My Friend Allen

January 13, 2017 § 6 Comments

A few of you are acquainted with my incomparable friend, Allen, who lives in North Mississippi, and has been regaling me with his humor almost daily for the past several years. Since all lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals are always in dire need of something to make us laugh, I thought I’d go ahead and introduce you to his wry sense of humor by sharing this sample with you …

My friend Allen got a little carried away with the holiday spirit last Saturday night and ordered a beer for everybody in the bar.
He was disappointed that a lot of people refused to drink from the same mug.

My friend Allen saw a piece on tv that cautioned people never to go grocery shopping when hungry.
He says it’s been 3 days now, there’s no food in his house, and he’s absolutely starving.

My friend Allen thinks reincarnation is making some sort of comeback.

My friend Allen says that people who stereotype other people are pretty much all alike.

My friend Allen’s neighbor made a date to meet his girlfriend at the gym, and then he didn’t show up.
It was his way of telling her that they weren’t working out.

My friend Allen says he is swearing off holiday leftovers this year.
He’s quitting cold turkey.

My friend Allen says that he’s never purchased life insurance because he wants everyone to be truly sad when he dies.

My friend Allen just found out that “Aaaaarrrrrrrgh!” is not a word.
He can’t say how frustrated he is.

My friend Allen went to the ear doctor last week because his hearing seemed to be slipping a bit. The doctor asked if Allen could describe any of the symptoms.
Allen replied, “Sure. Marge has blue hair and Homer needs to shave.”

My friend Allen’s 95-year-old mother has a hard time understanding modern times, and the other day she was shocked to find out that Allen had to pay 50 cents to pump up his tires.
“Why should you have to pay for air?” she asked.
“It’s inflation.” Allen answered.

Child Support and Private School Tuition

January 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

John (Jack) and Lori Bell were divorced in 2010. Their irreconcilable differences divorce judgment incorporated a PSA that included the following language:

As child support, Husband … shall pay $1,700 per month … which he shall pay … until the child attains the age of twenty-one years, marries or becomes emancipated, whichever occurs first. The child support shall not be subject to reduction as long as Wife is paying on the $130,000 student loan referred to hereafter.

The $1,700 agreed monthly child support exceeded the statutory child support guidelines.

The student loan is referenced in a subsequent paragraph, which explains that its proceeds were used in part to finance the household while the wife completed her degree at an Oklahoma law school.

In 2014, Jack filed for modification of child support based on the fact that he was laid off from his employment as a mechanical engineer and had to take a job in his mother’s country store, which later went out of business. His monthly income dropped from $3,077 at the time of the divorce to zero after the store closed. Jack had unilaterally reduced his child support to $625 a month based on his unemployment; he paid much of his arrearage after his mother’s store was sold. At the time the matter came on for hearing, Jack reported income of $2,575.35 a month.

Following a hearing, the special chancellor found Jack in contempt and ordered him to make certain remedial payments. The judge also found that there had been a material change in circumstances and reduced Jack’s child-support obligation to $865 per month, which was comprised of $365 in child support based on AGI, and an additional $500 in private school tuition. The chancellor explained that the private-school tuition was a deviation from the statutory guidelines, but was warranted based on his agreement to pay it in the PSA. Also, based on the modification, the judge ordered Jack to pay Lori a part of the balance due on the student loans.

Jack appealed, pointing out that the judge’s ruling resulted in his payment of child support greatly in excess of the guidelines. In the case of Bell v. Bell, handed down December 6, 2016, the COA affirmed on the point. Judge Barnes wrote for the majority:

¶9. Jack complains that the $500 per month in private-school tuition made his child-support obligation greater than 33.5% of his adjusted gross income, and with all support-related costs for Kinsley, his obligation was over 51% of his adjusted gross income. Moreover, he claims the finding by the chancellor at the modification hearing regarding the statutory deviation was insufficient. We disagree.

¶10. The chancellor found a material change in circumstance and granted Jack’s request for a downward modification in child support and other financial obligations. Jack’s payment decreased from $1,700 per month to $1,000 per month – both figures including consideration for student-loan debt as well as child support. [Fn omitted] The child-support figure of $865 constituted $365 in statutory child support (14% of his adjusted gross income of $2,575.35) [Fn omitted] and $500 for private-school tuition at Pillow Academy – the cost of tuition for one month.

