswood were equally at fault in  the separation, and, therefore, that Lori was not entitled to separate maintenance. The chancellor ordered Robert to reimburse Lori for the monthly health insurance premium that she pays through her employment for his health insurance coverage, and to pay one-half of the mortgage on the marital residence.

On the face of it, the judge’s order makes some sense. Robert, after all, is benefitting from Lori maintaining his coverage under her health insurance at her expense. She may not be able to cancel that coverage while they are still married. Likewise, Robert is no longer living in the home, and Lori is stuck with 100% of a joint debt. It only seems fair that Robert should pay his fair share.

Robert appealed, though, complaining that the judge had no authority after he denied separate maintenance to order in this action that he make those payments. Judge Irving, writing for the court, agreed, reversing and rendering:

¶7. In Pool v. Pool, 989 So. 2d 920, 927 (¶¶20-21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted), this Court stated:

Separate maintenance is [a] court[-]created equitable relief based upon the marital relationship. The purpose of a decree for separate maintenance is to compel the husband to resume cohabitation with his wife or to provide for her separate maintenance. . . . The [chancery court] may award separate maintenance when (1) the parties have separated without [substantial] fault by the [requesting party;] and (2) the [nonrequesting party] has willfully abandoned the [requesting party] and [has] refused to [provide] support [therefor].

(Emphasis added).

¶8. For a chancery court to award separate maintenance, it must first find that the aforementioned requirements have been met. Once those requirements are met, then the court may, in its discretion, award support. However, if the court finds that separate maintenance is unwarranted, it cannot, in the name of equity, do an end-run around what the law forbids by ordering one spouse to undertake certain financial obligations for the benefit of the other spouse. In this case, because the chancery court found that Lori was not entitled to separate maintenance, the chancery court lacked the authority to order Robert to make the payments.

So, does this mean that Lori is stuck making Roberts’ health insurance premium payments and the entire mortgage payment? Not necessarily. The opinion continues:

¶9. To be clear, we do not address the issue of whether the chancery court erred in denying Lori separate maintenance, as that issue is not before this Court. Nor should anything in this opinion be interpreted as holding that Lori is required to continue to pay Robert’s insurance premiums or the entire mortgage payment without reimbursement from Robert. As to the latter, the mortgage contract dictates the obligations of the parties. We only hold that the chancery court erred as a matter of law in ordering Robert to make the payments after denying Lori’s request for separate maintenance. Accordingly, we reverse the chancery court’s judgment as to the payments and render judgment in favor of Robert.

In other words, Lori may maintain an action to recover from Robert, but not in this case, since all she sought was separate maintenance, which was denied. I think she might have achieved a different result had she pled in the alternative for either separate maintenance or for contribution from Robert for his share of the premiums and/or mortgage payments. You can join as many actions as you have against a party in the same complaint.

Essential Jurisdictional Facts for Divorce

September 9, 2015 § 7 Comments

There are four fundamental facts you need to know about divorce in Mississippi:

  1. Venue is jurisdictional.
  2. Residence is jurisdictional.
  3. There must have been a marriage for there to be a divorce.
  4. Pleadings are not evidence.

Knowing those four things, then, you need to make sure that you put proof in the record, most usually in the form of testimony, that establishes venue and residence — ergo jurisdiction  — and that there was a marriage.

Here are the jurisdictional facts that need to be in the record for the court to exercise jurisdiction over a divorce:

  • That there was a valid marriage. When and where were the parties married?
  • When was the separation? Separation is not essential for the granting of a divorce, per MCA 93-5-4, but it helps the judge understand the context of the divorce. Many chancellors will want you to establish that, despite the non-separation, they have not had consensual sexual intercourse.
  • Where is venue? For a fault-based divorce, the case must be filed in: (1) the county where the defendant resides; or (2) the county where the plaintiff resides if the parties lived in that county up to the time of the separation and the plaintiff has continued to live there; or (3) the county where the plaintiff resides if the defendant is a non-resident or not to be found in the state. If the ground for divorce is solely irreconcilable differences, the complaint may be filed in the county of either party. MCA 93-5-11. If the action is not filed in the proper county, the court has no jurisdiction, and the case must be transferred to the proper county, per MCA 93-5-11 and MRCP 82(d).
  • Is there the requisite residential period? One of the parties must have been a bona fide resident of the State of Mississippi “within this state” for six months “next preceding” the commencement of the case. That means that there must be six uninterrupted months of actual residence inside the state. It is not enough to move here four months before filing and claim that you actually changed your residence to Mississippi two months before moving here, or to stitch together several periods of residency to make six months. The six-month period does not apply to U.S. military actually stationed in Mississippi, provided that the member resided with the spouse in Mississippi, and the separation occurred in Mississippi. Residency must not have been acquired to secure a divorce. MCA 93-5-5.

