November 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
Reprise replays posts from the past that you might find useful today.
A FEW POINTERS FOR MORE EFFECTIVE CHANCERY TRIALS
December 14, 2010 § 7 Comments
A few thoughts that might help:
Facts, not impressions. Okay, you’re the judge and you have to decide whether the defendant assaulted the plaintiff. Here are two different versions in response to the question “Please tell the court what you observed when you entered the room.”
Version One: “The defendant was going crazy. I mean he went mental. Kaflooey! And I couldn’t believe it. Never saw anything like it. Mmm, Mmm, Mmm; I mean to tell you. Crazy. And, Lordy, such language. I didn’t know which way to turn. Didn’t really scare me, though — I was in Viet Nam. But it might have scared the others.”
Version Two: “The defendant picked up a recliner chair and threw it through the window. Then he grabbed a beer bottle and rared back like he was going to hit the plaintiff in the head, but instead he slapped her in the face and screamed that he liked to kill her. She was all balled up on the floor crying and begging, yelling out “please don’t break my arm like you done the last time!” and then he turned and glared at me and I thought he was going to kill me.”
Version one doesn’t convey a single thought about what the defendant actually did to assault anyone. It is ineffective because it is full of impressions and adjectives. Where are the specifics?
Version two, on the other hand paints a vivid picture chock full of verbs that unmistakably conveys the violence and anger. All the details are there.
When you’re prepping your witnesses for trial (Uh — you do prep your witnesses, I hope), train them to paint a word picture of what happened instead of just babbling a bunch of labels.
Eliminate pronouns from your questions. Keep in mind that you are doing two important things while you are questioning the witness: You are telling the judge your client’s story as persuasively as you can; and you are making a record for the appellate court to use if necessary. So how does the following help your client?
Q. So when they entered the room, what did he say?
A. They was all talking loud, but he said he was going to kill her for messin’ around with him.
Q. Who else was in the room?
A. Just all them and me.
Q. What if anything did you see him do?
A. Well, he left the room and then he came with guns and then they both had guns.
Q. What did he do?
A. He started to shooting. That’s when he shot her by mistake, I guess.
Huh? Who’s on first? What’s on second? I dunno’s on third? How in the world can anybody follow that? Let’s go back and eliminate the pronouns:
Q. So when Robert, Travis and Bo entered the room, what did Bo say?
A. Robert, Travis and Bo was all talking loud, but Bo said he was going to kill Charlene for messin’ around with Billy Joe.
Q. Who else was in the room?
A. Just Rita and Charlene and me.
Q. What if anything did you see Bo do?
A. Well, Travis left the room and then Caleb came with guns and then Travis and Bo both had guns.
Q. What did Bo do?
A. Bo started to shooting. That’s when Bo shot Rita by mistake, I guess.
Clearer? It is to me.
Focus on the points you need to prove. If, for example, you are trying to modify child support, it makes no sense to take your client early in her testimony through a long, meandering history of the marriage and divorce, and then how the children are doing in school, and then get several pictures into evidence that one of the children finger-painted in kindergarten, and then a narration of the soccer tournament in Brandon, and then ad nauseam. Get into the Adams factors for child support modification, sit down and hush. Just hush. Sometimes I have the impression that an attorney has no clue about what he or she is supposed to prove because the witnesses and exhibits are all talking about something entirely different from what is at issue.
It’s your job to establish jurisdiction. Yes, it’s your job. Nevertheless, I have had to do it on more than one occasion for the attorney. Here’s the deal:
If you are trying a divorce, you have to ask your witness about residence in the state of Mississippi for the requisite time, and you have to establish venue, and of course a marriage;
if you are trying a modification, you have to establish that the court has continuing jurisdiction by virtue of a prior judgment; and
ditto for a contempt action;
if you are trying a property dispute, where on this green earth is the property located?
