“FAMILY USE DOCTRINE” HITS A WALL

June 13, 2013 § 1 Comment

I confess that I am no fan of the so-called “Family Use Doctrine.” That’s the concept that, simply because a separate asset was used by the household, its character changes from separate to marital, in whole or in part. I’ve voiced my concern about it here before.

In its latest manifestation, the COA reversed the chancellor’s ruling that Ceicle Palmer was entitled to one-half of the marital estate, which the chancellor adjudged to include a home separately owned prior to the marriage by her husband, Roland. The parties had lived in the home together, and Ceicle had invested some $2,000 in it. The effect of the judge’s ruling, then, was to award Ceicle half of the home equity, which amounted to more than $30,000. Roland appealed.

In the case of Palmer v. Palmer, decided May 7, 2013, the COA reversed and remanded. At ¶ 9 the opinion by Judge Irving states that, “We agree with the chancellor’s finding that the home is marital property.” That’s the “Family Use Doctrine” clicking into place. The court went on to say, however:

¶10. We have held that “[e]quitable distribution does not mean equal distribution,” and there is no requirement that each spouse must receive half of an interest in the property. Jenkins v. Jenkins, 67 So. 3d 5, 11 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Seymour v. Seymour, 960 So. 2d 513, 519 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006)). “[E]quitable distribution [is] a fair division of marital property based on the facts of each case.” Seymour, 960 So. 2d at 519 (¶15). We point out that the chancellor did not specifically award Ceicle a fifty percent interest in the marital home. Rather, he awarded her a fifty percent interest in the marital estate. However, the effect of awarding her fifty percent of the marital estate was to award her a fifty percent interest in the marital home. In reaching his decision, the chancellor noted that there was no evidence that the home had appreciated in value during the course of the marriage and that Ceicle’s only financial contribution to the home was $2,000 for putting in some carpet and tiling the kitchen floor. At one point, the chancellor stated that there was no evidence that the carpet and tile had resulted in an appreciation in the value of the home. However, the chancellor later said that Ceicle had made $2,000 worth of improvements.

¶11. We acknowledge the clarity in our law—that equitable distribution is committed to the sound discretion of the chancellor. However, we, as an appellate court, have oversight responsibility, and if we could never reverse a chancellor’s decision regarding equitable distribution, our oversight responsibility would be reduced to the ministerial act of simply rubber-stamping a chancellor’s decision. While Ceicle did pay $2,000 for new flooring, it is difficult to conclude that her meager financial contribution, along with her domestic contributions to the relationship, warrants a fifty percent interest in the marital home. The house was already paid for before Ceicle and Roland married. The record reflects that Roland also made domestic contributions to the relationship in addition to providing the home, without any compensation or contribution from Ceicle. The record also reflects that Roland has no money from any source other than his meager Social Security check. He would be forced to sell the home in order to pay Ceicle the $31,502.50 that the chancellor awarded her. At that point, he would be homeless or would have to incur additional expenses for lodging. Even the chancellor recognized this fact, as he specifically found [as much].

The court went on to consider the parties’ relative financial conditions and health, concluding that the equities should be adjusted to give Roland the greater part of the marital estate.

There was a dissent critical of the majority opinion, which was addressed by the majority as follows:

¶13. The dissent apparently misreads the focus of our finding that the chancellor erred in dividing the marital estate, as the dissent states, in paragraph 21, that “Mississippi law does not require a spouse to have made a direct economic contribution to an asset to be awarded an interest.” Nothing in our opinion suggests that our law requires such. We do not find error with the chancellor’s judgment because it awarded Ceicle what is tantamount to a fifty percent interest in an asset that she made no contribution to acquiring. We have discussed the facts surrounding the acquisition of the marital home because those facts are relevant to the greater issue of whether there is substantial evidence to support the chancellor’s finding that a fifty-fifty division of the marital estate is equitable. It is only one piece of the overall equation, but an important piece because the marital home constitutes more than fifty percent of the total value of the marital estate. To be clear, our decision rests upon a consideration of the totality of the factual circumstances, including Roland’s health versus Ceicle’s, Roland’s post-divorce financial situation, and especially the chancellor’s finding and recognition that:

If this court were to direct that Roland Palmer sell the marital home, he would net some cash, but would be forced to either rent or buy and would rapidly deplete any funds realized from the sale of the home. Based upon his current income, he would be unable to afford to either rent or buy.

Despite this finding, the chancellor, in effect, concluded that it was equitable to thrust Roland into the very situation that he specifically found was inequitable and which would leave Roland in dire straits.

It’s hard to reconcile this case with Rhodes v. Rhodes, the family-use case I whined about in that prior post. In Rhodes, the COA held that, among several other factors, the household use of a beach condo a few weeks a year for the several years of the brief marriage converted it to marital poperty. That was viewed as equitable by the COA.

I have joked that our jursisprudence is reaching biblical proportions, meaning that one can now find authority to support nearly every possible position, and even several cases on each opposite side of an issue.

Is this Palmer case an anomaly, an outlier? We’ll see.

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