A Valuable Resource is Coming Your Way

May 31, 2019 § Leave a comment

Chancery judges have long had a resource not available to practitioners: The Benchbook for Mississippi Chancery Court Judges.

The last printed edition I have consists of 31 chapters on topics ranging from divorce, alimony, probate, property, restraining orders and injunctions, recusal, and everything in between. There are case citations, tables of authority, statutes, and other helpful material. It is updated periodically by the Mississippi Judicial College’s (MJC’s) excellent staff attorneys.

In the past few years the Benchbook has been accessible behind a password-wall at MJC’s web site, rather than in printed form.

The good news for you is that, effective July 1, 2019, the password will no longer be required, and attorneys and others will be able to access this valuable resource. You will have at your fingertips some of the best research you could hope for ready to use in any chancery proceeding.

You will find the Benchbook at the MJC web site under the ‘Publications” tab, or at this link.

PS … there are benchbooks for circuit and county court judges, and even for justice court judges.


Ins and Outs of Recusal

May 29, 2019 § Leave a comment

There comes a time in every lawyer’s life when you have no choice but to file a motion for the judge to recuse.

Most recusal situations are pretty clear, but not all are. It’s awkward at best to suggest that the judge should not be hearing your case, particularly where you are insinuating that ethical challenges may be involved. So you want to do it right if you’re going to do it at all. Here is some information that might help you get it right.

There are two categories of situations giving rise to consideration of recusal.

The first category consists of situations where the judge is per se disqualified and recusal is required unless waived by the parties. The bases for disqualification per se are set out in the Mississippi Constitution and the Mississippi Code.

The second category consists of situations in which grounds for disqualification per se are not present, but the judge’s impartiality might be questioned by a reasonable person knowing all of the pertinent facts. These are spelled out in Miss. Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 3E.

Category One: Per Se Disqualification

Mississippi Constitution Article 6, § 165 states: “No judge of any court shall preside on the trial of any cause, where the parties or either of them, shall be connected with him by affinity or consanguinity, or where he may be interested in the same, except by the consent of the judge and of the parties.”

Mississippi Code Ann. § 9-1-11 sets forth the same bases for recusal as provided in the constitution and adds the ground that the judge was previously counsel in the same proceeding.

The key to category one is that the judge is actually disqualified from sitting in the case. Recusal is mandatory unless the parties and the judge agree otherwise, or, as some people put it, they agree to waive the disqualification.

Category Two: Discretionary Recusal

The second category of recusal matters is found in the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct in Canon 3. In contrast with the Constitution and statutory mandatory recusal, all of the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct bases for recusal are hortatory; the Code recites that the judge “should” recuse in the listed circumstances if they apply.

Canon 3E(1) states the general principle: “Judges should disqualify themselves in proceedings in which their impartiality might be questioned by a reasonable person knowing all the circumstances or for other grounds provided in the Code of Judicial Conduct or otherwise as provided by law, including but not limited to instances where … ” The provision continues with several specific categories of situations that may require recusal. This is the general principle behind all recusal motions. Note the word should above. Again, in these situations recusal is discretionary and is reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion.

The specific situations spelled out to complete the above provision are:

3E(1)(a). The judge has a personal bias toward a party or has personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has stated that, “In the absence of a judge expressing a bias or prejudice toward a party or proof in the record of such bias or prejudice, a judge should not recuse himself.” Bateman v. Gray, 963 So.2d 1284, 1291 (Miss. 2007). The burden, which is a heavy one, is on the movant to prove facts sufficient to establish disqualifying bias or prejudice.” Hodnett v. State, 787 So.2d 670 (Miss. Ct. App. 2001).

What about a bad outcome? Some clients thing the judge is prejudiced against them because of an adverse ruling. Our appellate courts have recognized that “[O]ne party’s irritation at the trial judge’s ruling against him is not grounds to force the judge to recuse himself.” Clay v. State, 829 So.2d 676, 687 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002). “Prior rulings by a judge in the proceeding will almost never be sufficient to justify recusal.” Campbell and Jackson, Commentary on Judicial Ethics in Mississippi, § 6: 9 (2010). The United States Supreme Court addressed the principle in the case of Liteky v. U.S., 510 U.S. 540, 555 (1994):

“ … opinions formed by the judge on the basis of facts introduced or events occurring in the course of the current proceedings , or of prior proceedings, do not constitute a basis for a bias or partiality motion unless they display a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible. Thus, judicial remarks during the course of a trial that are critical or disapproving of, or even hostile to, counsel, the parties, or their cases, ordinarily do not support a bias or partiality challenge. They may do so if they reveal an opinion that derives from an extrajudicial source; and they will do so if they reveal such a high degree of favoritism or antagonism as to make fair judgment impossible.”