Don’t forget the UCCJEA allegations if custody is an issue.

Just because you plead all of the jurisdictional requirements, that does not prove anything because pleadings are not evidence, and the only way to prove something is to get evidence into the record — meaning the trial transcript.

I find that even experienced lawyers fail to get this vital proof into the record in some cases. It happens primarily in cases where the plaintiff’s attorney calls the other party adversely as the first witness. Those jurisdictional fact questions somehow never get asked. Maybe the attorney is afraid that the adverse party will deny residency or something similar. Maybe the attorney is more preoccupied with confronting the cheater with videos, or making him admit he squandered the family fortune gambling. Maybe it’s simple oversight. Whatever, it should not be left up to the judge to inquire about these jurisdictional nuances.

Equity Delayed is Equity Denied

August 26, 2015 § 2 Comments

If your trial judge in a bench trial takes a case under advisement and fails to render a decision within a reasonable time, MRAP 15 provides the remedy:

(a) When a trial judge in a civil case takes under advisement a motion or request for relief which would be dispositive of any substantive issues and has held such motion or request under advisement for sixty (60) days, the plaintiffs and the defendants shall each within fourteen (14) days thereafter submit a proposed order or judgment to the trial judge and shall forward to the Administrative Office of Courts, the trial court clerk and the opposing parties true copies thereof with a statement setting forth the style and number of the case, the names and addresses of the judge and of all parties and the date on which such motion or request was taken under advisement. On receipt of such proposed orders and notices, the Administrative Office of Courts shall calendar them and notify the trial judge and the trial court clerk of the filing. At any time thereafter that an order or judgment is entered on the motion or request for relief, the plaintiffs and the defendants shall, in writing, promptly notify the Administrative Office of Courts and the opposing parties of the date of entry of the decision; copies of such notification shall be sent to the judge and the trial court clerk. If no written notice of a decision is received by the Administrative Office of Courts within six(6) months from the date the case was taken under advisement, the Administrative Office of Courts shall confirm with the trial court clerk that no order or judgment has been entered and notify the Supreme Court. The Administrative Office of Courts will forward copies of its notification to the trial judge and parties and shall advise the judge and counsel that they are to respond to the notice within a specified period. The Supreme Court shall treat such notification as the filing of an application for a writ of mandamus by all the parties to the action and shall proceed accordingly. The notice of the Administrative Office of Courts of the time within which to respond shall satisfy the requirements of M.R.A.P. 21(d).

(b) The trial judge, not later than thirty (30) days prior to the expiration of the six (6) months from the date the case was taken under advisement, for just cause shown, may apply in writing to the Supreme Court for additional time beyond said six (6) months in which to enter a decision. Concurrently, the judge shall provide a copy of such application to each of the parties.

No one wants to tick off a chancellor who holds the fate of the client in his or her hands, but sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

I mention this with the COA’s decision in Chipley v. Chipley, decided August 11, 2015, in mind. In that case, the Special Chancellor granted a divorce between Wanda and Kenneth Chipley on January 25, 2011, and directed the attorneys to provide, in effect, proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on Ferguson factors within ten days. Thereafter, the case sat dead in the water for two years, until the MSSC ordered the chancellor to adjudicate the property division, which he did on February 15, 2013. After some post-trial-motion maneuvering that ate up the remainder of the year, Wanda filed an appeal on December 17, 2013, which the COA determined to be timely.

In its August 11, 2015, opinion (that’s four years and nearly eight months after the divorce), the case was reversed and remanded because the Special Chancellor failed to include a Ferguson analysis in his final ruling. It’s axiomatic that the judge’s decision must be supported by findings of fact and conclusions of law on Ferguson. Dickerson v. Dickerson, 34 So.3d 637, 644 (¶24) (Miss. App. 2010). It’s not enough merely to mention the factors. Lee v. Lee, 78 So.3d 326, 329 (¶10) (Miss. 2012). No analysis = reversal and remand. Reed v. Reed, 141 So.3d 450, 455 (¶18) (Miss. App. 2014).

