January 12, 2015 § 3 Comments

No posts this week due to a death in the family.

Posts resume next week.

“Quote Unquote”

January 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

“What one needs to do at every moment of one’s life is to put an end to the old world and to begin a new world.”  — Nikolai Berdyaev

“The only joy in the world is to begin. It is good to be alive because living is beginning, always, every moment.”  —  Cesare Pavese

“Begin; to begin is half the work. Let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.”  —  Ausonius

Asheville 11-12 171


Is TPR Now Extinct?

January 8, 2015 § 11 Comments

Termination of parental rights (TPR) is a statutory creature embodied in MCA 93-15-103 and the surrounding code sections.

I think it’s fair to say that most practitioners and trial court judges focus on the statutory grounds, and, if they are supported by the proof, proceed to termination.

That’s what the chancellor did in the case of Chism v. Bright, which was affirmed by the COA on May 21, 2013. The chancellor found that the Jimmy Ray Chism’s drug and alcohol addictions, abuse of drugs in the presence of the child, instability, and brushes with the law were enough to warrant termination of his parental rights with respect to his son. Jimmy petitioned for cert, which was granted by the MSSC.

In its December 11, 2014, opinion reversing the COA, the high court pointed out that there is much more to TPR than merely proving that one or more of the statutory grounds exist. Justice Lamar, for a unanimous court, laid it out this way:

¶13. Parents have a “fundamental liberty interest . . . in the care, custody, and management of their child” that cannot be taken away without clear and convincing evidence of the required statutory grounds for termination of parental rights. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 754, 102 S. Ct. 1388, 71 L. Ed. 2d 599 (1982); see also J. Jackson and M. Miller, Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 78:39 (2002) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15-103(3)). State statutes providing for the termination of parental rights are subject to strict scrutiny and “[c]ourts may not add to the enumerated grounds.” Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law 409 (2005) (citing Gunter v. Gray, 876 So. 2d 315 (Miss. 2004)); see also Rias v. Henderson, 342 So. 2d 737, 739 (Miss. 1977) (holding that statutes affecting fundamental constitutional rights are subject to strict scrutiny).

¶14. This Court has stated that “[b]ecause parental rights are so important,” the “circumstances under which [those rights] can be terminated by the government” are “sharply limit[ed.]” Gunter v. Gray, 876 So. 2d at 317. Title 93, Chapter 15 of the Mississippi Code sets out the requirements and procedure for the termination of parental rights. See Miss. Code Ann. §§ 93-15-101 through 93-15-111 (Rev. 2013).

¶15. As mentioned above, the chancellor found that Jim’s parental rights should be terminated because he exhibited “ongoing behavior which would make it impossible to return the minor child to his care and custody because he has a diagnosable condition, specifically alcohol and drug addiction, unlikely to change within a reasonable time which makes him unable to assume minimally, acceptable care of the child . . . .” But neither the chancellor nor the Court of Appeals addressed subsection (1) of Section 93-15-103, which sets out three prerequisites that must be met before the court may invoke any specific ground for termination. Section 93-15-103(1) states:

(1) When a child has been removed from the home of its natural parents and cannot be returned to the home of his natural parents within a reasonable length of time because returning to the home would be damaging to the child or the parent is unable or unwilling to care for the child, relatives are not appropriate or are unavailable, and when adoption is in the best interest of the child, taking into account whether the adoption is needed to secure a stable placement for the child and the strength of the child’s bonds to his natural parents and the effect of future contacts between them, the grounds listed in subsections (2) and (3) of this section shall be considered as grounds for the termination of parental rights. The grounds may apply singly or in combination in any given case.

Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15-103(1) (Rev. 2013) (emphasis added). See also In Re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock and Hamby, 23 So. 3d 424, 428 (Miss. 2009). This Court previously has categorized the three prerequisites in subsection (1) as follows: (1) the child has been removed from the home of its natural parents and cannot be returned to the home of his natural parents within a reasonable length of time or the parent is unable or unwilling to care for the child; (2) relatives are not appropriate or are unavailable; and (3) adoption is in the best interest of the child. Leverock, 23 So. 3d at 428 (emphasis added).