In Rogers v. Morin, 791 So. 2d 815, 821 (¶13) (Miss. 2001), the court held that a chancellor was not required to recuse after he remarked in a hearing that he believed that the appellant had no credibility. Weighing credibility is, after all, what chancellors do. If we were required to recuse every time we made that determination, there would be chaos.

3E(1)(a). The judge or a lawyer with whom she previously practiced served as a lawyer or is a witness in the matter in controversy, or .

3E(1)(b). A lawyer as attorney or witness in the case is a former law partner or associate and served in the case while the judge was with the firm.

3E(1)(c). The judge or a member of his household has a pecuniary interest.

3E(1)(d).  The judge or a member of his family is a party or is an officer, will be a witness.

You should read the Canons themselves for the exact language. A link to them is here.

There is a presumption that all judges sworn to administer impartial justice are qualified and unbiased. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Frierson, 818 So.2d 1135, 1141-42 (Miss. 2002); Miss. Code Judicial Conduct Canon 3E commentary. The burden is on the party seeking recusal to file a motion detailing the factual basis relied on, and to create a reasonable doubt about the presumption of impartiality. Taylor v. State, 789 So.2d 787 (Miss. 2001); Copeland v. Copeland, 904 So.2d 1066, 1071 (Miss. 2004). There must be a reasonable basis to form a conclusion that there was a question of impartiality. Faerber v. Faerber, 13 So.3d 853, 865-66 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Mere speculation is not enough. Pearson v. Browning, 200 So.3d 1080, 1085 (Miss. Ct. App. 2016), citing Dillard’s, Inc. v. Scott, 908 So.2d 93, 98 (Miss. 2005) (quoting Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 3(E)(1)).

Rule 59 and the Court of Equity

May 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

Sometimes you want or need to argue that you should be granted R59 relief because this is a court of equity, and a new trial or rehearing, or new judgment are needed to do equity. The other side argues the rigid language of R59 and says the court can’t go beyond that.

In the case of Pevey v. Pevey, 2017-CA-01144-COA, 2018 WL 4089685 (August 28, 2018), an opinion yet unpublished in the Southern Reporter, Judge Fair (a former chancellor) of the COA wrote this in the unanimous opinion:

¶5. The chancery court’s authority to modify the final judgment is “limited” by Rule 59, and it is a “higher” standard than under Rule 54(b), which allows a trial court to set aside interlocutory decisions for any reason it sees just. [ Maness v. K & A Enters. of Miss. LLC, No. 2017-CA-00173, ––– So.3d ––––, ––––, 2018 WL 3791250, at *12 (¶ 68) (Miss. Aug. 9, 2018) Id. at –––– (¶¶ 69, 71), 2018 WL 3791250, at *13 (¶¶ 69, 71). Still, Rule 59 permits a chancery court substantial discretion to reconsider its decisions—either on the motion of a party, or sua sponte “for any reason for which it might have granted a new trial on motion of a party.” See M.R.C.P. 59(d). When a case has been tried to the court, Rule 59(a) expressly provides that a new trial may be granted “for any of the reasons for which rehearings have heretofore been granted in suits in equity in the courts of Mississippi.” “The ground rules [for a Rule 59 motion in chancery court] include those that preexisted the Civil Rules regarding the grant or denial of trial court rehearings.” Mayoza v. Mayoza, 526 So.2d 547, 549-50 (Miss. 1988). In In re Enlargement of Corporate Limits of Hattiesburg, 588 So.2d 814, 828 (Miss.1991), the supreme court explained that “[i]n equity, the chancellor has always had entire control of his orders and decrees and authority to modify or vacate any of them on motion of any party, or on his own, prior to final judgment.” While the chancellor’s order may have been styled a final judgment, it was rendered non-final by Dallas’s filing of the motion to reconsider. See Wilson v. Mallett, 28 So.3d 669, 670 (¶ 3) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). “It is long-settled that when a final judgment is reopened [under Rule 59,] the judgment remains subject to the control of the court until the motion is disposed of and, until that time, does not become final.” E.E.O.C. v. United Ass’n of Journeymen & Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipefitting Indus. of the U.S. & Canada, Local No. 120, 235 F.3d 244, 250 (6th Cir. 2000).