Still to be dealt with are a motion for rehearing and possible cert petition before a mandate is issued, chewing up some more time in the Chipleys’ lives. After all that, they will return to where they started, still without a determination of their property interests. It will take some time to appoint a replacement Special Chancellor, since the original one has died, and the remand hearing will need to be scheduled to accommodate the lawyers, judge, and the parties, which likely will mean more delay and a trial either in the first quarter of 2016, if no further appellate proceedings are had, or much later if the case tarries in the higher courts. I wonder whether those assets that they are fighting over will still even exist after all that time.

Demarcation Date on Remand

August 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

The date on which the marital assets are assigned a value can make a drastic difference in the ultimate outcome of the equitable distribution. It’s a concept that we’ve touched on here before. In Lowery v. Lowery, 25 So.3d 274, 285-286 (Miss. 2009), the court said:

¶ 27. For purposes of determination of equitable division … the date for determination would be either the date of separation (at the earliest) or the date of divorce (at the latest). “Cases appear to hold that, as a matter of law, property acquired during separation is marital unless a support order has been entered…. However, a few cases suggest that the issue is a question of fact for the chancellor to decide….” Bell on Mississippi Family Law at § 6.02[3][b] n. 58 (citing Stone v. Stone, 824 So.2d 645, 647–48 (Miss.Ct.App.2002); Aron v. Aron, 832 So.2d 1257, 1258–59 (Miss.Ct.App.2002)).

Other cases have suggested that the valuation date can vary according to the assets. In other words, one asset could have one valuation date, and another a different valuation date.

So, is the rule any different when the case is remanded to the trial court for a do-over? Things can change in the lengthy time it takes to complete the appeal process, after all.

That’s what happened in Lewis v. Pagel, handed down by the MSSC on August 13, 2015. Following a trip through the COA, and from there to the MSSC, Drake Lewis and Tonia Pagel (formerly Lewis), found themselves back before the chancellor for a do-over on equitable distribution. The case was remanded for the chancellor to treat certain real properties as non-marital, to re-value a business, and to re-analyze equitable distribution. The chancellor followed the appellate courts’ instructions, using the asset values as of the date of the divorce.

Drake appealed, complaining that the chancellor’s approach skewed the ultimate outcome because values had changed in the time it took to complete the appeal cycle. Justice Chandler addressed his argument this way:

¶27. It is well-established that “an equitable division of property does not necessarily mean an equal division of property.” Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 863-64 (Miss. 1994). “[F]airness is the prevailing guideline in marital division.” Lowery v. Lowery, 25 So. 3d 274, 285 (Miss. 2009) (quoting Ferguson, 639 So. 2d at 929). Here, the chancellor’s division of the property was approximately equal. Drake’s argument that he received substantially less than Tonia relies on circumstances that occurred after the divorce judgment. However, the date for determination of equitable distribution is, at the earliest, the date of separation, or, at the latest, the date of divorce. Lowery, 25 So. 3d at 285. Additionally, an order of equitable division is a nonmodifiable judgment. East v. East, 493 So. 2d 927, 931 (Miss. 1986). Therefore, when the Court of Appeals remanded for the chancellor to revisit the equitable distribution, the chancellor properly redetermined the equitable distribution as of the divorce.

When you read the entire Lewis opinion (as I am sure you will), note that the chancellor did consider a post-appeal change in value that favored Drake. Legacy Holdings, LLC, a family business, was valued at the time of the divorce at $1,148,270, but the chancellor found that it had no value at the time of the remand hearing.

Here is a post about a case in which the chancellor’s use of the divorce trial date on remand was affirmed.

It would be a nifty skill for a lawyer to be able to tell the future. None of us in real life, however, has a crystal ball. Still, it’s a good idea to impress on your client that a side effect of an appeal could be that you can win the battle and lose the war. By the time the case descends from the lofty, rarified atmosphere of the appellate courts to ground level, things may have changed drastically in the meantime, resulting in a bounce that does not favor your client. In Lewis, the appeal on the equitable distribution saved Drake some rehabilitative alimony, but cost him $100,000 in lump-sum alimony. That’s going to leave a mark.

Double Dipping in Equitable Distribution

August 18, 2015 § 3 Comments

When Michael and Rosie Jackson went through their divorce, the chancellor awarded the former marital residence to Rosie and ordered that she pay the mortgage debt on it. The parties agreed that the value of the home was $78,000, and that its mortgage debt was $50,103, resulting in equity of $27,897.

