Reprise: Equitable does not Mean Equal

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Reprise replays posts from the past that you might find useful today.

EQUITABLE DIVISION AND MARITAL FAULT

August 24, 2011 § 4 Comments

It is almost a platitude of Mississippi law that, “Courts may divide marital assets between divorcing spouses in a fair and equitable manner — equal division is not required.”  Bell, Mississippi Family Law, § 6.01[4].

The sticking point is where to draw the line between “fair and equitable” and “equal.” The appellate decisions come in all sizes, colors and flavors.

Bond v. Bond, decided by the COA August 16, 2011, is the latest iteration on the point. In that case, Jimmie Lee proved that his wife, Donna, had committed adultery during their four-year marriage. The chancellor awarded Jimmie Lee 90% of the equitable division, and gave Donna the remaining 10%. Jimmie Lee appealed, aggrieved that Donna got such a generous share, and charged that the chancellor erred in failing to make sufficient findings of Donna’s adultery.

Judge Maxwell’s opinion sets out the applicable law about as clearly as can be done:

In ordering an equitable distribution of property, chancellors must apply the Ferguson factors, which include:

(1) contribution to the accumulation of property, (2) dissipation of assets, (3) the market or emotional value of assets subject to distribution, (4) the value of assets not subject to distribution, (5) the tax and economic consequences of the distribution, (6) the extent to which property division may eliminate the need for alimony, (7) the financial security needs of the parties, and (8) any other factor that in equity should be considered.

Hults v. Hults, 11 So. 3d 1273, 1281 (¶36) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citing Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 928-29 (Miss. 1994)). Chancellors should also consider each party’s marital fault. Singley v. Singley, 846 So. 2d 1004, 1013-14 (¶26) (Miss. 2002). There is a presumption that “the contributions and efforts of the marital partners, whether economic, domestic or otherwise are of equal value.” Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So. 2d 909, 915 (Miss. 1994). In reviewing a chancellor’s findings, we do not conduct a Ferguson analysis anew. Goellner v. Goellner, 11 So. 3d 1251, 1264 (¶45) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Rather, we examine the chancellor’s judgment and the record to ensure the chancellor applied the correct legal standard and did not commit an abuse of discretion. Id. at 1266 (¶52).

In Carrow v. Carrow, 642 So. 2d 901, 905 (Miss. 1994), the Mississippi Supreme Court held that a chancellor erred in finding a wife’s “adulterous conduct precluded her from being entitled to any form of equitable distribution of the property upon divorce.” The Carrow court instructed that chancellors should not view equitable distribution as a means to punish the offending spouse for marital misconduct. See id. at 904 (citing Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 863 (Miss. 1994)). Rather, “marital misconduct is a viable factor entitled to be given weight by the chancellor when the misconduct places a burden on the stability and harmony of the marital and family relationship.” Id. at 904-05 (citing Ferguson, 639 So. 2d at 927).

The court found that the chancellor had, indeed, taken into consideration Donna’s fault when he considered the Ferguson factor dealing with the parties’ relative contributions to the stability and harmony of the marriage. The chancellor had found under that factor that:

“Neither Jimmie nor Donna did all they could to provide stability and harmony to the family. Donna became infatuated with another man and her romantic relationship with this third party caused the dissolution of the marriage.”

So here are a few points to ponder about this decision:

  • The rule that equitable division does not require an equal division, but only a fair division, is alive and well.
  • A 90-10 split in equitable distribution will be found fair if the judge addresses all of the Ferguson factors and justifies the decision.
  • The judge is only required to address all of the Ferguson factors, not to analyze them in excruciating, lengthy detail. In this case, the chancellor’s two-sentence recitation was found adequate to support the award.

This case reminded me of the student who got a 90 on a test and wanted the teacher to re-grade it in hopes of an even better grade. Jimmie Lee’s “grade” stayed the same after the appeal, but it’s somewhat of a head-scratcher why he appealed in the first place, given the pretty clear holding in the Carrow case.

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