A Not-so-Separate Peace
July 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
Christopher and Tammy Clausell purchased a jointly-titled home in 2003, using a cahsier’s check for $60,000 that was derived from settlement of a personal-injury claim that Christopher had before the marriage, but that he received post-marriage.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the parties received a joint grant of $98,000, of which they devoted around $78,000 to remodelling the home.
The parties lived together in the home until 2008, when they separated, and, after Christopher filed for a divorce, he was awarded temporary occupancy of it.
In the course of the divorce, the parties entered into a consent, leaving it to the chancellor to decide the equitable distribution of their personal and real property.
In 2011, the chancellor classified the home as marital property. The judge ruled that the facts that the home was the primary marital residence for most of the ten-year marriage, and that it was jointly titled, and that the grant money was invested in it, all supported a finding that it was a marital asset. After applying the Ferguson factors, she ordered that it be sold, with the net profit divided equally between Christopher and Tammy.
Christopher appealed, taking the position that the chancellor was in error in classifying the home as marital property subject to division, since the entire purchase price was paid out of his personal-injury settlement.
In Clausell v. Clausell, decided June 25, 2013, the COA affirmed. Judge Fair, for the majority, explained:
¶9. To equitably divide property, the chancellor must: (1) classify the parties’ assets as marital or separate, (2) value those assets, and (3) equitably divide the marital assets. Hemsley [v. Hemsley], 639 So. 2d at 914; Ferguson [v. Ferguson], 639 So. 2d at 928. Here, the only dispute by either party of the chancellor’s classification of assets as marital or separate and the division of those assets is the classification and division of their jointly titled house. In Johnson v. Johnson, 650 So. 2d 1281, 1287 (Miss. 1994), our supreme court stated that all marital assets are subject to possible equitable distribution in accordance with the factors provided in Ferguson. Marital property is “any and all property acquired or accumulated during the marriage . . . and [is] subject to an equitable distribution by the chancellor.” Hemsley, 639 So. 2d at 915. Further, such marital “[a]ssets acquired or accumulated during the course of a marriage are subject to equitable division unless it can be shown by proof that such assets are attributable to one of the parties’ separate estates prior to the marriage or outside of the marriage.” Id. at 914.
¶10. Christopher mistakenly asserts that the home cannot be marital property because it was purchased with money from his personal-injury settlement from litigation filed before marriage on a cause of action that accrued to him prior to marriage. However, Christopher was married to Tammy when he received the settlement check, and he was married to Tammy when they purchased the home. Further, “nonmarital assets . . . may be converted to marital assets if they are commingled with marital assets or used for familial purposes. Such converted assets are then subject to equitable distribution.” Heigle v. Heigle, 654 So. 2d 895, 897 (Miss. 1995). “The burden is upon one claiming assets to be non-marital to demonstrate to the court their non-marital character.” A & L, Inc. v. Grantham, 747 So. 2d 832, 839 (¶23) (Miss. 1999) (citing Hemsley, 639 So. 2d at 915). “This burden goes beyond a mere demonstration that the asset was acquired prior to marriage.” Id.
¶11. Reversal is warranted “only where the failure to make sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law constitute manifest error.” Selman v. Selman, 722 So. 2d 547, 554 (¶29) (Miss. 1998). In this case, the chancellor set out her considerations in classifying the home as marital under Hemsley and conducted a detailed analysis of all the Ferguson factors in distributing the marital estate. We cannot say that the chancellor abused her discretion in classifying the home as marital and dividing proceeds of its sale equally. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the chancellor.
Understand that if you represent the party seeking to keep an asset separate, you have a substantial burden that “goes beyond a mere demonstration that the asset was acquired prior to the marriage.” You will have to show how the asset retained its separate character, or how it can easily be traced out and re-separated. And your proof must be in the record. If you just dump that on the judge to do and do not make the record, you are planting potent reversible error.
My sense is that it is getting harder and harder to convince the appellate courts that an asset is in any way separate (1) if it has been used in any form or fashion for family use, or (2) if marital money was invested in it, or (3) if there is no pre-marital agreement that it be treated separately despite (1) and/or (2).
As a lawyer, you are in a position to advise clients in advance how to avoid these judicially-created traps. The downside is that, 99% of the time, you are invited to get involved long after the deed is done (no pun intended).