The pleadings are not evidence in chancery court. Don’t think just because it’s in the pleadings that it is proven. The pleadings are your template for what must be proven through competent evidence at trial. If you want the trial judge and possibly the appellate court to consider it, you must put it into the record at trial.
No corroboration = no divorce. Unless the parties lived in near-total isolation and were incommunicado, which is almost unheard of in this internet-connected, smart-phone world, corroboration is a prerequisite to a divorce. What constitutes adequate corroboration is beyond the scope of this post, but you can find what you need to know in Professor Bell’s or Professor Hand’s treatise. In uncontested cases, I will sometimes “recess” the hearing to allow a lawyer time to recoup some of his or her dignity by scrounging up some corroboration, but in a contested case, I can not do that without prejudicing the opponent, and the result is an unfortunate denial of the divorce.
CAVEAT: The ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment was amended, effective in early 2017, to eliminate the requirement for corroboration in some cases involving domestic violence. You need to study the statute carefully to determine whether or not and how it applies in your case.
Spend some time on your 8.05. A post with ten tips for more effective financial statements is here. I have seen cases turn on the 8.05’s, and the one that is clear and better-presented prevails every time.
Oh, and here’s something to keep in mind: If you’re in a modification of child support case, the most crucial thing to prove is that there has been a CHANGE in circumstances. Use your brain here. If you are trying to prove a change, and it involves money, what is the best tool to use to show that change? Yes! It’s the 8.05! Of course! Add a column to your current 8.05 showing the expenses and income from back in 2003 when the divorce was granted. You can ask your client to dig around and find the 8.05 from back then to base your figures on, or ask her to reconstruct those figures for you. If she does have the 2003 8.05, you could offer that into evidence to prove the expenses and income back then.
Finally, do yourself, the witnesses, opposing counsel and above all the court a favor and simply number the pages and items of your financial statement. Imagine how mind-numbing this unfortunately typical exchange is for the judge (and everyone else within earshot):
Q: So you spend $200 a month on clothes?
A: Yes. No. I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.
Q: It’s on page 3.
A: (Flipping pages of the 8.05) No. I think that’s the equity in my house. Or maybe that’s my life insurance. Or pet expense. I’m not sure.
Q: No, look at the third page, the third page. 1-2-3.
A. Do you mean the GMAC here? That must be my church donation — Greater Meridian Adventist Church? Hmm, I don’t even go to that church.
Q: You’re looking at your car payment. Turn to the page that looks like this (Showing the witness the document).
A: I don’t see where it says that I spend money on clothes.
Q: Well, you have the figure $200 down there where it says “clothing.” What is it for?
A: Oh, clothing. I see it on line 11, but that’s the fourth page.
Q: No, it isn’t, it’s the third.
A: You’re right, it’s the third. Now what was the question?
Wouldn’t it have been more effective to direct the witness to the numbered page and to a particular line number? It certainly would save wear and tear on the judge, if nothing else. And the less wear and tear you inflict on the judge, the better your case turns out. Every time.
November 28, 2017 § 2 Comments
A point I have harped on often around here is that you should not spare your effort to produce proof on valuation of assets — particularly retirement funds, equity, and the like. It can make a huge difference in what your client takes away in equitable distribution and/or alimony, and if you have to appeal it may be the difference between affirmance and reversal.
A recent example is the COA’s decision in Inge v. Inge, decided October 3, 2017. Denise Inge appealed, complaining that the chancellor had erred by not finding the present value of the parties’ future retirement benefits. The COA found no error. Judge Wilson succinctly rejected her argument for a 10-0 court:
¶19. Moreover, to the extent that Denise’s complaint is that the chancellor failed to make findings as to present values of the parties’ respective future benefits, we simply note that Denise failed to present such evidence or calculations. The chancellor is not expected to go beyond the evidence that the parties present in order to value the marital assets. See Pruitt v. Pruitt, 144 So. 3d 1249, 1252-53 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). The chancellor received evidence of the future payments that each party could expect to receive under their respective retirement plans and concluded that it was fair and equitable for each party to keep his/her own benefits. Again, we cannot say that the chancellor abused her discretion. The division of assets, as a whole, was fair and equitable. Dogan [v. Dogan], 98 So. 3d  at 1124 (¶20) [(Miss. Ct. App. 20120]. [My emphasis]
Let that sink in: The chancellor is not expected to go beyond the evidence that the parties present in order to value the marital assets. In other words, it’s up to you to make a record. The more thoroughly you do that the better equipped you will be on appeal.