When the chancellor toted up the assets, he assigned the equity to Rosie. Her share of the marital assets amounted to $31,928, and Michael’s share came to $120,310.64. The difference in favor of Michael was $88,382.64.

Then the chancellor allocated the marital debts between the parties. Michael was assigned $4,950 in credit card debt, reducing Michael’s asset value to $115,360. Rosie was assigned the mortgage debt, which the chancellor found to have reduced Rosie’s asset value to minus $18, 175. In order to equalize the estates based on that arithmetic, the chancellor awarded Rosie lump-sum alimony $57,680.32.

Before going any further, take a moment and ask yourself whether there is any flaw in that arrangement.

In Jackson v. Jackson, handed down by the MSSC on August 13, 2015, the court reversed in part and remanded because the chancellor counted the mortgage debt twice: once by subtracting it from the total value of the property; and a second time by including it in the debts assigned to Rosie. The result was that Rosie’s share of the marital estate was undervalued by $50,103, which in turn affected the amount of lump-sum alimony awarded. The case was sent back to the trial court for a re-do on that issue. All other issues were affirmed.

The COA had affirmed this decision and brushed aside Michael’s complaint about the calculation, noting that our law requires only that the division of the marital estate be equitable, not necessarily equal. The COA’s decision was the subject of a prior post here dealing with homosexual behavior as habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.

Judges do make mistakes when it comes to juggling those numbers in equitable distribution cases. Always check behind the judge for errors in handling debt such as was done here. While you’re at it, check arithmetic and make sure that the figures used match up with the evidence. File a timely R59 motion if you catch an error. Better to let the judge fix it, if she will, than to have to go to the expense of an appeal.

Love and the Family Jewels

August 17, 2015 § 3 Comments

Love, as they say, conquers all, including good judgment in some cases.

Most of us have seen this scenario more than once: Boyfriend, hopelessly in love with girlfriend, proposes marriage; Girlfriend, eyelids batting furiously, says “yes”; Boyfriend slips a rather expensive engagement ring on Girlfriend’s finger; wedding ensues, converting Boyfriend and Girlfriend to Husband and Wife; marital bliss soon gives way to combat; Husband retains attorney; Wife does the same. You represent Husband. Here is the conversation in your office:

H:  Oh, and not only do I not want her to get anything, but I want that engagement ring back.

You:  Under our law an engagement ring is a gift; the judge will not give it back to you.

H:  Oh yes he will because it belonged to my mother. It’s been in the family for 175 years. It was given to my great (etc., etc.) grandmother by Napoleon just after his victory at Austerlitz.

So let’s pause right there while you catch your breath. So it’s an heirloom. And a valuable antique, to boot. What to do?

Well, first off, you were right to point out that if it meets the elements of a valid gift, the judge is not going to take the ring away from her. Those elements are: (1) that the donor was competent to make a gift; (2) that the donation was a voluntary act and the donor had donative intent; (3) that the gift must be complete and not conditional; (4) that delivery was made; and (5) that the gift was irrevocable. In re Estate of Ladner, 909 So.2d 1051, 1053 (Miss. 2004). Those are fact issues, and the burden of proof is clear and convincing.

In a recent case the COA addressed a similar situation (not involving Napoleon). Here’s how Judge Barnes’ opinion laid out the dispute in Lomax v. Lomax, decided August 11, 2015:

¶11. The main point of contention in the divorce and the determination of marital property concerned the chancery court’s award of the engagement ring to Tara. The chancellor concluded that Tara was entitled to keep the ring, which had previously belonged to Max’s mother, since Max had given the ring to Tara as an inter vivos gift prior to the marriage. Max argues that the parties had an oral agreement that if the marriage did not work out, the ring would be returned to his mother. At the hearing, Max testified that his mother’s ring was given to Tara under the condition that once Max could afford another stone for the ring setting they had purchased, she would return the ring.

¶12. Tara, however, emphatically denied that there was an actual agreement that the ring would be returned, but she acknowledged that after the couple separated, she told her mother-in-law she wanted to be “fair” and return the stone. But she explained at the hearing that when she made that comment to Max’s mother, she “didn’t realize that [Max] intentionally wanted to cost [her] $20,000” to obtain the divorce.