¶6. To grant the motion under Rule 59, the chancery court need only be “convinced that a mistake of law or fact has been made, or that injustice would attend allowing the judgment to stand.” See Maness, ––– So.3d at –––– (¶ 69), 2018 WL 3791250, at *13 (¶ 69) (Maxwell, J., specially concurring) (quoting McNeese v. McNeese, 119 So.3d 264, 272 (¶ 20) (Miss. 2013) ). This is an independent basis for granting the motion, distinct from the court’s authority to order a new trial on the presentation of newly discovered evidence. Id. “When hearing a motion under Rule 59(e), a trial court proceeds de novo, if not ab initio. Recognizing that to err is human, Rule 59(e) provides the trial court the proverbial chance to correct its own error to the end that we may pretermit the occasion for a less than divine appellate reaction.” Bruce v. Bruce, 587 So.2d 898, 904 (Miss. 1991). A Rule 59 motion is the “functional equivalent” of a motion for rehearing on appeal. King v. King, 556 So.2d 716, 722 (Miss. 1990).

¶7. Although Rule 59(a) refers to a “new trial,” when a case was tried to the court, the formality of a full retrial is not required. Under Rule 59(a), the chancellor “may open the judgment if one has been entered, take additional testimony, amend findings of fact and conclusions of law or make new findings and conclusions, and direct the entry of a new judgment.” Id.

¶ 8. Motions under Rule 59 should be distinguished from motions under Rule 60(b), which seek “extraordinary relief” from a judgment that is truly final. Rule 60(b) motions are for “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” and “should be denied when they are merely an attempt to relitigate the case.” S. Healthcare Servs. Inc. v. Lloyd’s of London, 110 So.3d 735, 742 (¶ 14) (Miss. 2013). “[T]he trial court has considerably broader discretionary authority under Rule 59(e) to grant relief than it does under Rule 60(b).” King, 556 So.2d at 722.

A previous post with a citation to Pevey is at this link. The Warner v. Thomas case at that link actually cites Pevey, despite the fact that it is unpublished in the Southern Reporter. I think the best practice is always to point out that the case you are citing is unpublished in the Southern Reporter, but you can also point out that it has been cited in other published decisions if it has. Another strategy is simply to use the authority cited in the unpublished case.

I think that a regrettable by-product of the MRCP has been a pharisaical tendency toward rigid application of the rules in chancery, losing sight that chancellors bring knowledge, wisdom, judgment, and a sense of fairness to bear. When you take that away from the judge and pen her in a rule cage with no room to maneuver, you might as well do away with the judge and simply look in the rule book for the answer.

May 27, 2019 § Leave a comment

State Holiday

Courthouse closed

Bell Seminars

May 24, 2019 § 1 Comment

As I have often said here, one of the best ways to stay current in family law is to attend Professor Debbie Bell’s seminars.

The schedule this year is

  • Jackson. Friday, July 12, 2019. Jackson Marriott.
  • Oxford. Friday, July 19, 2019. Oxford Conference Center.
  • Gulf Coast. Friday, July 26, 2019. Imperial Palace Biloxi.

Registration is $235 in advance, $260 at the door on a space-available basis.

You can register online at msfamilylaw.com.

The Burden to Rebut the Presumption of Undue Influence

May 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Marquan Stover filed a contest to probate of his great aunt’s second codicil to her will, claiming that it was the product of undue influence. Following a hearing, the chancellor found no undue influence and dismissed his contest. Stover appealed, and the COA affirmed on May 8, 2018. He filed a petition for cert, which was granted.

In Stover v. Davis, handed down April 25, 2019, the MSSC reversed and remanded, holding that the chancellor had applied the wrong legal standard. Justice Beam wrote the opinion:

¶11. “The sole issue in a will contest is devisavit vel non, [Fn 3] or will or no will.” Trotter v. Trotter, 490 So. 2d 827, 833 (Miss. 1986). The proponent of the will has the burden of proof of the will’s validity, and this burden of proof stays with the proponent throughout the trial. Harris v. Sellers, 446 So. 2d 1012, 1014 (Miss. 1984). The proponent makes a prima facie case of validity when the will and record of probate are admitted into evidence. Id. At that point, the burden shifts to the contestant to produce evidence challenging the will’s validity. Clardy v. Nat’l Bank of Commerce of Miss., 555 So. 2d 64, 66 (Miss. 1989).

