CUSTODY WHEN THERE IS NO DIVORCE

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the COA case of Jones v. Jones, decided November 13, 2012, Carrie Jones filed for divorce against her husband, Donald, who in turn filed a counterclaim for divorce against her. The parties agreed to present the case in a bifurcated fashion, first presenting proof of grounds for divorce and letting the court adjudicate the divorce before proceeding to other issues.

Carrie presented her evidence, at the conclusion of which Donald moved for dismissal under MRCP 41(b). The chancellor ruled that Carrie had not met her burden of proof, and dismissed her complaint. Donald then dismissed his counterclaim. When Carrie asked to go forward on the remaining isssues of child custody and support, the chancellor refused on the basis that her complaint was dismissed, and there was nothing further to adjudicate.

Carrie appealed, raising several issues (she did not contest the denial of the divorce).

First, she claimed that the chancellor had a constitutional duty to protect the child, and that the court should have adjudicated custody even though the divorce complaint was dismissed. Judge Fair, writing for the majority, agreed that the chancery court has a duty to protect children, but disagreed that the duty extended to adjudicating custody in a situation such as this. He wrote:

This [constitutional] responsibility does not impose upon chancellors an affirmative duty to adjudicate custody for every dismissed divorce complaint.

¶6. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that a chancellor may provide for the custody of children after dismissing a complaint for divorce. See Waller v. Waller, 754 So. 2d 1181, 1183 (¶12) (Miss. 2000). “The court, however, is not required to make a decision regarding custody where it dismisses the petition for divorce.” Id. (citations omitted).

¶7. In domestic-relations matters, chancellors enjoy considerable discretion and are trusted to evaluate the specific facts of each case. See Harrell v. Harrell, 231 So. 2d 793, 797 (Miss. 1970). Here, the limited record contains no indication that either parent would be unfit or unsuitable for custody. We cannot say the chancellor abused his discretion by declining to adjudicate custody.

Second, she argued that the court should have dismissed only the divorce complaint and left standing her claim for custody. This, too, the court rejected:

¶10. Carrie characterizes her claims for custody and child support as independent actions cognizable under section 93-11-65 of the Mississippi Code Annotated (Supp. 2012). But our case law contradicts this interpretation. In Slaughter v. Slaughter, 869 So. 2d 386, 397 (¶33) (Miss. 2004), the Mississippi Supreme Court held that a custody matter may not proceed under section 93-11-65 when a divorce is pending. Therefore, Carrie’s claims for custody and child support cannot properly be understood as independent issues. Mississippi Code Annotated section “93-5-23 provides for the child’s care and custody in a divorce situation and 93-11-65 . . . is an alternative[.]” Slaughter, 869 So. 2d at 396 (¶33).

[The opinion goes on to distinguish the holding in the modification case, Anderson v. Anderson, 961 So. 2d 55, 59-60 (¶¶8-10) (Miss. 2007)].

How do you avoid a result like Jones? It seems to me you could plead in counts, Count I being the claim for divorce, equitable distribution, a 93-5-24 claim for custody, etc., and Count II being the 93-11-65 child custody and support claim. By pleading in counts you are in my opinion filing what amounts to severable law suits. Under Slaughter, then, you would be barred from proceeding on Count II as long as Count I is pending. But if Count I is dismissed, you still have Count II to fall back on, and it would be viable at that point because the 93-5-24 claim is dismissed.

There is a caveat, however. The venue requirements for divorce and 93-11-65 are not identical. You may have venue for the divorce, but not for 93-11-65.

I’m not saying categorically that this is the answer to the problem because I have not researched the question beyond Jones and Slaughter. The tactic I am suggesting, however, was not employed in either of those cases, as far as I can tell from reading the opinions. Thus, my solution gives you an arguable basis to go forward on custody if you are stymied on grounds for divorce.

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