Ravenstein: Sizzle or Fizzle?

July 21, 2014 § 7 Comments

I vote fizzle.

Last December I reported that the MSSC was asking for additional briefing in the case of Ravenstein v. Hawkins ” … addressing whether equal protection would be violated by an interpretation that child support may not be ordered for adult children who are mentally or physically incapable of self-support under Sections 93-5-23 and 93-11-65, given the mandate of Section 43-19-33 that a certain class of people may receive such support …”

To me, that signaled that the high court was preparing to address the troubling issue of parental duty to support adult disabled children. The last MSSC case to address the issue was Hays v. Alexander, in June, 2013, about which I posted here. Back then, I said this:

The MSSC yesterday ruled in Hays v. Alexander that there is nothing in the common law that would empower the court to create a duty in parents to support adult disabled children. The court said at ¶ 15: “The power to grant the authority to require parents in Mississippi to support their adult children is confided to a separate magistry: the Legislature. Our courts are without the constitutional power to declare otherwise.”

The court handed down its adjudication of Ravenstein last Thursday, and, the bottom line is that we are exactly where we were post-Hays v. Alexander.

John and Elisha Ravenstein were divorced from each other in 1998. In the divorce judgment, the chancellor ordered Mr. Ravenstein to pay lifetime child support for his handicapped son, Ryan. The chancellor found that it would be unjust for the child to become a ward of the state upon attaining age 21 when the parents had the financial ability to care for him. John filed a R59 motion, but never appealed.

When Ryan turned 20, his mother filed a petition asking to be appointed Ryan’s conservator. John counterclaimed that he should be appointed conservator, or that both parents be appointed co-conservators.

When Ryan turned 21, John stopped paying child support to Elisha or Ryan, and deposited the money into the registry of the court. He also filed a MRCP 60(b) motion asking the court to find that the 1998 judgment was void as a matter of law, since it improperly extended his child support obligation beyond Ryan’s 21st birthday.

The chancellor ruled in Elisha’s favor on the conservatorship. She also overruled John’s plea for R60 relief. John appealed.

The MSSC, by Justice Waller, affirmed the chancellor’s ruling on the R60 issue, the rationale for which is worth a read. The court reversed and remanded on the appointment of the conservator because the court applied the wrong legal standard.

On the issue of the application of the code sections cited above, the court said:

 ¶32. After a thorough review of the supplemental briefs filed by the parties and the State, we find that it is unnecessary to address this issue.  We find that John waived his right to challenge his child-support obligation when he failed to appeal Chancellor Lutz’s 1998 judgment and waited thirteen years to attack it collaterally. We reach this conclusion without deciding whether Sections 93-5-23 and 93-11-65 of the Mississippi Code should be interpreted to allow for the provision of post-majority support for adult disabled children. The constitutionality of Section 43-19-33(3), which does not apply to the parties here, is not relevant to the disposition of this case.  See Kron v. Van Cleave, 339 So. 2d 559, 563 (Miss. 1976) (“It is familiar learning that courts will not decide a constitutional question unless it is necessary to do so in order to decide the case.”).

Thus, when he failed to appeal in 1998, John waived his right of review and the court was deprived of authority to address the issue.

Justice King wrote a brilliantly-reasoned dissenting opinion making a strong case that our law in this area is unconstitutional as a denial of equal protection. If you ever have a case involving this issue, he has written your brief for you.

I think this is an issue that must be addressed eventually. Ravenstein, however, proved not to be the vehicle due to its peculiar procedural posture.

Maybe when the right case goes up Justice King will write the majority opinion.

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§ 7 Responses to Ravenstein: Sizzle or Fizzle?

  • Debbie Halford says:

    Bad cases make bad law.

    Debbie Halford


  • Bill Featherston says:

    Would it be possible to file a motion for modification of the child support award based on the child turning 21 and raise the issue of constitutionality?

  • thusbloggedanderson says:

    I was drafting a divorce agreement re a special-needs child, and opted for requiring continued support “if the laws of Mississippi so allow.” I confess I’m unclear whether an ID divorce allows the parties to in effect contract for continued support.

    • Larry says:

      I think the parties may contract for that obligation, just as they may contract to continue college education support beyond age 21.

  • Connie Smith says:

    I vote sizzle.

    But of course I’m biased because I argued the case before the Supreme Court. Justice King wrote a special concurrence in which a majority of the Justices concurred. He essentially says that although Ravenstein does not reach the issue procedurally the matter should be cleared up once and for all. Justice Pierce also wrote a special concurrence stating that the Chancellor had the authority to order child support beyond the age of 21 for disabled children. A majority of the Justices seem to have the opinion that child support can be awarded beyond 21 if it is done in the underlying child support order. While this may not be in the majority opinion for procedural reasons I do believe it sets a clear precedent for where the Court stands on the issue.

    • Larry says:

      Thank you for the comment. Yes, I mischaracterized Justice King’s opinion as a dissent. Everyone agreed that procedurally this case was not the one upon which to address the issue. I will be interested when the right case comes along to see which way the majority goes.

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