The chancellor awarded Tara the ring. Judge Barnes addressed Max’s claim that the chancellor was in error by letting Tara keep the family jewels:

¶13. In Neville v. Neville, 734 So. 2d 352, 357 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999), this Court held that since an engagement ring was a gift that predated the marriage of the parties, it “was not a marital asset subject to equitable division.” “It was, therefore, beyond the chancellor’s authority to order [the wife] to return possession of that item to [the husband] and [the chancellor’s] refusal to do so cannot constitute reversible error on appeal.” Id. Accordingly, we find no error in the chancellor’s decision to award the engagement ring to Tara.

In the Neville case, incidentally, Mr. Neville claimed that the ring was a family heirloom.

A few observations:

  • The ring does not just disappear from the marital equation. It is considered Tara’s separate property, and its value will be considered, along with her share of the equitable distribution, in determining whether she has a “deficit” that would justify alimony.
  • The fact that it was a family heirloom does not enter into the picture. If the giving of the ring meets all the requirements of a gift under Mississippi law, it belongs to the donee.
  • Max might have wanted to memorialize his version of the transaction with a pre-nup that provided that Tara would return the ring in the event of a marital dissolution, particularly if it had monumental value like the Napoleon ring mentioned above.
  • I think the outcome would have been different had Tara admitted on the witness stand that the ring was not a gift, but was hers temporarily only until Max could replace the valuable stone in it. The judge believed Tara that the ring was an unconditional gift, and that did in Max’s position. The chancellor is the ultimate determiner of whom to believe.
  • Would the outcome before the COA have been different if it were not only a family heirloom, but also a priceless antique with a provenance linked to one of the great figures in world history? We’ll have to wait until our appellate courts are confronted with such a fact situation. Until then, I think it’s safe to conclude that if the ring is gifted, it’s the property of the one to whom the gift is given — divorce or none.


The Unanswered Divorce Complaint

July 21, 2015 § 14 Comments

You have filed a divorce complaint for your client and had the defendant personally served per MRCP 4. Intelligence from your client leads you to believe that the defendant will not participate, so you put the file away and let the thirty days tick down.

On the twenty-ninth day, you receive a handwritten letter from the defendant neither admitting nor denying the allegations of the complaint. The defendant filed a copy of the letter in the case with the Chancery Clerk. You set the case for trial and, exercising prudence, give notice to the defendant of the day and time. You are still convinced that there will be no opposition since no bona fide answer or counterclaim has been filed, and, as your client indicated, the defendant is not likely to participate. You think it best to forego the trouble and expense of discovery.

On the day appointed for trial, you appear with your client and a single corroborating witness. The defendant, however, is there waiting for you, accompanied by competent counsel and a dozen or so supportive witnesses. The defendant is insisting on going forward with a trial right then and there. What to do?

  • Can the defendant present evidence contra the grounds for divorce, even though he did not file an answer? Yes, according Rawson v. Buta, 609 So.2d 426, 430-431 (Miss. 1992). The lack of an answer does not confess the allegations of the complaint per MRA 93-5-7. Because the allegations of the complaint are not taken as confessed, they always require adequate proof to sustain them, and the defendant may offer proof to rebut the plaintiff’s proof. The defendant may not, however, go outside the scope of the complaint, and may not put on proof supporting any affirmative relief.
  • You should ask for a continuance — on the record — and explain to the judge in detail why you need one and what were the presumptions on which you based your lack of discovery and other preparations for a trial. Bring to the attention of the court your lack of notice that the defendant would be represented, and what effect that had on your readiness for trial.
  • Don’t assume if you get your continuance that the 90 days for discovery per UCCR 1.10 has been extended. Ask for additional time and get a court order to that effect.
  • Was it ethical for that other lawyer to sandbag you like he did? I don’t see a specific ethical provision that was expressly violated, but it just seems to violate the spirit of RPC 3.4, as well as the preamble to the RPC. That kind of conduct does not pass the smell test, and would more than likely tip the scales in your favor for a continuance. In my experience, it’s the kind of conduct that causes hard feelings among attorneys in small communities and should be avoided. Defendant’s lawyer should have notified you when he was retained, or at least he should have filed an entry of appearance in the case and served it on you.
  • [Added after publication] As a last resort, you could just move to dismiss your client’s complaint per MRCP 41(a). That would stop this unpleasantness, but your client would have to start over, and there is an off-chance that she could be assessed some expenses of the defendant for showing up.

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