IS MY DIVORCE FINAL? YES. UH, NO. OKAY, YES. AT LEAST I THINK IT IS
September 13, 2010 § 2 Comments
We all hope that when a judgment of divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences is entered, the result is a final resolution of the parties’ marital strife. Sometimes, though, the disputes come reeling back to life, zombie-like, careening through the trial courts, or try to, anyway. Consider:
In Irby v. Estate of Irby, 7 So.2d 223 (Miss. 2009), the Mississippi Supreme Court finally laid to rest the troublesome question whether a divorce granted on the ground of irreconcilable differences is void because the parties failed to withdraw their contested pleadings. In that case, the husband and wife were divorced based on a consent. Husband died shortly after the judgment was entered, and wife sought to set aside the judgment on the basis that the parties’ contested pleadings had not been withdrawn before the judgment was entered. The Supreme Court held that the consent operated as a withdrawal of the contest, and that it was not necessary to take any other action to withdraw pleadings.
The Irby decision effectively reversed the Court of Appeals decision in Pittman v. Pittman, 4 So.3d 395 (Miss. 2009), rendered only six weeks before Irby. The reversal apparently did not go down well with the Court of Appeals, however. In Sellers v. Sellers, 22 So.3d 853 (Miss. App. 2009), decided 2 months after Irby, the Court of Appeals fired back its disagreement with Irby in lengthy dicta that had nothing to do with any issue raised in the Sellers case. Having gotten that off their chest, the Court of Appeals six months later again followed Irby in the case of Cossey v. Cossey, 22 So.3d 353, 357 (Miss. App. 2009), where they stated through figuratively clenched teeth, “We reach this decision, as we did in Sellers, by strictly applying the supreme court’s recent interpretation of section 95-5-2(3) and (5).”
Bottom line is that when you have a consent that meets all the statutory requirements, you do not need to withdraw contested pleadings. But why invite scrutiny? It’s simple to include in your consent express language that the parties agree that all contested pleadings are withdrawn and dismissed. Or, for an even greater comfort level, you can file an agreed motion followed by an agreed order withdrawing the contest.
The issue in McDuffie v. McDuffie, 21 So.3d 685 (Miss. App. 2009) was whether the Chancellor acted improperly in denying Michael McDuffie’s request to withdraw his consent after the trial had begun. Michael and his wife Kathi had entered into a consent to divorce, which met all of the statutory requirements and had been duly filed. The trial was percolating along nicely when, much to Michael’s dismay, Kathi admitted in her testimony that she had committed adultery. Stung by the revelation, Michael moved to withdraw his consent, which the Chancellor refused, based on the facts that the consent had been filed three years before the trial was commenced, several motion hearings had intervened, and the trial had begun. The Court of Appeals upheld the Chancellor’s decision based on § 93-5-2, MCA, which states in part that the consent, ” may not be withdrawn by a party without leave of the court after the court has commenced any proceeding, including the hearing of any motion or other matter pertaining thereto.” It was not error in the circumstances for the court to refuse to grant leave to withdraw.
Can the trial court grant a divorce on irreconcilable differences where there is no pleading properly before the court requesting it? In Tyrone v. Tyrone, 32 So.3d 1206 (Miss. App. 2009), husband had filed a complaint for separate maintenance, and wife filed a response that included a counterclaim for an irreconcilable differences divorce and a motion to dismiss husband’s complaint. The trial judge dismissed husband’s pleading, but never conducted a hearing on wife’s counterclaim for divorce. Husband subsequently filed a second complaint for separate maintenance, and wife responded with a motion to dismiss. In a later hearing dealing with some contempt issues, the trial judge urged the parties to settle the matter as an irreconcilable differences divorce, which they did, and he granted a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences. Wife appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed.
If you read Tyrone, you will doubtless be struck by the tortuous route from pleading to final result at the trial level. If you come away with the conclusion that there must be a pleading before the court, filed more than sixty days previously, requesting irreconcilable differences, and a consent or property settlement agreement that meets the statutory requirements, that is enough.
A similar result was reached in Johnson v. Johnson, 21 so.3d 694 (Miss App. 2009), where the trial court granted a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences where there was no agreement, and the parties had not executed a consent.
Perhaps the most zombie-like case of all is Henderson v. Henderson, 27 So.3d 462 (Miss. App. 2010), in which the trial judge signed a judgment of divorce on April 23, 2002, but the judgment was never filed with the clerk. Some time later, the case was dismissed for inaction pursuant to Rule 41(d), MRCP. In 2005, husband discovered the omission and filed a Complaint for Divorce on the ground of desertion. In 2006, wife filed a motion asking the Chancellor to correct the oversight by entering the judgment nunc pro tunc to April 23, 2002, which the judge did. Husband appealed, complaining that it was error for the judge to enter the judgment after had filed his pleading on a fault ground. The Court of Appeals disagreed, pointing out that, “[C]ourts may by nunc pro tunc orders supply omissions in the record of what had previously been done, and by mistake or neglect not entered,” and that the later judgment is effective on the date that it should have been entered but for the omission. Thus, husband’s pleading had no effect on the ultimate outcome.