¶16. Here, it is undisputed that Johnny was not “removed from the home of his natural parents.” And we also do not find from this record that Jim is “unable or unwilling” to care for Johnny. First, the chancellor’s finding that Jim was “unable to assume minimally acceptable care” [Fn 6] of Johnny is belied by the fact that he also allowed Jim to have contact with Johnny after he is sober for six months. Neither Abby nor anyone else objects to this. Simply because Jim might not be the best choice to be Johnny’s full-time custodial parent certainly does not mean that he is “unable to care” for Johnny. This Court “has never allowed termination of parental rights only because others may be better parents.” W.A.S., 949 So. 2d at 35. Second, it is undisputed that Jim wants to be a part of Johnny’s life and that they have a very loving relationship, which evidences that Jim is not unwilling to care for him.

[Fn 6] To be clear, the chancellor was analyzing under Section 93-15-103(3), instead of under Section 93-15-103(1).

¶17. Moreover, we affirm the overarching premise that termination of parental rights is a last resort. This intent is evidenced by the Legislature in Section 93-15-103(4), which states:

Legal custody and guardianship by persons other than the parent as well as other permanent alternatives which end the supervision by the Department of Human Services should be considered as alternatives to the termination of parental rights, and these alternatives should be selected when, in the best interest of the child, parental contacts are desirable and it is possible to secure such placement without termination of parental rights.

Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15-103(4) (Rev. 2013) (emphasis added). In short, Abby has not proven the statutory prerequisites found in Section 93-15-103(1) that must be met. As such, we decline to address the specific ground for termination analyzed by the chancellor, or whether termination is in Johnny’s best interest. For these reasons, we reverse the termination order and remand this case to the Union County Chancery Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

So there you have it. If you have pending or contemplate filing a TPR action, you need to backtrack and see whether your case satisfies the three prerequisites. Without all three, you fail.

A few thoughts:

  • ” … removed from the home of his natural parents …” by whom? I would presume DHS, which makes this section inapplicable in most chancery cases. If the section is not limited to DHS removal, did the chancellor not in effect order that the child be removed from Jimmy’s home? Or does the strict construction of the statute require that the child be removed from the home of both parents before it can be invoked? That’s what it says.
  • Our child custody and support statutes are littered with amendments made to accommodate DHS practices, with resulting confusion. I am not familiar with the legislative history of the TPR statutes, but that could be the source of the convoluted language of section 103. Or, it could be that the legislature actually intended to make TPR well-nigh impossible. If that is what they intended, then the statute is well-crafted.
  • This holding was foreshadowed to some extent by the COA’s 2012 decision in LePori v. Welch, about which I posted previously, in which Judge Maxwell pointed out that there is no cause of action for TPR unless an adoption is contemplated.   
  • I think this effectively puts an end to most TPR cases in chancery court, save for those in which TPR is sought as a precursor to adoption. If you see it differently, I would like you to comment with some persuasive argument to the contrary.

Beware Vague Language in College Education Support Provisions

January 7, 2015 § 2 Comments

In the recent COA case of Wilson v. Stewart, handed down December 9, 2014, Jay Wilson argued that the chancellor erred in construing the provision in the original agreed divorce decree to include post-emancipation college education support for his two daughters, Henley and Anabel. He also claimed that Anabel forfeited her right to support due to poor academic performance.

Here’s how Judge Fair treated the point for the court:

¶17. Jay claims that the court should have terminated his obligation to pay Anabel’s and Henley’s college expenses at twenty-one, the age of emancipation. Jay also argues that the court should have terminated his obligation based on Henley’s poor academic performance. In support of his argument, Jay cites Nichols v. Tedder, 547 So. 2d 766, 770 (Miss. 1989), which states that a parent has no legal duty to support a child once that child is emancipated. However, that duty may be extended to post-emancipation care by agreement, whether it be a separate contract or included in the divorce decree. Crow, 622 So. 2d at 1230.