¶11. There was no specific explanation in the agreement itself regarding what comprised the $1,700, but the parties explained their original and current intentions at the modification hearing. The original custody, support, and property-settlement agreement, signed by both parties, stated:

As child support, Husband . . . shall pay $1,700 per month, as child support, following the entry of divorce which he shall pay . . . thereafter until the child attains the age of twenty-one years, marries or becomes emancipated, whichever occurs first. This child support shall not be subject to reduction as long as Wife is paying on the $130,000 student loan referred to hereinafter.

Another provision in the agreement that related to how the parties arrived at the child-support figure was related to the student-loan debts:

Wife shall pay the following debts: all debts in her name alone including the $130,000 student loan. It is agreed that this student loan was used by both Husband and Wife for their college educations, and that Wife is agreeing to be responsible for paying all of it in consideration of Husband paying her the child support set out in paragraph 3 above.

At the modification hearing during examination by Lori’s counsel, Jack responded affirmatively that the two of them agreed to all of the terms and provisions of the agreement, waited sixty days, and were granted a divorce, and that Jack agreed to pay $1,700 per month in child support under the agreement. Jack further stated during questioning that they came up with the $1,700 figure “because of her student loans and everything else.” He admitted Pillow Academy tuition was also factored into the figure, which was approximately $450 to $500 per month at the time. Jack stated Kinsley had gone to Pillow Academy since “day one,” or six years at that time, and he wanted her to continue attending the school. Regarding the student loans, Jack admitted the $130,000 was “more than just a student loan”; it included some of their joint living expenses while Lori received her law degree from the University of Tulsa. Jack affirmed that he told the chancellor during the divorce
proceedings that he could comply with all of the obligations of the agreement, including the $1,700 in child support.

¶12. As Lori points out, chancellors are not required to make specific findings of fact supporting upward deviations in child support when the parties have previously, knowingly, and willfully obligated themselves to pay more than the guidelines require, such as through
a valid agreement. See Stigler v. Stigler, 48 So. 3d 547, 555 (¶29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). In divorce agreements, “parties may in fact agree of their own volition to do more than the law requires of them. Where such a valid agreement is made, it may be enforced just as any other contract.” Id. at 551 (¶9) (quoting Rogers v. Rogers, 919 So. 2d 184, 189 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)). Unlike Stigler, however, here the modification was not upward, and as Jack states, the parties did not agree to the terms of the modification. Stigler did not involve a child-support modification, but the initial agreement. Lori also cites to Short, 131 So. 3d at 1152 (¶10), where the supreme court denied downwardly modifying the husband’s child support obligation and enforced the original agreement because, while the obligation was “indeed high, [the husband] freely consented” to provide more support than the statutory guidelines recommended.

¶13. Jack cites to Southerland v. Southerland, 816 So. 2d 1004, 1006 (¶9) (Miss. 2002), Moses v. Moses, 879 So. 2d 1043, 1048 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004), and Kilgore v. Fuller, 741 So. 2d 351, 354 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999), for the proposition that private-school tuition is an ordinary expense to be included in the statutory amount of child support, and not to be calculated separately or in addition to the support award. Further, if an award exceeds the presumptive amount of the guidelines, the chancellor must make a specific finding as to why it is just or appropriate. However, neither Southerland nor Moses involved a modification award, and Kilgore was an increase in child support, not a decrease.

¶14. While all of the authority cited by the parties is somewhat distinguishable, we find the chancellor made a sufficient finding at the modification hearing that Jack must continue to pay private-school tuition. The finding was based upon Jack and Lori’s detailed testimony that Jack wanted Kinsley to continue her education at Pillow Academy, where she had been for six years. We do not agree with Jack that the sole basis of the chancellor’s ruling was the prior agreement. The chancellor took into account what the parties had agreed to before, as well as the way they had raised and educated the child since the divorce. The chancellor was able both to downwardly-modify Jack’s child support nearly by half, and
provide for private-school tuition within the obligation. We find no error with the modification.

¶15. The chancellor provided a sufficient explanation to deviate from the statutory guidelines of child support and include private-school tuition. This issue is without merit.

As with all child support cases, this one has a thicket of facts that significantly impacts the final outcome. The payment of private school tuition was linked to the student loans, which in turn affected the other amounts agreed to be paid, as well as the initial agreement to exceed the guidelines.

There is no discussion of the parties’ agreement in the PSA that the child support would not be modifiable so long as Lori paid the student loans. I don’t think such an agreement is binding on the court in a subsequent modification action. In East v. East, 493 So.2d 927 (Miss. 1986), the MSSC laid down the principle that the parties may not agree that periodic alimony may not later be modified*, and I see no reason why the same should not be even more applicable in child-support cases where the best interest of the child trumps every other consideration. The case of Tedford v. Dempsey, 437 So.2d 410, 418 (Miss. 1983) lends some weight to the argument. There may be a case directly on point. If you have a cite you can share it in a comment.