¶12. The contestant raises a presumption of undue influence by showing the existence of a confidential relationship between the testator and a beneficiary under the will, along with suspicious circumstances. Croft v. Alder, 237 Miss. 713, 723, 115 So. 2d 683, 686 (1959). Suspicious circumstances may include the testator’s mental infirmity or direct involvement of the beneficiary in the confidential relationship in preparing or executing the will. Id. at 686. When a presumption of undue influence arises, then the proponent of the will bears the burden to rebut the presumption with clear and convincing evidence that the will was not the result of undue influence. In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So. 2d 915, 921 (Miss. 1999) (citing Croft v. Alder, 237 Miss. 713, 115 So. 2d 683, 686 (1959)). To rebut the presumption, the proponent must show three things: “(a) good faith on the part of the beneficiary, (b) the testatrix’s full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and (c) the testatrix received the advice of a competent person disconnected from the beneficiary and devoted wholly to him.” Id. at 921 (citing Murray v. Laird, 446 So. 2d 575, 578 (Miss. 1984)).

[Fn 3] Devisavit vel non means “he (or she) devises or not.” Devisavit vel non, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). “An issue directed from a chancery court to a court of law to determine the validity of a will that has been contested, as by an allegation of fraud or testamentary incapacity. Id.

¶13. As the Court of Appeals recognized, the chancellor made no findings on whether a confidential relationship had existed between Robinson and Davis or whether a presumption of undue influence arose. Stover, 2018 WL 2110017, at *24. Yet the Court of Appeals held that, even if a presumption of undue influence had arisen, Davis rebutted it, because clear and convincing evidence existed in the record to satisfy the three-prong test. Stover, 2018 WL 2110017, at *27. We disagree. The record shows that the chancellor found that Davis had made a prima facie case of the will’s validity and that Stover had not met his burden to show that the second codicil was the product of undue influence. The chancellor misstated the burden of proof as preponderance of the evidence when the burden for a presumption of undue influence is clear and convincing. See In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So. 2d at 921 (citing Croft, 115 So. 2d at 686). Further, the record does not show the burden-shifting scheme set forth above. If a presumption of undue influence had, in fact, arisen, then Stover did meet his burden, and Davis, the proponent of the will and codicils, bore the burden to rebut the presumption with clear and convincing evidence.

¶14. As the chancellor rightly found, Davis’s submission of the will and the record of probate and its receipt into evidence established a prima facie case of the will’s validity. But Stover’s proof raised a presumption of undue influence, because he showed that Davis was in a confidential relationship with Robinson when the second codicil was executed and that the second codicil had been executed under suspicious circumstances.

¶15. Because Davis was Robinson’s duly appointed conservator, a confidential relationship was established. We have held that “[a] conservator stands in the position of a trustee, has a fiduciary relationship with the ward and is charged with a duty of loyalty toward the ward.” Bryan v. Holzer, 589 So. 2d 648, 657 (Miss. 1991). While the existence of a conservatorship alone is not immediate grounds for undue influence, the courts should not take lightly the role, power, trust, and influence of the conservatorship relationship between the person or ward and his or her conservator. Wards deserve the most meticulous judicial scrutiny in situations such as this to ensure the ward’s protection. When a confidential relationship exists, coupled with suspicious circumstances, the proponent of the will bears the burden of rebutting the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.

¶16. Suspicious circumstances were shown by the undisputed evidence that Robinson suffered from dementia. A conservatorship had been established for Robinson in 2006, and Davis, who stepped into the role of conservator after Myers died, was directly involved in the preparation of the will. Davis testified that she discussed the will with Robinson. Davis reminded Robinson of the deaths of a named beneficiary and the executrix, and the changes made in the codicil were both to Davis’s benefit. Davis called Attorney Moss on her own cell phone to initiate the process of procuring the second codicil. Given that these facts were uncontested, the burden shifted to Davis to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, “(a) good faith on the part of the beneficiary, (b) the testatrix’s full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and (c) [that] the testatrix received the advice of a competent person disconnected from the beneficiary and devoted wholly to him.” In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So. 2d at 921(citing Murray, 446 So. 2d at 578).

