Chancery Court and the Family Feud
January 25, 2016 § 3 Comments
You will not find it in the Mississippi Constitution or in any statute, but chancery courts in Mississippi have long exercised original subject-matter jurisdiction over family feuds that may not exactly invoke any legally cognizable cause of action.
You can find a recent example in the COA’s McGriggs v. McGriggs, et al., decided December 15, 2015. In that case, after Alfred McGriggs died, one faction of his family buried him on family land in Claiborne County. Soon after, another faction filed a petition to have the body exhumed and reinterred somewhere else, alleging that (a) the burial violated the cemetery laws of the state, and (b) having a body buried on the land impaired its value for the survivors, of whom there are apparently many.
You can read Judge Wilson’s opinion for yourself. It will enlighten you about the legality of burial on private property and who gets to make the call about where and how to dispose of a dead body. Oh, and the appellant and the appellees were all pro se. [Spoiler alert: the COA affirmed the chancellor’s decision to deny the petition.]
What I want to inspect here is how chancellors handle these family disputes.
In McGriggs, the chancellor was confronted with pro se litigants who insisted on trying to air out decades-old family disagreements, misunderstandings, and slights. With the patience of a saint, the chancellor gave them wide latitude to air their grievances, reeling them back in when they went too far afield.
That really is the key in handling a case like this: to allow the airing of grievances without letting it turn into a rabbit hunt.
I once had a suit styled “Complaint for Partition of Real Property,” called for trial. Other than the fact that it included no deraignment of title, the pleading was professional-looking and set out all of the required averments. When I called the case, the two named plaintiffs answered for themselves. They were proceeding pro se. When I called the defendant, he was pro se also. I told the plaintiffs they could present their case, and they asked me what they were supposed to do. I explained that I could not help either side, but that they could call witnesses of they liked. One of the plaintiffs took the stand and explained that the defendant had moved into momma’s house after she died, and the rest of the family insisted that he move out or pay rent. He left in a huff, but when he did he dismantled the fireplace and took it with him. They wanted him to replace it or pay for a new one. The defendant did not have any cross-examination, and the plaintiffs said that was all the proof they had. I dismissed the case and pointed out this was really a lawsuit that should have been brought in county court. There was no way I could stretch this into a partition suit. But before they were shown out of chancery, the family was able to make a record of how irresponsible and low-down was the defendant.
In another case, brothers had been fighting for years over a pond that straddled their property lines. When the case came before me in 2007, I noticed that this was their fourth trip to court. All three previous cases had been settled by agreed orders, which apparently did not fix the real problem. When the lawyers came in with an agreed order this time, I told them I would not approve their settlement, but that we would give them both a chance to be heard. In two days of testimony we heard a little about a drainage problem with the pond, but we heard a lot about: rude behavior; how one brother did not attend the funeral or even send a card when the other’s son died; name-calling; hurt feelings; and a litany of petty grievances that had piled up into a family dispute. I ordered some remedial work on the drainage system and enjoined putting up of signs and other provocative acts. They have not been back since. I don’t know whether the airing of grievances helped, but I like to think it did.
Sometimes what people need is just the chance to tell someone what a no-good so and so the other party is. If it keeps people from killing and maiming each other to make that point, then I suppose that’s a legitimate function of chancery court. As McGriggs illustrates, though, it requires the chancellor to have the wisdom and insight to understand that, and the patience to let it proceed.