¶18. Here, the provision pertaining to the payment of college expenses is in the original agreed divorce decree: “Jay shall bear, and otherwise provide for the funding of, the full costs of all college education expenses of the minor children . . . .” In Boleware v. Boleware, 450 So. 2d 92, 92-93 (Miss. 1984), our supreme court dealt with a similar provision in a modified divorce decree. The father in that case contracted to “be responsible for the payment of all college education expenses of the minor children . . . .” Id. Similar to the instant case, the children were under twenty-one when the parties entered into the agreement. Id. at 93. The father argued that his obligation ceased when the children reached twenty-one. Id. The court disagreed, relying on the chancellor’s finding that, at the time of the agreement, the parties intended for the obligation to extend post-majority. Id. In Crow, the court likewise held that a father’s separate agreement to pay for all reasonable college expenses remained in effect post-majority. Crow, 622 So. 2d at 1229. And in Mottley v. Mottley, 729 So. 2d 1289, 1290 (¶¶4-7) (Miss. 1999), the court referred back to its decision in Crow when discerning a father’s agreement to pay half of his son’s educational expenses; the court ultimately found that the father was bound by contract to pay post-emancipation support.

¶19. The chancellor in the present case ruled as our supreme court did in Boleware, Crow, and Mottley, reasoning that vague college-support provisions have been routinely construed to include post-majority support. Further, Jay’s agreement to pay for the children’s college expenses was not dependent upon their academic performance. We find no error in the chancellor’s ruling. [Emphasis added]

A few crucial points:

  • “Vague college-support provisions have been routinely construed to include post-majority support.” That’s critical. I think some lawyers often blur language in agreements in hopes that everyone will read into it what they want to be there, so as to induce an agreement. But that tactic can produce a result radically different from what your client really wanted. If you make it vague, it will be construed to include post-majority support, no matter what your client intended.
  • Vague language is indefinite language. Don’t assume that the judge will find the language to be ambiguous, so as to open it to parol evidence for interpretation, especially in light of the cited cases.
  • A good rule of practice is to make your agreements say exactly what you intend, and to be as specific as possible. If that hangs the agreement up, work through it by give and take, but don’t compromise by making the language less definite. A good example of the importance of drafting to the ultimate outcome is the case of Zweber v. Zweber, the college flying lessons case about which I previously posted.

In case after case, the lesson is inescapable that if you opt for indefiniteness, the outcome could seriously damage your client. A few other examples: when the alimony provision is unclear, it will be interpreted to be periodic alimony; the IRS considers that the custodial parent has the tax exemption when the PSA or judgment does not provide otherwise; and use of the term “family support” has been construed by the US Tax Court to create an alimony, and not a child support, obligation.

It Could be a Baaa-aaa-aaa-aad year

January 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

Welcome to 2015: the Year of the Sheep. It comes after the Year of the Horse (2014) and before the Year of the Monkey (2016). Actually, the Year of the sheep does not begin until some time in February, by our western calendar.

But it would be unwise to wait until February to reflect on what lies ahead in this ovine year.

After all, 2015 is a state-wide election year. Yes, the Year of the Sheep is an election year. That would seem not to bode too well for the electorate. Sheep are exploited for profit by their masters. They are shorn and flocked. Sheep are also relatively mindless, easily herded, and produce wool that can be pulled over their eyes. They appear contented almost all the time, which makes their shepherds’ job easier and less stressful.

Fortunately, many of us who have to live through the Year of the Sheep choose not to be sheep-like. That does make it harder on our shepherds, but, honestly, it doesn’t have much effect on the outcome.

When gambling was first approved on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a grizzled, old professional gambler was interviewed by the Clarion-Ledger, and was asked how he could continue to thrive in his profession when everyone knew how successful he was. He replied, “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin it once.”

Try not to ‘get skint’ in the Year of the Sheep. And try not to have the wool pulled over your eyes.

A New Judge Blog for 2015

January 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

COA Judge Kenny Griffis has a new blog focusing on appellate practice. Here’s the link.

Judge Griffis is in a position to offer some valuable insight into the workings of our appellate courts, as well as useful observations about appellate cases. He’s also a good writer who is knowledgeable about Mississippi law, so this should become a useful resource.

I notice that he stole the blog’s tagline “News and Commentary of Mississippi Law” at least in part from the anonymous Lost Gap blog. Or maybe it’s coincidental.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for January, 2015 at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.