A few other points to ponder (with links to some previous posts):
- Another post making the same point is here.
- If you don’t give the judge enough to tip the scales your client’s way, the judge may average competing values.
- The date applied by the court to valuation can cost or gain you client big bucks.
- 8.05’s should not be an afterthought or thrown together. They should be carefully crafted with the attorney’s help because they are the “gold standard” of financial proof in chancery litigation.
November 27, 2017 § Leave a comment
Ever since the ancient case of Reynolds v. Riddell, 253 So.2d 834 (Miss. 1971), the law in Mississippi has been that once a Mississippi court enters a judgment awarding custody, that court in that particular chancery district retains exclusive jurisdiction to modify and enforce its judgment between parties continuing to reside in the state, even if one or both parties have relocated to other counties.
The sole exception is a Habeas Corpus proceeding, which must be brought in the county where the children are located. Bubac v. Boston, 600 So.2d 951 (Miss. 1992). Habeas, however, is a temporary action that does not confer continuing jurisdiction on the Habeas court, and does not actually effect a permanent modification. Id. at 955; See also, Pruitt v. Payne, 14 So.3d 806 (Miss. App. 2009).
Reynolds did provide an escape hatch: if the chancellor finds that the matter is inconvenient in the original county, due, say, to the relocation of the parties, she can transfer the action to another county. Reynolds at 837.
Against this backdrop, we consider whether it is proper for the chancery court in one custody modification action before it to, in effect, transfer the modification to another child custody action pending before it. That’s what the chancellor did in the custody dispute between Kelly Burge and the two fathers of her children, Chad Sharff and Craig Burge. Sharff had filed for modification of custody of his son. Burge filed for modification of a prior divorce judgment between him and Kelly, seeking custody of his son.
In the course of the custody cases, the chancellor dismissed Chad’s claims and consolidated cases as described below. The chancellor awarded custody of all of the children to Craig, and Kelly appealed.
One issue Kelly raised was that the chancellor had authority only in her original divorce action to modify custody, and that it was error for him to consolidate it into another custody case not arising from the divorce. In Burge v. Burge and Sharff, decided August 1, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Barnes penned the opinion for a unanimous court:
¶45. Kelly makes the procedural argument that the chancery court’s jurisdiction over the Sharff divorce ended when Chad’s custody-modification pleadings were involuntarily dismissed due to failure to prosecute. She claims that because Craig lacks standing in the Sharff divorce, no motion for modification survived, and the chancery court lacked grounds and jurisdiction to modify the Sharff action. Additionally, Kelly contends that the record supports collusion between Craig and Chad, who were attempting to deprive Kelly of custody of her four minor children by misuse of the procedural process. We are not persuaded by this argument.
¶46. Initially, Chad filed a petition to join Craig’s case “for just adjudication,” and requested Craig have custody of the children so as not to separate them. Alternatively, Chad requested he have custody. Approximately ten months later, Chad filed a petition to modify child custody in his own case, requesting legal and physical custody of his two children, since a material change in circumstances had occurred – the Burge divorce proceedings. He also filed a motion to transfer and consolidate his case with Craig’s case, since the same evidence would be presented in both cases to determine custody. Likewise, Craig filed a motion to consolidate his case with Chad’s case, and before trial began, the cases were consolidated.