* This holding may have been impacted, more or less, by cases upholding so-called “hybrid” forms of alimony.

What you can take away is that child-support modification is not only fact-intensive, but its outcome is also largely shaped by the agreement or judgment that is sought to be modified.

Properly Pleading a Rule 59 Motion

January 10, 2017 § 1 Comment

A party wishes to ask the court for a new trial, and files the following within ten days of entry of the final judgment:

“Comes now the plaintiff, with respect to the court’s judgment rendered December 30, 2016, and moves the court for a new trial, pursuant to MRCP 59(a).”

Is that adequate?

Before we get to a response, I have to say that I have gotten motions almost identical to the language above, and no opposing party has ever raised an objection to its lack of specificity.

To me, it’s unquestionable that the motion is inadequate. That’s because of the specific language of R7(b), which states that “An application to the court for an order shall be by motion which, unless made during a hearing or trial, shall be made in writing, shall state with particularity the grounds therefor, and shall set forth the relief or order sought.” Because R59(a) limits such a motion in chancery to ” … any of the reasons for which rehearings have heretofore been granted in suits in equity in the courts of Mississippi,” at a minimum one or more of those reasons must be pled in order to meet the requirements of R7. Our case law recognizes also that the best practice is to specify all potential assignments of error in a motion for new trial, which indicates to me that the expectation is that some basis for the motion must be pled. See, Kiddy v. Lipscomb, 628 So.2d 1355, 1359 (Miss. 1993).

Rehearings in equity prior to the MRCP were granted for reasons including: matters in the record that were arguably overlooked or not adequately addressed by the court; or the court misapplied or did not follow controlling case law; or there is newly-discovered evidence or “supervening facts” that would render the court’s decree incorrect or inequitable. Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, §632, 2d Ed., 1950. If your motion fits into one of those categories, then you must plead it and support it with enough facts and authority to give the trial judge a basis to rule on it.

An illustration of how the failure to properly plead a R59 motion can open a critical line of attack to the opposing party is the case of Carter v. Carter, decided by the MSSC on December 1, 2016. In that case, the trial court entered its final custody judgment, and a R59 motion was filed by the unsuccessful party 5 days afterward, well within the 10-day time required by the rule. Sixty-two days later the same party filed a “Supplemental Motion” asserting new grounds not included in the original motion. The trial judge overruled the motion. On appeal, the other side claimed that the appeal was untimely, since it was based on the grounds raised in the “Supplemental Motion,” which was filed long after the ten days post-entry of judgment had elapsed. After examining the law on the point for around eight pages, the high court ruled that the objection had been waived because no one raised it at the trial level. Bullet dodged.

The interesting thing about Carter to me is that the entire hoorah over the original motion vis a vis the “Supplemental Motion” is that it presupposes that grounds must be pled in the R59 motion. There would have been no argument about it at all if the language above were all that were required.

In the great majority of reported R59 case that I have looked at, the courts refer to the bases asserted by the movant at the trial level.

My advice:

  1. Raise every claim of error you can think of in your R59 motion (although failure to do so may not be fatal as to some assignments of error, as you will discover when you read the Kiddy case);
  2. Include some of that Griffith language in your motion, as applicable (if nothing else, it may impress someone that you are a scholar); and
  3. If the other side files an inadequately pled motion or attempts to raise unpled issues at hearing, by all means object and preserve your record.

An Attempted Paternal Disappearance

January 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

Danny Hicks fathered a child by Jakeida Carter in January, 2007. In October of that year, Danny agreed to be listed as the father of the child, Janiyah, on her birth certificate. Around one year later, Danny entered into a stipulated agreement with DHS admitting paternity and agreeing to pay $202 a month in child support. The agreement was approved by court order. Things rocked gently on in domestic bliss thereafter. Janiyah called Danny “Daddy.” He was involved in Janiyah’s life, was active in her schooling, and, by all accounts was a good father. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in 2015, a DNA test disclosed that Danny was not Janiyah’s biological father.

Danny filed a petition in chancery court to disestablish paternity and to terminate child support; he also wanted to be reimbursed $1,800 for the unhappy DNA results. Following a hearing, the chancellor responded no, no, and no, citing MCA 93-9-10(3)(c). Danny appealed.

The COA affirmed on December 6, 2016, in a four-page opinion by Judge Fair that was, in my opinion, lengthier than necessary. The words, “Affirmed per MCA 93-9-10(3)(c),” would have sufficed for me. You can read the COA’s opinion at this link.