¶17. Because the chancellor erroneously did not recognize that a presumption of undue influence had arisen, the chancellor made no findings of fact on the three-part test for determining whether Davis had rebutted the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. Instead, the chancellor found that Stover had not met his burden. But Stover had, in fact, met his burden of production, resulting in the burden’s shifting to Davis to rebut the presumption with clear and convincing evidence. Because the evidence was such that the chancellor reasonably could have found either that Davis had rebutted the presumption or that she had not, we reverse the decisions of both courts and remand to the chancery court for factfinding on whether Davis rebutted the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.

The Limits of In Terrorem

May 21, 2019 § 1 Comment

Back in 2014, the MSSC tacked on a good faith exception to in terrorem clauses in wills and trusts. The case was Parker v. Benoist, and you can read a post about it at this link.

Fast forward to 2019, and the in terrorem issue was once again before the appellate courts, this time the COA, and this time with a peculiar set of facts.

Joan Roosa, widow of Colonel Stuart Roosa, an astronaut on the Apollo 14 moon mission, executed her will in 2002. She followed with two codicils in 2004 and 2007. The 2002 will bequeathed her estate among all of her children and grand children. The 2007 codicil left everything to her daughter Rosemary. The 2002 will included an in terrorem clause.

The original will was admitted to probate, and shortly after Rosemary submitted the two codicils. The other children and grandchildren (led by Joan’s son Christopher) contested the validity of the second codicil charging that Rosemary had exercised undue influence. They also contended that Rosemary had triggered the forfeiture provision of the in terrorem clause.

A jury was empaneled to consider the issue of devisavit vel non as to the second codicil. It returned a verdict finding it not to be valid.

On the issue of forfeiture, the chancellor ruled that Rosemary had acted in good faith and denied the request that she be deemed to have forfeited her bequest under the will.

Christopher appealed on several issues, but for our purposes we will focus on the chancellor’s ruling on the forfeiture.

The COA affirmed in Estate of Roosa: Roosa v. Roosa, decided April 23, 2019. Judge McCarty wrote the opinion for the court:

¶8. The chancery court found that Rosemary should not forfeit her share of her mother’s estate due to attempting to probate the second codicil. Christopher argues that the forfeiture provision should be enforced against Rosemary because she did not act in good faith when submitting the second codicil for probate. In response, Rosemary argues that submitting a codicil for probate is not contesting the will, so the forfeiture provision is not triggered at all. Alternatively, Rosemary contends that the forfeiture provision is not applicable since she submitted the second codicil in good faith.

¶9. An in terrorem clause in a will acts to frighten a beneficiary that any benefit they might receive will be forfeited if they contest or otherwise dispute the validity of the will. See Taylor v. Rapp, 124 S.E.2d 271, 272 (Ga. 1962). Joan’s will contained just such a forfeiture provision. It read in relevant part:

If any beneficiary hereunder shall contest the probate or validity of this Will or any provision thereof, or shall institute or join in (except as a party defendant) any proceeding to contest the validity of this Will or to prevent any provision thereof from being carried out in accordance with its terms (regardless of whether or not such proceedings are instituted in good faith and with probable cause), than all benefits provided for such beneficiary are revoked and such benefits shall pass to the residuary beneficiaries of this Will (other than such beneficiary) in the proportion that the share of each such residuary beneficiary bears to the aggregate of the effective shares of the residuary.

¶10. The forfeiture clause explicitly states that “regardless” of whether a beneficiary starts proceedings “in good faith and with probable cause” that they will be forfeited from benefitting under the estate. During the life of the litigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court declared forfeiture provisions like this unenforceable as a matter of law. See Parker v. Benoist, 160 So. 3d 198, 205 (¶15) (Miss. 2015). The Court held that “[a] strict interpretation of no-contest provisions in wills would hamper courts’ goal of determining what is, once and for all, the will of the testator,” and that “[a] bona fide inquiry into the validity of the will should not be defeated by language contained in the will itself.” Id. at 206. As a result, if a will contained a forfeiture provision, it also had to have a requirement that it would only be enforced if it had a good faith exception. Id.