¶47. At the conclusion of Craig’s and Chad’s case-in-chief, Kelly’s counsel made an ore tenus motion for the involuntary dismissal of Chad’s custody-modification action under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b), because Chad had not presented any evidence at trial to forward his claim. [Fn omitted] Indeed, Chad had not been physically present during the trial since an initial motions hearing nearly eight months earlier. Accordingly, the chancery court granted Kelly’s Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss, denying any relief requested by Chad for custody of his children. However, in the chancellor’s opinion, he stated that the Sharff divorce judgment was modified by Craig’s grant of custody.
¶48. From this ruling, Kelly argues that the involuntary dismissal of Chad’s custody modification in this case makes it “legally impossible” for the chancery court to address a change of custody for the Sharff children from Kelly to Craig. She contends the involuntary dismissal was an adjudication on the merits, and Craig no longer has standing in the Sharff case. Thus, the court lacked jurisdiction to modify the custody in it, and the children must remain in Kelly’s custody. We disagree.
¶49. In Professor Deborah Bell’s family-law treatise, she states:
A petition to modify . . . [a] custody . . . order must be filed in the court that issued the decree. As between the parties in the original action, the issuing court’s jurisdiction is exclusive, precluding any other court in the state from exercising jurisdiction over the case. . . . However, if an issuing court finds that adjudication in another court would be more efficient, jurisdiction may be transferred to that court.
Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law, § 18.07(1), at 447 (1st ed. 2005). Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-11-65 (Rev. 2013) allows the chancery court to hear a custody case apart from a divorce action. [Fn 10] Here, prior to the modification action filed by Chad, Craig had filed for third-party custody of the Sharff children in this action. According to statute, both actions were filed in the Lamar County Chancery Court, as the Sharff children resided in Lamar County in both actions, which is where custody between the natural parents has already been adjudicated. Chad’s modification action and Craig’s action are in the same chancery court, but with different cause numbers. Craig requested custody – something the court could grant – and both natural parents were given notice and an opportunity to be heard. The chancery court had the jurisdiction to modify custody of the Sharff children. That jurisdiction was not lost when Chad’s petition to modify custody was dismissed. [Fn 11] Kelly has not cited any authority to the contrary. This issue is without merit
[Fn 10] Section 93-11-65(1) provides that the chancery court of the proper county has jurisdiction to hear and determine suits for custody of minor children. “Proceedings may be brought by or against a resident or nonresident of the State of Mississippi, whether or not having the actual custody of minor children, for the purpose of judicially determining the legal custody of a child.” The action shall be brought in the county where the child is actually residing, or in the county of the residence of the party with actual custody, or in the county of the residence of the defendant. “Process shall be had upon the parties as provided by law . . . .”
[Fn 11] Even if the action had been filed in a different chancery court, the chancellor could have transferred the action. Here, the actions were merely consolidated as they were already in the same court.
Conclusion: not error to consolidate the cases into a case different from the original judgment sought to be modified. Here, the chancellor ordered the consolidation, which was equivalent to a transfer under Reynolds. I think the best practice always is to get an order of the chancellor consolidating.
November 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
Next post November 27, 2017
November 22, 2017 § 3 Comments
You older lawyers can take a break from the blog with this post. You, for the most part, don’t suffer from the particular malady I am about to describe. You younger lawyers need to pay heed.
Simply put: if you want the judge to grant your client some kind of relief, you must make sure that the judge hears what both you and your client are saying. I hope I said that loud enough.
Too often I have to urge younger lawyers and their clients to speak up. Projecting your voice so as to be heard in all corners of a courtroom is vastly different from talking on your cellphone. Many courthouses, particularly the older ones, provide no amplification equipment, and acoustic efficiency was not a consideration when designing courtrooms back in days of yore. That’s because lawyers and orators in general knew, understood, and practiced the simple art of projecting their voices.