As I pointed out in detail a previous post, in order to disestablish paternity since 2013, your client’s case must meet the criteria of the statute. In Danny’s case, he failed because, once a court approved a stipulation or acknowledgment of paternity, it was unassailable unless he had filed a petition to set it aside within the time specified in MCA 93-9-9. Danny waited ten years to petition, which is ‘way more than a tad too long.

Danny also argued that the chancellor committed reversible error by not seeing to it that Jakeida was sworn in before she testified. The COA pointed out that he waived that issue by not making a contemporaneous objection at trial.

Another, more substantial, point raised by Danny was that he should have been granted MRCP 60 relief because, he claimed, Jakeida committed fraud in claiming that he was the father. Other than his assertion, there was no evidence in the record of actual fraud. Moreover, the COA held, since he never filed a R60 motion with the trial court, he could not raise the issue for the first time on appeal.

Related note: In Finch v. Finch, 137 So.3d 227, 233 (Miss. 2014), the MSSC held that a chancellor may raise fraud on the court sua sponte in the course of a trial; however, there is no authority for the proposition that a chancellor is obligated to do so. It would have been improvident for the chancellor in this case to do so in the absence of clear and convincing evidence.

Before you go thundering off into court to vindicate a dad in a situation similar to Danny’s, be sure you familiarize yourself with MCA 93-9-10. You might save yourself and your client some grief … and money.

“Quote Unquote”

January 6, 2017 § 2 Comments

“Democracy is like a tambourine — not everybody can be trusted with it.”  —  John Oliver

“[America] is where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy.”  —  Leonard Cohen

“Fascism is a more natural governmental condition than democracy. Democracy is a grace. It’s something essentially splendid because it’s not all routine or automatic. Fascism goes back to our infancy and childhood, where we were always told how to live.”  —  Norman Mailer


Can You Garnish SS Benefits for Child Support and Alimony?

January 5, 2017 § 7 Comments

Conventional wisdom is what is generally accepted as the truth when no one has bothered to research the actual truth. Conventional wisdom has long dictated that you can’t garnish Social Security benefits to collect child support or alimony.

But here’s a direct quote from the Social Security Administration (SSA) FAQ site on the point:

Can my Social Security benefits be garnished for alimony, child support or restitution?

We can withhold Social Security benefits to enforce your legal obligation to pay child support, alimony or restitution. State laws determine a valid garnishment order. By law, we garnish current and continuing monthly benefits. We do not make retroactive adjustments.

You cannot appeal to Social Security for implementing garnishment orders. If you disagree with the garnishment, contact an attorney or representative where the court issued the order.

From that, I take it that: (1) the garnishment is limited to current benefits, and lump-sum payments for past benefits are apparently not garnishable; (2) the garnishment is done according to state law, and is subject to the federally-imposed limits (which are high for child support, as pointed out below); and (3) if you think the garnishment order is wrong procedurally or substantively, your remedy is in the state court that issued it, and Social Security will decline to help you with that.

Side note: I wonder whether a lump-sum benefit expected but not yet received is subject to garnishment? In other words, SSA will not reach back and retroactively “adjust” a lump-sum benefit already paid, which is understandable; but if that lump-sum payment is in process but has not yet been paid, may it, too, be garnished?

It’s not stated above, but I understand that neither alimony nor child support may be taken from an SSI check.

Federal law limits garnishment in most cases to 25% of disposable income. When it comes to child support, though, garnishment may be as much as 50-60%. A previous post discussing child-support garnishment is at this link.

In a recent case in another district, the ex-husband did not appear for his divorce hearing, and was ordered by the chancellor in the divorce judgment to pay $200 a month alimony to his ex. The wife’s attorney had the court enter an “Order for Withholding” contemporaneously with the judgment. The withholding order specifically directed that the alimony be withheld from the husband’s SS benefits. It also directed withholding by “any payer of the obligor.” A certified copy of the order was sent to SSA.

Two weeks later SSA sent a letter to the attorney documenting that the amount directed was to be withheld from the husband’s SS benefits, effective in the following month. Although the SSA did agree to withhold the amount directed by the court, it did point out that the amount withheld is limited by federal law. What that means to you is that the 25% limitation for alimony, and 50-60% limitation for child support, may mean a smaller recovery for you in relatively big-dollar cases.

Note that the lawyer in this case prepared and presented a withholding order rather than a formal writ of garnishment, and SSA honored it. That tells me that if you obtain a court-ordered withholding order in any form SSA will honor it. It’s up to the obligor to complain to the state court about the procedure that was used.

