THE POINT OF NO RETURN

July 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

We all know the familiar Ferguson approach to equitable distribution: First classify the assets as marital or non-marital; then value them; then divide them equitably (not necessarily equally).

An often-ignored aspect of Ferguson analysis is the demarcation date that the court should use in classifying property as marital or non-marital. It’s important, because the date selected may decide the category where the item is placed. And I say it is often ignored because you seldom hear either side say anything about it in the presentation of the trial.

In Goodwin v. Goodwin, 758 So.2d 384, 386 (Miss. 1999), the MSSC laid down the rule that entry of a separate maintenance order stops accumulation of marital interests in property, and creates a “point of demarcation” to be used by the courts in determining marital vs. separate interests when division ultimately comes before the court. In Goodwin, that portion of the husband’s retirement account accumulated after entry of the separate maintenance order was his separate property, not subject to equitable division.

The line of demarcation rule was extended to temporary orders in the case of Pittman v. Pittman, 791 So.2d 857, 863-64 (Miss.App. 2001). In that case, the court noted that temporary orders, like separate maintenance orders, are simply recognition that the parties have ceased living together as husband and wife; in other words, they have reached the point of no return (at least until reconciliation in good faith in the case of separate maintenance). So interests that accrue after its entry are separate interests.

Both Goodwin and Pittman set out a bright line for the trial courts. But that bright line is there in cases where there has been a separate maintenance or temporary order in the case. What about cases where there is neither?

Professor Bell identifies five other points of demarcation that have been employed in other jurisdictions: (1) the date of separation; (2) the date of filing for divorce; (3) the date of a divorce hearing; (4) the date of the divorce judgment; and (5) a date fixed by the court in its discretion. Bell on Mississippy Family Law, 2nd Ed., § 6.02[3][b], p. 135.

In Doyle v. Doyle, 55 So.3d 1097, 1107 (Miss.App. 2010), the COA held that marital equities continue to accumulate where there was no separate maintenance or temporary order. In Aron v. Aron, 832 So.2d 1257, 1258-59 (Miss.App. 2002), however, the COA held that it was in the chancellor’s discretion to classify the property as marital or non-marital where there was no separate maintenance or temporary order. In either case, the chancellor should consider the parties’ relative contributions in making the division of the post-separation-acquired property. Striebeck v. Striebeck, 5 So.3d 450, 452 (Miss. 2008).

The most recent case on point is Cuccia v. Cuccia, decided by the MSSC on June 28, 2012. The case was before the court on certiorari from the COA, which had reversed the chancellor. The Supreme Court’s opinion stated:

“¶9. In the case before us, a separate maintenance order was not entered, but a temporary support order was issued on May 6, 2008, and filed on May 9, 2008. In reviewing the chancery court’s [divorce judgment], we do not find that he set out the specific date as the line of demarcation in classifying marital verus nonmarital property. He must do so. After determining the line of demarcation, the chancery court must then determine which assets and liabilities are marital and nonmarital in accordance with Ferguson and Hemsley. Then, he must divide the marital estate equitably.” [Footnotes omitted]

So the direction is clear: if the chancellor does not make the demarcation line clear, there is reversible error in the record. You can influence the judge to pick that date, or you can do it via MRCP 59 motion; either way, if you let the record be finalized without a demarcation line, be sure to keep your trial notes, because you’ll need them for the remand trial.

The court gave no direction for how the chancellor should draw the magic line. If the case makes its way back for a third appellate decision we may find out. If not, then we will have to await a more definitive decision.

Until then, give some th0ught to how you want the marital estate divided and why. Give the judge some proof in the record to support a line of demarcation that is in your client’s favor. It might just put some money in your client’s pocket.

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