I met Dean Duncan of the OM Law School recently, and was tempted to ask whether some unamplified speech class could be introduced into the curriculum to impress on lawyers-to-be the importance of making themselves heard. I let it pass and decided to grumble about it here.
One consideration you need to bear in mind is that hearing often does not improve with age. If you look up to the bench and see a chancellor with gray hair, you should assume that he or she spent too much time in college listening to the Rolling Stones through headphones with full volume. Oops, I may be getting too autobiographical here.
Another consideration is that even if you learn to project, it does little good if the judge can’t hear your client. When you prepare your client and key witnesses for trial (and a few of you do that), impress on them the vital importance of speaking up. In the courtroom encourage your witnesses to speak up.
Speak up and be heard.
November 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
In Darnell v. Darnell, 167 So.3d 195, 198 (Miss. 2014) (Darnell I), the MSSC remanded the case to the chancellor with directions to consider two statements of a minor child that he had excluded in the trial.
The chancellor had awarded the father, Duff Darnell, custody of the child based largely on conduct of the mother, Carla Darnell. After remand, the judge addressed the statements of the child and made a detailed Albright analysis, after which he again awarded custody to Duff. Carla appealed, and the MSSC affirmed in Darnell v. Darnell, decided October 26, 2017.
The court’s opinion addresses two important issues: parental misconduct toward the other parent; and what the judge is required to consider on remand.
On parental misconduct, the chancellor spelled out what he found to be Carla’s misconduct:
… the actions of the mother, Carla Darnell, taking visitation away from the father, filing charges with the military against the father, accusing the father of being a child molester, and disparaging the father in the small community where the family resided, coupled with her telling the child that the child should tell everybody that he wants to stay with her and not the father adversely impacts the minor child. Darnell II, at ¶7.
The MSSC, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Randolph, rejected Carla’s argument that the chancellor had failed to consider the child’s statements in making his findings:
¶7. That argument is without merit, for the chancellor entered a detailed, twenty-nine page amended final judgment. He addressed the statements made by C.D. to his teacher, Dana Walker, and principal, Machelle Dyess, and Dyess’s testimony regarding those statements. He also considered those statements in conjunction with Dr. Scott Benton’s testimony. He found that no witness who had knowledge of C.D. making the two specific statements testified that C.D. actually had been abused. No evidence was presented that any sexual abuse occurred. The chancellor stated in his order that he considered the three reports of the GAL, the exhibits, and testimony of the parties and witnesses at trial. He found [the conduct set out above].
¶8. Based on the record, the chancellor considered the statements and found that those statements did not change the outcome of his award of custody to Duff. “[T]he chancellor is the finder of fact, and the assessment of witness credibility lies within his sole province.” Carambat v. Carambat, 72 So. 3d 505, 510 (Miss. 2011). The chancellor’s findings are supported by substantial evidence; thus he did not manifestly err in that regard.
The takeaway here on this issue is twofold:
(1) The kind of conduct found by the chancellor is a combination lethal to your client’s claim for custody. You should not come to court with a similar set of facts in the expectation that the judge will not see your client in an unfavorable light.
(2) The chancellor is the finder of fact and assessor of credibility, and, if there is substantial evidence in the record to support his or her findings, those findings will stand on appeal.
As for how the chancellor handled the remand, the record shows that he simply revised his original findings, addressing the excluded evidence as the MSSC directed him to do. No hearing was held, and no further evidence was taken. Carla argued on appeal that by not holding a new hearing the chancellor had erred by failing to take into account the new developments and facts pertaining to custody at the time of the remand. The MSSC rejected Carla’s claim:
¶12. On remand, this Court specifically instructed the chancellor to make:
new findings of fact and conclusions of law in which the first two statements made by C.D. to Dyess and Walker are considered as admissible evidence. Because of the additional evidence, the chancellor also should conduct a new Albright analysis showing the reasons for his ruling, and it would be helpful if he specifically stated why he disagreed with the guardian ad litem’s recommendations.
