What it takes to Prove Habitual Drunkenness

December 11, 2014 § 9 Comments

Nikki Lee charged her husband, Chris, with habitual drunkenness. The chancellor found the proof supported the claim, and granted her a divorce on that ground. Chris appealed.

In Lee v. Lee, decided by the COA on November 25, 2014, the court affirmed the chancellor:

¶6. Chris asserts that it was error for the chancellor to grant Nikki a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness. Chris argues that Nikki did not meet her burden in proving habitual drunkenness. Alternatively, Chris argues that Nikki’s knowledge of his drinking habits prior to their marriage barred the suit.

¶7. On appeal, Chris argues the chancellor erred in finding sufficient grounds for divorce. “A court may grant a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness if the plaintiff proves that: (1) the defendant frequently abused alcohol; (2) the alcohol abuse negatively affected the marriage; and (3) the alcohol abuse continued at the time of the trial.” Turner v. Turner, 73 So. 3d 576, 583 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011).

¶8. In Sproles v. Sproles, 782 So. 2d 742, 744-45 (¶¶4,7) (Miss. 2001), the court found that the husband’s habit of drinking a case of beer each night, which caused him to become abusive and critical, constituted grounds for divorce under habitual drunkenness. On the other hand, in Culver v. Culver, 383 So. 2d 817, 817-18 (Miss. 1980), the court found that the husband’s habit of drinking four to five beers a night that did not negatively impact the marriage failed to support a divorce under habitual drunkenness.

¶9. At trial, Nikki testified that Chris often made negative comments about her weight. While drunk once, Chris told Nikki that he only finds her attractive and wants to have sex with her when he is intoxicated. On a separate occasion, Chris woke Nikki by urinating on her leg, and, when Nikki protested, Chris started laughing. Chris testified that he had never heard of this incident until trial. On another night, Chris and Nikki got into an argument, and Chris took Will into the house so Nikki could cool off outside. When Nikki decided to go back inside, she found the door locked. After she called Chris and knocked on the door with no answer, she was forced to crawl inside through a back door. She found Chris passed out on their waterbed, with Will face down and wedged between the corner of the bed.

¶10. Nikki testified that Chris often drank five to six beers per day. Chris worked offshore for extended periods of time. When he would return home, he would always have alcohol in his hand. Nikki also testified that on several occasions, Chris would pass out drunk and not remember anything that happened. Finally, Nikki testified that being with Chris after awhile made her depressed, and when they separated, she felt happy again.

¶11. Chris contends that he did not drink as much as Nikki claimed he did. He argues that because Nikki’s testimony was not corroborated by any other witness, it is “wildly inconsistent at best.” However, Nikki’s father, Thomas Godleske, testified that on an icefishing trip Chris drank so much that he passed out in a stranger’s vehicle. Further, Chris testified that he continued to drink at the time of the trial.

¶12. Where there is conflicting testimony, the chancellor is the trier of fact and adjudicates the credibility of each witness. Bowen v. Bowen, 982 So. 2d 385, 395 (¶42) (Miss. 2008). “An appellate court is to affirm findings of fact by chancellors in domestic cases when they are ‘supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous or an erroneous legal standard was applied.’” Robison v. Lanford, 841 So. 2d 1119, 1122 (¶9) (Miss. 2003) (quoting Holloman v. Holloman, 691 So. 2d 897, 898 (Miss. 1996)).

¶13. In review of the record, we find that the chancellor had sufficient evidence to grant Nikki a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness: Chris’s alcohol consumption, combined with the negative impact it had on the family, and his continued drinking at the time of trial. Additionally, the chancellor, as the trier of fact, was in the best position to determine each witness’s credibility and to weight the conflicting testimony. Because the evidence supports the chancellor’s findings, we find that he did not commit manifest error in his findings on this issue.

The corroboration in this case seems to be on the weak side, yet it was strong enough to convince both the chancellor and the COA. The state of corroboration highlights an important consideration: Habitual drunkenness is not an easy case to prove because the offending behavior takes place in the privacy of the couple’s home, with few, if any, witnesses other than the parties. The task is made more difficult by the fact that the burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence.

Negative impact on the other spouse and the resulting havoc on the household are key items of proof. Don’t fail to gather witnesses who can help establish those points.

And don’t overlook that habitual use of alcohol that induces nasty behavior, even without drunkenness, can be HCIT if it has a negative effect on the offended party.


§ 9 Responses to What it takes to Prove Habitual Drunkenness

  • Greetings, Your Honor, I am a historian studying the adjudication of habitual drunkenness in nineteenth-century guardianship proceedings. It is fascinating to me that the standard for proving habitual drunkenness in recent divorce cases is very similar to the cases I am studying over a century ago. Do you know if guardianships are still assigned to habitual drunkards who are “incapable of managing their estates?” If not, do you have any thoughts about when such guardianships stopped being assigned? And finally, do you have any thoughts on the role of medical expertise in present-day determinations of habitual drunkenness in divorce proceedings? I very much appreciate you thoughts and look forward to your response. Please feel free to respond via the email provided/attached to this post. Sincerely, David Korostyshevsky (Doctoral Candidate, History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, University of Minnesota).

    • Larry says:

      Mississippi guardianship law will undergo a big change on 1-1-2020 when all of the existing guardianship and conservatorship statutes will be repealed and replaced by a version of the uniform guardianship law. So, yes, until that date a guardianship is legally possible for a habitual drunkard. After that date the proposed ward would need to meet the requirements of the new law (colloquially referred to as the GAP Act. GAP = Guard and Protect).

      Medical testimony is not required to prove habitual drunkenness in divorce. The conduct is what makes the case, not a medical diagnosis.

  • Bill Featherston says:

    I thought the burden of proof for grounds other than adultery was preponderance of the evidence.

    • Larry says:

      I believe HCIT is the only preponderance ground, but I’m out of the office right now. Check D. Bell’s book; please comment if I’m wrong to set the record straight.

      • Larry says:

        Bell, 2d Ed., at Section 4.02[1][b], says, “In order to obtain a divorce on the listed grounds, the plaintiff must prove the grounds by clear and convincing evidence. In 1974, however, the Mississippi Supreme Court lowered the standard in cases based on habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, which may now be proved by a preponderance of the evidence.”

  • Bob Wolford says:

    I feel for the wife, but I have a problem with this decision- just because the guy got plastered on a fishing trip doesn’t necessarily mean that this is his usual conduct in the home on a regular basis, although it may suggest it. EtOH consumption is quite common among men on a fishing or hunting trip (I’m speaking from experience). I would have liked to have heard the wife’s father testify that he witnessed the husband consume EtOH and act like an idiot in the marital home while he was visiting on various occasions, like on Thanksgiving, Christmas and other occasions when an in-law would visit. Also, if the guy is consuming that much, this means that he’s buying it somewhere, so how about bank statements showing regular purchases in small amounts from the same couple of quick stops. Maybe I’m missing something Judge, but I just don’t think the wife cleared the clear and convincing hurdle.

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