What You Need To Prove for Homemaker Services
December 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
In equitable distribution, one of the factors the court is required to consider is “Substantial contribution to the accumulation of the property … ” by … “Direct or indirect economic contribution …” Ferguson vs. Ferguson, 639 So.2d 921, 928-9 (Miss. 1994).
Over the years since Ferguson the courts have recognized that a homemaker’s contribution is to be recognized as an indirect contribution. In doing that, I think most of us have accepted a modicum of evidence on the point to support a finding. But is that enough?
In the divorce trial between Rodney and Courtney Williams the chancellor made this finding that:
“the wife was the homemaker of the parties[ and] that the husband earned the majority of the financial income. This is reflected by the domestic services rendered by [the wife] shown during the periods of time in which the grandchildren lived in the home, and she, as well as the husband, took care of them. I find that both have contributed equally toward the acquisition of property[—]he directly financial and she through domestic and in-kind services. Accordingly, I find that both are entitled to an equal distribution of those properties.”
To be honest, I think most chancellors make similar findings and conclusions. On appeal, Rodney took issue with the chancellor’s statements, arguing that Courtney had made only meager contributions.
In the case of Williams v. Williams, handed down November 17, 2015, the COA found that the chancellor’s findings were not supported by substantial evidence on homemaker services, and remanded for further proceedings. Judge Irving wrote for the majority:
¶35. In Lowrey v. Lowrey, 25 So. 3d 274, 287 (¶31) (Miss. 2009) (citation omitted), the Mississippi Supreme Court explained:
[T]he concept of homemaker services rests on a showing that the homemaker has contributed to the economic well-being of the family unit through the performance of the myriad of household and child-rearing tasks. In valuing this service[,] consideration should be given to the quality of the services. For example, a homemaker who, over the course of the marriage, has been frugal in the handling of homemaker expenditures and has thereby enhanced the family assets is entitled to a more equitable return than one who has been extravagant.
¶36. In this case, the record does not establish the extent of Courtney’s contribution toward the acquisition of the marital property. It appears that the chancellor mistakenly thought Courtney was a stay-home spouse and grandmother. As noted, Courtney worked during the course of the marriage, working eleven of the twelve years of marriage at one place, where her net income was approximately $1,600 per month. The record does not inform us where Courtney worked during the first year of the marriage or how much she earned during that year. The parties had no children together, and there is no testimony in the record regarding the division of the household duties. Although Courtney took care of the grandchildren in the home for some period of time, we note that the grandchildren were her grandchildren, but not Rodney’s grandchildren. It appears that the chancellor placed some weight on this fact in determining that Courtney was a homemaker and that her grandchild-caring duties contributed to the acquisition of the marital estate. The record reflects that Rodney paid the majority of the household expenses and the entire mortgage note on the marital home. It further reflects that Courtney deposited only $250 biweekly in a joint bank account to help with the household expenses but routinely withdrew money from that account for other purposes unrelated to household expenses. And the record is silent as to any other financial contributions that Courtney may have made during the marriage. Therefore, there is not substantial evidence in the record supporting the chancellor’s finding that the parties “both have contributed equally toward the acquisition of property[—]he directly financial and she through domestic and in-kind services.”
A few takeaways:
- The chancellor here believed that Courtney’s contribution to the household should have been recognized, but there was simply not enough evidence to support his conclusion. Unless you really want your case to be reversed and remanded, it’s up to you to develop the evidence on the record that will support the judge’s findings. Here, the chancellor could just as easily have found against Courtney on the factor, which could have adversely impacted her equitable distribution. Read Lowrey and take it to heart. Use it as a template in your next equitable distribution case.
- If you represent the homemaker and your case is weak on this factor, make sure you bulk up your proof on the other factors, and try to convince the judge that this is not the key factor to consider in making a division. Remember that all of the factors do not have equal weight; the weight to be accorded to each varies from case to case, depending on the facts.
- The converse is true if you represent the direct contributor. Emphasize the direct contribution in terms of its role in the acquisition and appreciation in value of the marital estate.
- Never assume that the judge’s findings will make up for gaps in your case. If the judge stretches to make an assumption, you could find the case ricocheting back to you because those findings are not supported by substantial evidence. Client’s don’t like having to pay for a do-over.