Id. at 210. This Court did not instruct the chancellor to hold a new hearing, change his findings and conclusions, or consider new evidence of C.D.’s current condition.
¶13. Carla, citing Vaughn v. Davis, 36 So. 3d 1261 (Miss. 2010), argues that the general rule for remanded child custody cases requires a chancellor to consider the child’s circumstances at the time of remand, rather than at the time of the previous hearing. However, this Court has never made such a pronouncement. This Court specifically instructed the chancellor in Vaughn to consider the minor’s present circumstances, if the chancellor made a determination of desertion. Id. at 1267. No such instruction was given to today’s chancellor. This issue is without merit.
In other words, the remanding opinion of the appellate court is the law of the case from that point forward. The chancellor is obligated to do only what the appellate court directs him or her to do. In this case, the chancellor simply took the two statements into account in his amended findings of fact and conclusions of law. No further hearing; no new evidence. The Darnell I remand had not directed the chancellor to conduct an new hearing or to consider evidence arising after the initial trial date.
November 20, 2017 § 2 Comments
In a previous post I talked about the measures you need to take when you are moving a ward in a guardianship or conservatorship from Mississippi to another state. That earlier post is at this link.
The statute I cited in that earlier post is still on the books, but now there is a uniform law that provides a modern procedure recognized in many other jurisdictions.
In 2014, Mississippi adopted the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act (MCA § 93-14-101, et seq.), which establishes procedures recognized among the participating states for transfer of guardianships, protective proceedings, registration of orders from other states, and communication between courts. There is even a provision for emergency, temporary jurisdiction over a respondent from another state who is in this state at the time of the emergency.
Situations involving conservatorships and adult guardianships are becoming more frequent, and the need to move wards to the state where the children are now located is more and more prevalent. This chapter will help you do that.
Thanks to Attorney Mark Scarborough
November 17, 2017 § Leave a comment
November 15, 2017 § 1 Comment
Yesterday we visited the situation where the natural parents in a paternity suit were awarded joint custody of their child. It was deemed okay by the COA.
Today we consider whether the chancellor may award joint custody between paternal and maternal grandparents in a case where both are claiming custody due to unfitness of the natural parents. That’s what happened between Monica Darby (paternal) and Harold and Karron Combs (maternal).
The chancellor awarded the grandparents joint custody, and Monica appealed. The COA affirmed in Darby v. Combs on October 25, 2016. Monica filed a petition for cert, and the MSSC granted it.
On November 9, 2017, the MSSC affirmed the COA in Darby v. Combs. Justice Maxwell wrote for a 6-2 court, with Ishee not participating:
¶23. Chancellors have jurisdiction to make custody decisions. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 159; see also Davis v. Davis, 194 Miss. 343, 12 So. 2d 435, 436 (1943). And their decisions must be made with an eye on the best interests and welfare of the child. Albright, 437 So. 2d at 1005; Carr v. Carr, 480 So. 2d 1120 (Miss. 1985) (extending the coverage of the Albright decision to all original custody decisions)). Here, the Court of Appeals correctly recognized this notion, explaining “[i]n a custody contest between third parties,where neither party has a superior right to custody of the child, the child’s best interests and welfare are the polestar consideration.” Darby, 2016 WL 6276610, at *7.
¶24. With Addie’s best interests in mind, and in light of his finding that Crystal and Andrew were unfit parents, the chancellor consulted Section 93-5-24(1)(e). This statute clearly permits third-party custody arrangements. Under Section 93-5-24(1)(e):
Upon a finding by the court that both of the parents of the child have abandoned or deserted such child or that both such parents are mentally, morally or otherwise unfit to rear and train the child the court may award physical and legal custody to:
(i) The person in whose home the child has been living in a wholesome and stable environment; or
(ii) Physical and legal custody to any other person deemed by the court to be suitable and able to provide adequate and proper care and
guidance for the child.
Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-24. So, based on his finding of parental unfitness, the chancellor was statutorily empowered to fashion a third-party-custody award. Monica does not seriously contest the chancellor’s authority to grant third-party custody. What she argues is that the chancellor lacked authority to craft a third-party joint custody award.
¶25. As support, Monica latches on to the use of the word “person” and the phrase “any other person” in Section 93-5-24(1)(e)(i) and (ii). She insists this singular language makes clear that only one person or party may receive custody. So as she sees it, joint custody awards are not allowed between third parties under Section 93-5-24(1)(e)(i) and (ii). She suggests the definition of joint physical custody in Section 93-5-24(5)(c) supports her interpretation. [Fn omitted] We disagree.
¶26. First, it is obvious Subsection 93-5-24(5)(c) contemplates joint physical custody between “parents.” And here, the chancellor deemed Addie’s parents unfit for custody.
¶27. Second, Monica overlooks—and our statutory law instructs—that “[w]ords used in the singular number only, either as descriptive of persons or things, shall extend to and embrace the plural number . . . except where a contrary intention is manifest.” Miss. Code Ann. § 1-3-33 (Rev. 2014). And we see no contrary intention manifested within the statute.
¶28. Indeed, Section 93-5-24(5) concludes by explaining that “[a]n award of joint physical and legal custody obligates the parties to exchange information concerning the health, education and welfare of the minor child and . . . the parents or parties shall confer with one another in the exercise of decision making rights, responsibilities, and authority.” So, Section 93-5-24(5) suggests that joint physical and legal custody may be awarded to either parents or parties. Thus, we find no legal error in the chancellor’s statutory application.
¶29. As we recognized in Crider, the overarching consideration in Section 93-5-24 is that “[c]ustody shall be awarded as follows according to the best interests of the child.” Crider v. Crider, 904 So. 2d 142, 144 (Miss. 2005). And here, we cannot say the chancellor’s custody award was against Addie’s best interest.
II. Cooperation for Joint Custody
¶30. Monica next suggests the chancellor erred by awarding joint custody without making an express finding that the parties could cooperate as Addie’s joint custodians. We disagree. As discussed, the chancellor carefully walked through the Albright factors [Fn omitted] and crafted a
workable third-party custody arrangement.
¶31. Though joint custody between third parties may not typically be preferable, this is a difficult and, as the chancellor put it, “unusual” case. Facing the realities of obviously unfit parents and a neglected child, the chancellor did what he was duty bound to do—he consulted Section 95-5-24 and keyed in on the child’s best interest and welfare. [Fn omitted] The severity of Andrew’s drug problems, mental-health issues, and violent tendencies and Crystal’s extensive drug and alcohol abuse required the chancellor look elsewhere for custody arrangements.
¶32. When parents cannot agree on who should have primary custody of the children, this Court has suggested “it is probably the better course for the chancellor to make that decision for them reserving joint custody for parents who are willing to work together to make joint custody feasible.” Waller v. Waller, 754 So. 2d 1181, 1184 (Miss. 2000) (emphasis added). [Fn omitted] The dissent basically stretches this language into a new affirmative requirement, essentially grafting a non-Albright factor onto the Albright test. And it concludes remand is necessary because the chancellor did not make an “express determination of whether the parties can cooperate in exercising joint custody.” We agree this consideration is certainly relevant. But by no means did Waller create a new mandate that chancellors make this “express determination,” or else a joint-custody award and Albright analysis will be legally lacking and require remand for additional findings. Rather, the Waller court, citing an American Law Report on joint-custody awards, suggests in a footnote that chancellors make joint custody awards where the parties are able to cooperate. Id. at 1184 n.1 (citations omitted).
¶33. Here, the chancellor rejected the GAL’s recommendations and carefully weighed the Albright factors and statutory law, deciding a joint-custody award was “the safest route” to protect Addie from potential violence. He had no qualms that Monica and the Combses could carry out this arrangement. If he had felt a joint-custody arrangement was unworkable, he would not have fashioned one. After review, we find no error in the chancellor’s joint custody award.
