Abandonment of the Marriage Redux
June 27, 2017 § 1 Comment
When a widow renounces a will that does not make provision for her or makes inadequate provision, the will proponent may assert abandonment or desertion of the marriage as a defense to the renunciation.
That is what happened in the case of Estes and Estes, Co-Executors of the Estate of Estes v. Estes. I previously posted about the case, in which the COA reversed the ruling of the chancellor that Sarah Estes had not abandoned or deserted her dying husband so as to bar her from renunciation. You can read my take on the case at this link. I made this statement in that post:
What bothers me somewhat here is that our law allows the chancellor, and the chancellor alone, to choose whom to believe and what weight to give testimony. Here, the facts were in dispute, and the chancellor gave more weight to Sarah’s side of the story, as was his prerogative.
Sarah filed a petition for cert, which the MSSC granted. In Estes and Estes, Co-Executors of the Estate of Estes v. Estes, handed down June 1, 2017, the MSSC reversed the COA, affirmed the chancellor, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the court’s ruling. Chief Justice Waller wrote for a unanimous court, Maxwell not participating:
¶10. The standard of review on “findings of fact by a trial judge without a jury [is] manifest error, including whether the findings were the product of prejudice, bias, or fraud, or manifestly against the weight of the credible evidence.” Hale v. State Democratic Exec. Comm., 168 So. 3d 946, 951 (Miss. 2015) (quoting Young v. Stevens, 968 So. 2d 1260, 1263 (Miss. 2007)). This standard of review precludes the “scouring [of] every record before the Court for any and all information which might contradict a . . . court’s factual finding” since this would “amount to an inspection for errors that are far less conspicuous than those that are ‘unmistakable, clear, plain, or indisputable.’”Id. (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 963
(6th ed. 1990)).
¶11. The Court of Appeals in Estes I directed the chancellor, on remand, to consider the “clear-abandonment standard” of Tillman v. Williams, 403 So. 2d 880 (Miss. 1981). Following the trial, the chancellor addressed the issue of clear desertion, finding that Estes had failed to meet the burden of proof. The following was included in the chancellor’s factual findings and judgment:
Critical to a determination of Sarah’s clear desertion and abandonment of the marriage and resultant estoppel from claiming a statutory right to an inheritance are the facts following Joe’s October hospitalization. According to Sarah, after Joe was discharged from the hospital, he began to act irrationally. He accused her of infidelity and the theft of groceries. On November 26, 2006, Sarah called Joe’s physician, Dr. Pinson, to seek advice on how to help Joe. Sarah then filed a complaint with the Lee County Sheriff’s Department that Joe was threatening her and acting irrationally. A deputy sheriff came to Joe’s residence and made a report. Joe’s irrational behavior is born [sic] out by his refusal to dress appropriately and by him discharging a gun from inside his house through an open window. The severity of Joe’s mental difficulties is perhaps best documented, however, by his tragic May 18, 2007 suicide.
Regardless of the date of separation, the chronology of events following the parties’ separation is not disputed. On January 30, 2007, Sarah files a commitment proceeding against Joe. She attaches a copy of the previously mentioned Sheriff’s report. The two examining physicians fail to find Joe a danger to himself or other[s], i.e., not in need of involuntary commitment. On February 2, 2007, Joe seeks a restraining order against Sarah. Sarah counters on March 7, 2007, by filing for divorce. Joe answers and files a Counter-Complaint on March 27, 2007. On March 26, 2007, the parties agree to a mutual restraining order. On March 29, 2007, a temporary order is entered directing Joe to allow Sarah to retrieve her personal property. Guided by the applicable law and applying that law to the facts and having observed the witnesses, the Court is of the opinion that those urging an estoppel have failed to prove that estoppel.
While the facts exist which show a non-traditional marriage, Joe knew when the parties married that Sarah had, on a daily basis, the responsibilities of attending to her grandchildren. Moreover, Joe’s behavior was at times bizarre and the Court cannot say that Sarah willfully left and had the intention of permanently separating from the marital relationship. Mere absence from home, without more, does not show willfulness.