Oh, and for those of you who haven’t dealt with SSA recently, their response time in my experience is lightning-fast in all but disability cases, and accurate. It’s a far cry from even 10 years ago when SSA took forever to respond with inaccurate and confusing information that would take months to correct. Your experience may vary.

Here is yet another avenue available to you to make your clients happy. Remember: when you save or make your clients money, they love you; when you cost them money, they hate you. Whether they love or hate you, they will tell all their friends and relatives about it. You get to decide what kind of news they spread around about you.

Thanks to Attorney Christopher Tabb of Brandon for the factual information; the editorial comments are my own

New Supreme Court Web Site

January 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

The MSSC has redesigned its web site. The new site is at this link.

The new site is allegedly mobile-friendly. I say “allegedly” because I have not checked that out myself.

New Year’s Revolution

January 3, 2017 § 1 Comment

The new year. A time when one chapter is closed and another is opened, with 365 glorious blank pages on which you can write the next installment of your life. It’s a time when you can change the plot, add and subtract characters, and even make your hero (you) even more phenomenal.

Most people think in terms of New Year’s resolutions. Those are the seldom-kept self-promises that most people think will somehow turn their lives around.

Why not think instead in terms of a New Year’s Revolution. Declare your independence from some of the old ways of doing things and adopt a new constitution that spells out better, more effective ways.

Here is a handful, just to get you started:

  • Be more efficient. Stop putting everything off until you have an insurmountable mountain of work deadlines all coming due at the same time, usually when you can least afford to deflect attention from even more important tasks. Delegate non-essential and repetitive tasks to your staff. Implement  a file diary system and follow it diligently. Remember that the only way to eat an elephant is one spoonful at a time. Likewise, you will find your life easier if you break complex tasks down to their component parts, address the parts in order of importance, and let your staff help you. That does not mean that you sacrifice attention to detail. A juggler who pays attention can keep may objects flying at once; a juggler who does not pay attention breaks a lot of plates and loses a lot of paying customers.
  • Keep up with your probate practice. Make it your goal in 2017 to be one of those attorneys who file inventories and accountings on time and correctly, who keep up with fiduciaries and wards, and who never let things spin out of control. It takes some attention and the will to create workable systems to manage a probate practice, but it can be done with some effort. It’s not rocket science. Look around you; some of the most ineffective lawyers in other areas somehow manage to stay on top of their probate matters, while even brilliant lawyers get summoned to show cause for not keeping theirs in line. All it takes is the determination to come up with a systematic approach, and then to stick to it.
  • Make time for your life. The law is not your life; it’s only a part of your life. If you are being smothered by the demands of your caseload, you probably (1) are not being efficient (see above); or (2) are not doing a good job deciding which cases to accept and which to turn away, so you are overloaded. You need to have leisure time to share with family and friends, to hunt and fish, or take a walk, or work out, or read a good book, or listen to music, or go to a movie.
  • Be more professional. The new year is a perfect opportunity to evaluate your professionalism. Ask yourself whether your pleadings and other filings look like they were prepared by a top-notch lawyer, or were slopped together by a hobo. Ask yourself whether the way you greet and interact with your clients reflects sincerity, knowledge, and concern for the client’s best interest, or impatience, sloppiness, and overriding concern for fees. Ask yourself whether your interaction with judges, clerks and courtroom staff is courteous and empathetic, or whether you come across as an arrogant, demanding jackass. Ask yourself whether you treat opposing counsel and party with respect and professional courtesy, or whether you treat them like an enemy to be destroyed. The positives can be polished and improved on. The negatives need to be eliminated.
  • Be on time. If lack of punctuality is your vice, take the opportunity of the new year to change your ways. When a lawyer is late in my court, I take it that the lawyer is telling me and everyone else there that whatever she was doing when docket call or hearing started was far more important to her. Being late is being unprofessional. Clients recognize it as such, and so do the other lawyers. Judges certainly do, and unprofessional lawyers find it much more difficult and time-consuming to have their matters concluded by the judge because the judge feels that she has to check to be sure that every i is dotted and every t is crossed. If you are chronically late, you need to come up with some strategies for being timely. Whenever you are late, whether for the first time or twentieth, you need to apologize to the judge and others who were inconvenienced by your tardiness, and give a brief explanation of what held you up.

That’s a meager few, but if you can’t come up with some on your own, they are at least a starting point.

Oh, and every day is another start to the rest of the year. So if you fall short one day you can recover the next.

Every day is an opportunity to be a better person, spouse, parent, lawyer, friend.

Where Am I?

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