- Joint custody keeps embracing more and more relationships. It goes well beyond the marital relationship based on yesterday’s and today’s reported decisions.
- I included the discussion about ability to cooperate because I think there’s been some confusion over whether it is a threshold requirement. To me it has been more of a disqualifying factor; i.e., where the evidence is clear that there can be no cooperation, I rule joint custody out. I do not require affirmative proof of cooperation, however, before awarding joint custody.
- One form of joint custody I am seeing — and strongly resisting — is joint custody (50-50) in PSA’s with no child support. I think joint custody is being used that way in many cases as a “business decision” with non-payment of child support as a bargaining chip. Joint custody, however, should be about providing the safest, most secure, most nurturing environment in the best interest of the child rather than a justification for no child support. When you link money with the joint custody arrangement, the sweet aroma changes to a foul odor. I don’t like it a bit. And, for you lawyers who push this idea, you are creating a new, potent avenue for “divorce blackmail” that can blow up in your face when you are on the opposite side of the issue.
November 14, 2017 § 1 Comment
We all know that the chancellor may award joint physical custody in an irreconcilable-differences divorce, but what about when the natural parents have never been married to each other and they are before the court in a custody dispute? May the chancellor award joint custody?
That was one of the issues before the COA in the case of Roberts v. Eads, handed down October 10, 2017. In that case, Lauren Roberts sued Tyler Eads for custody and support of their son, Thomas. Tyler counterclaimed for custody, sole or joint. The chancellor granted them joint physical and legal custody, and Lauren appealed. The COA affirmed. Judge Carlton wrote for a unanimous court:
¶22. In addition to challenging the chancellor’s application of the Albright factors, Lauren claims that the chancellor’s award of joint physical custody violates Easley v. Easley, 91 So. 3d 639 (Miss. Ct. App. 2012), and Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(2) (Rev. 2013).
¶23. In Easley, the chancellor granted the parties an irreconcilable-differences divorce. Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). Section 93-5-24(2) provides that joint custody may be awarded in an irreconcilable-differences divorce “in the discretion of the court, upon application of both parents.” Following a trial in Easley, “the chancellor determined that joint physical custody was in the children’s best interest, but he erroneously concluded that the statute did not allow it to be awarded unless both parties expressly presented joint custody for consideration.” Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). The chancellor therefore awarded sole custody of the parties’ children to the father while granting the mother visitation. Id. On appeal, this Court concluded that, “after finding joint custody to be in the children’s best interest, the chancellor’s award of custody to one parent was an error of law.” Id. at (¶2). We therefore reversed the chancellor’s judgment and remanded the case so the chancellor could apply the proper legal standard. Id.
¶24. Upon review of the present case, we find no merit to Lauren’s claim that the chancellor’s award of joint physical custody violated either section 93-5-24(2) or our holding in Easley. As stated, section 93-5-24(2) provides a chancellor with the discretion to grant joint custody in an irreconcilable-differences divorce. However, the present case involves no such divorce since the parties were never married. We further note that section 93-5-24(3) provides a chancellor with the discretion to award joint custody “[i]n other cases . . . upon application of one or both parents.” As the record here reflects, in responding to Lauren’s custody petition, Tyler requested sole custody or, in the alternative, joint custody. Furthermore, after considering the Albright factors, the chancellor determined that joint legal and physical custody served Thomas’s best interest. [Fn omitted] As Easley recognized, a chancellor may grant joint custody, even where both parties do not present the issue, if such an arrangement
is in the child’s best interest. See Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). We therefore find no merit to Lauren’s assertion that the chancellor’s judgment violated Mississippi statutory law and caselaw.
¶25. The chancellor’s judgment is affirmed.
That’s something you might be able to put to good use.