The court would note that Sarah’s consultation with Dr. Pinson on November 26, 2006, creates an inference that Sarah was trying to get Joe help. Moreover, seeking to have Joe committed, on January 30, 2007, rather than filing for divorce is suggestive to the Court that Sarah was trying to get Joe help and that the marriage was not over. Efforts by a spouse to get a spouse professional help should not be used against that spouse. Finally, the Court notes that Joe filed a Petition to restrain Sarah on February 2, 2007, which may well have caused Sarah to seek a divorce almost a month later. (Citations omitted).
¶12. The Court of Appeals listed the following facts it found in “conflict” with the chancellor’s findings:
(1) Estes becomes ill; (2) Young slowly reduces the amount of time spent with Estes; (3) Young attempts to involuntarily commit Estes; (4) Estes seeks a restraining order against Young upon release from the commitment proceedings; (5) Young files for divorce and restraining orders; (6) Estes counterfiles for divorce; and, (7) Estes takes his own life after receipt of notice for a final hearing on the divorce proceedings.
Estes v. Estes (Estes II), 2016 WL 1564404, *4 (Miss. Ct. App. Apr. 19, 2016). The Court of Appeals then stated the “most glaring evidence of Young’s abandonment of the marriage was her petition for divorce,” citing Tillman as primary legal support. Id.
¶13. However, the Tillman case actually used the language “secure a divorce.” Tillman, 403 So. 2d at 881. In Tillman, this Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, finding that “[a] thorough review of the record reveals that not only was an abandonment uncertain, but there just was not any substantial evidence to show a desertion or abandonment.” Tillman, 403 So. 2d at 882. In fact, Tillman holds that the requirement for clear proof of abandonment must be strictly construed:
Our Legislature has not seen fit to enact any legislation on this abandonment question. It is, therefore, obvious that the statute has to be strictly construed unless there is a clear desertion and abandonment that sets up the estoppel. In Walker, the surviving wife had engaged in a marriage ceremony with another man, and her deceased husband also had married another. There was a clear abandonment of the marriage relationship. Id. (citing Walker v. Matthews, 191 Miss. 489, 3 So. 2d 820 (1941)).
¶14. In Rowell v. Rowell, the Court also focused on the legal status change and determined that the trial court had erred when it had found that the widow’s adulterous relationship was grounds to show abandonment or desertion. Rowell v. Rowell, 251 Miss. 472, 170 So. 2d 267, 271-72 (1964). Relying on an Alabama case, the Court stated, “[a]s long as the marriage relation continued in law, the rights of the wife continued under the [descent and distribution] statute.” Id. at 270 (citing Nolan v. Doss, 133 Ala. 259, 261-62, 31 So. 969, 969-70 (1902)). The Rowell Court found that an adulterous relationship was not sufficient evidence of abandonment or desertion and that no evidence was presented that showed a bigamous marriage, which may have been grounds for abandonment. Id. at 271. The Court again focused on the legal change that occurs when someone remarries. Williams v. Johnson, 148 Miss. 634, 114 So. 733 (1927) (finding that the adulterous conduct was not at issue but only
whether a bigamous marriage resulted).
¶15. Following the renunciation of a will that fails to include the spouse, the will proponent may raise abandonment and desertion as estoppel to the renunciation. Rowell, 251 Miss. at 477-78, 170 So. 2d at 268. Mississippi Code Section 91-5-25 allows the surviving spouse automatically to renounce the will, thus the burden to show evidence of clear abandonment or desertion is on the aggrieved party. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-25 (Rev. 2013).
¶16. As this case is close factually and there was no legal change of marital status, we cannot say the chancellor was manifestly wrong in granting Sarah Young a child’s share of Joe Estes’s estate.
This decision illustrates the principle that, if the chancellor’s decision correctly applies the law, and her findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record, the decision should be, and most often is, affirmed on appeal, no matter how close the question or how eyebrow-raising the outcome.
There is much useful law here on the law of renunciation and its defense. This is actually an issue that arises from time to time in chancery, and you would do well to be ready for it.
While it is clear the chancellor has enormous discretion in determining which witnesses are credible, I am astounded that filing for a divorce is not conclusive proof of the abandonment of the marriage sufficient to override any verbal testimony. If she filed an action to dismiss the petition for divorce prior to his death, then I would hear arguments that she had not abandoned, but not otherwise.