Death and the Divorce Judgment

October 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

We’ve talked about the necessity of filing a judgment with the clerk as required in MRCP 58 and 79(a). It seems to be a fairly ironclad rule.

But there is at least one post-MRCP case in which no judgment was entered following trial, one of the parties died, and the MSSC upheld the chancellor’s nunc pro tunc entry of a divorce for a pre-death date.

Johnnie and Luke White underwent their fourth divorce from each other in 1992. In the course of the trial they agreed to a consent to divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences that was handwritten, signed by each of them, and filed with the clerk. Following the trial, the chancellor ruled from the bench on the contested issues, directed that the parties be divorced, and ordered Luke’s attorney to draft a judgment. Following the trial, and before the judgment could be entered, Luke died.

Luke’s brother filed a R25 Suggestion of Death and asked to be substituted as a party for the sole purpose of entering a judgment. After hearing both sides the chancellor executed a judgment dating it nunc pro tunc to the date when he had ruled on the contested issues. Johnnie appealed. In the case of White v. Smith, 643 So.2d 875 (Miss. 1994), the MSSC affirmed. (Note that Smith was the administratrix of Luke’s estate, and she was substituted for Luke’s brother as a party in the appeal).

Justice Pittman wrote the unanimous opinion for the court, which is excerpted here in part, beginning at page 880:

“Courts may by nunc pro tunc orders supply omissions in the record of what had previously been done, and by mistake or neglect not entered.” Green v. Myrick, 177 Miss. 778, 171 So. 774 (1937). Nunc pro tunc means “now for then” and when applied to the entry of a legal order or judgment, it normally does not refer to a new or fresh (de novo) decision, as when a decision is made after the death of a party, but relates to a ruling or action actually previously made or done but concerning which for some reason the record thereof is defective or omitted. The later record making does not itself have a retroactive effect but it constitutes the later evidence of a prior effectual act. Thrash v. Thrash, 385 So.2d 961, 963 (Miss.1980), quoting Becker v. King, 307 So.2d 855, 858-59 (Fl.App.1975).

Johnnie relies on Pittman v. Pittman, 375 So.2d 415 (Miss.1979), in support of the arguments raised in issues I, III and IV. The facts in Pittman reflect that Ella Polk Pittman filed a petition for a divorce and requested that she be granted a divorce on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. The hearing was held on September 26, 1978, and the final decree was not entered until October 27, 1978. Some three weeks after receiving the letter, a decree was prepared and mailed to the chancellor. This decree was signed by the chancellor and filed on October 27, 1978. Petitioner died in the interim on October 17, 1978.

This Court held, on the facts of the case, that the death of the party prior to the entering of the decree had rendered moot the question on divorce, stating that “all issues in the case were incidental to the request for a divorce and the contest thereon, and the entire cause died with the complainant.” Pittman, 375 So.2d at 417.

Unlike the facts in Pittman, in the present case, there was a formal adjudication of the issues in writing and signed by the chancellor, prior to the death of one of the parties.

Johnnie also cites Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice § 620, at 667 (1950), which states in part:

A valid decree cannot be rendered in favor of two persons, one of whom at the time is dead. Such a decree is void. And likewise a decree rendered against a defendant after his death is void, if he was the sole defendant or was an indispensable party to the suit-although the interlocutory decree was rendered while he was alive.

The general rule is that the death of a party in a divorce action prior to the final decree ends the marriage of the parties and cancels the bill of complaint for divorce. Pittman v. Pittman, 375 So.2d 415 (Miss.1979).

The case of Thrash v. Thrash, 385 So.2d 961 (Miss.1980), is directly analogous to the case sub judice. In Thrash, the wife petitioned the court for a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. The husband answered and filed a cross-bill in which he prayed for a divorce upon similar grounds. The case was fully tried and submitted to the chancellor for final decision. The chancellor took the matter under advisement and on March 31, 1978, determined all issues on the merits and rendered his decision by written opinion. The opinion was signed and filed with the clerk on April 1, 1978. The chancellor awarded the husband a divorce upon the grounds set forth in the cross-bill. A decree was drafted, approved by both solicitors, and forwarded to the chancellor for signature. This decree was duly received by the chancellor on April 8, 1978, signed by him on that same date, but dated April 10, 1978. The husband was killed on April 9, 1978.

On May 16, 1978, Pearl Marie Thrash filed a suggestion of death and motion to dismiss. The motion was based on the fact that the appellee had died prior to the decree’s being filed. The chancellor dismissed the motion and ordered the decree of divorce theretofore signed by the chancellor, to be entered nunc pro tunc, the date it was signed by the first chancellor, April 8, 1978.

The appellant in Thrash claimed that the decree signed by the chancellor on April 8, 1978, and dated April 10, 1978, was without effect and a nullity because appellee died on April 9, 1978, before the decree was filed with the clerk.

The majority opinion in Thrash relied on Section 11-7-25, Mississippi Code Annotated (1972), which in pertinent part provides:

Where either party shall die between verdict and judgment, such death need not be suggested in abatement, but judgment may be entered as if both parties were living….

Applying § 11-7-25, this Court determined that “in a case such as this, where the case has been fully tried and finally decided on its merits and nothing remains to be done except the entry of a decree, the decree would follow as if both parties were living.” Thrash, 385 So.2d at 962.

We have concluded that, in the absence of some special circumstances such as would cause a miscarriage of justice by so doing, the provisions of that section [§ 11-7-25] apply in a case such as this, the death of the husband having occurred long after the formal decision of all issues by the trier of facts. To hold otherwise, we think, would work a manifest miscarriage of justice.

Thrash, 385 So.2d at 964.

In the present case, from a technical standpoint, Luther died while married, since his death was prior to the entry of the decree. However, the record clearly indicates that all submitted issues had been litigated and ruled upon by the chancellor on November 2, 1992. Nothing more was to be accomplished in the interim between the ruling and formal filing of the judgment.

In addition to the reliance on § 11-7-25, the Thrash opinion quoted extensively from 104 A.L.R. 654, 664 (1936):

The general rule, so far as a general rule may be deduced from the few cases falling within this subdivision, is that, if the facts justifying the entry of a decree were adjudicated during the lifetime of the parties to a divorce action, so that a decree was rendered or could or should have been rendered thereon immediately, but for some reason was not entered as such on the judgment record, the death of one of the parties to the action subsequently to the rendition thereof, but before it is in fact entered upon the record, does not prevent the entry of a decree nunc pro tunc to take effect as of a time prior to the death of the party. [citations omitted] But if no such final adjudication was made during the lifetime of the parties, a decree nunc pro tunc may not be entered after the death of one of the parties, to take effect as of a prior date. [citations omitted]

Id. at 962-63.

Because the chancellor both fully considered all issues raised by the parties and rendered his opinion prior to Luther White’s death, the order entering judgment of divorce nunc pro tunc was not manifestly in error, and as such, does not create reversible error.

Although the case can be construed to apply narrowly to its peculiar facts, it’s hard to get around the basic principle announced in it that, ” … all submitted issues had been litigated and ruled upon by the chancellor … Nothing more was to be accomplished in the interim between the ruling and formal filing of the judgment.”

It’s not easy to square that general principle with the current strict application of R58 and 79. This is the MSSC’s word on the subject, though, and it is still good law.

Another post dealing with White and entry of judgments is at this link.

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