¶11. Rosemary’s will contained the exact same forfeiture provision that the Supreme Court held unenforceable in Parker. Id. at 203 (¶9). As a result, the chancery court found that “as a matter of law the [forfeiture] clause in this case is unenforceable because it fails to contain a good faith exception.” This does not delete the forfeiture provision but instead reforms it to include an exception for good faith actions by beneficiaries. Id. at 205-06 (¶¶12-15).

¶12. The first question we must resolve is whether the forfeiture clause even applies to Rosemary. Her argument on appeal is that it cannot be applied since she did not contest the will per se but instead only submitted the second codicil for probate. However, the plain language of Joan’s will captures more conduct than simply contesting the will. The forfeiture clause applies when any beneficiary tries to “prevent any provision [of the will] from being carried out in accordance with its terms . . . .” The second codicil Rosemary submitted to probate dramatically changed the amounts her siblings would take under their mother’s will (among other significant changes). Under the express language of the forfeiture provision in Joan’s will and the specific nature of the second codicil, we find that the forfeiture provision is applicable to Rosemary.

¶13. This does not end the inquiry, as we must determine whether Rosemary acted in good faith in submitting the second codicil for probate. In Parker, our Supreme Court noted that the evidence was sufficient for it to determine good faith and probable cause, rather than remand for the chancery court to conduct an inquiry. Id. at 206-07 (¶16). Likewise, we will determine if sufficient evidence supports Rosemary’s claim that she submitted the second codicil in good faith and based on probable cause. In the context of a will contest, “[p]robable cause exists when, at the time of instituting the proceeding, there was evidence that would lead a reasonable person, properly informed and advised, to conclude that there was a substantial likelihood that the challenge would be successful.” Id. at 206 (¶15) (quoting Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers § 8.5 cmt. c. (2003)). “The determination of good faith and probable cause should be inferred from the totality of the circumstances.” Id.

The court went on to analyze the facts and concluded that Rosemary had acted in good faith, affirming the chancellor.

This case is a reminder of two points: (1) that an in terrorem clause is enforceable if it includes a good faith provision; and (2) that if an in terrorem clause does not include good faith language the court will reform it to include a good-faith exception.

Prerequisites to Grandparent Visitation

May 20, 2019 § Leave a comment

After the chancellor dismissed her petition for grandparent visitation, Angela Vermillion appealed, arguing that the chancellor had applied a wrong legal standard. In Vermillion v. Vermillion, handed down March 19, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Carlton’s opinion is informative on the question of what a grandparent must prove in order to be entitled to visitation:

¶20. Angela next argues that the chancellor applied the wrong legal standard with respect to grandparent visitation; specifically, by refusing to consider section 93-16-5, which addresses the best interest of the child. Angela asserts that she began her relationship and bonding with her grandchild before Chella Rose’s birth and that the chancellor erred by failing to consider “Angela’s effort prior to the live birth.” Angela maintains that “[t]he proof has shown that through the second and third trimester of pregnancy, everyone was happy.” Angela asserts that the chancellor is required to consider section 93-16-5 prior to sustaining a motion for a directed verdict and dismissing Angela’s claim with prejudice.

¶21. Our careful review of relevant precedent shows that grandparents seeking visitation rights must first satisfy the requirements of section 93-16-3 before the chancellor is required to address the best interests of the child. In Aydelott [v. Quartaro], 124 So. 3d [97] at 100 (¶10) [(Miss. Ct. App. 2013)] (internal quotation marks omitted), this Court outlined the factors that the grandparents in that case had to prove in order “to have the statutory right to petition for visitation . . . .” This Court explained that the grandparents “first had to show they had established a viable relationship with each granddaughter.” Id. The grandparents “next had to show that ‘the parent or custodian of the child unreasonably denied the grandparent visitation rights with the child.’” Id. at 101 (¶10) (quoting Miss. Code Ann. § 93-16-3(2)(a)). This Court then expressed that “[o]nly by the [grandparents’] establishment of a viable relationship and unreasonable denial of visitation could [they] reach the polestar consideration for statutory grandparent visitation—whether visitation rights of the grandparent with the child would be in the best interests of the child.” Id. at (¶11) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 93-16-3(2)(b)). This Court explained that “[g]randparent visitation is different than child custody, as there are other evidentiary considerations besides the child’s best interest that must be considered—namely, whether the grandparent has produced sufficient evidence to show he or she is authorized under the statute to be awarded visitation.” Id. at 103 (¶19).

¶22. Similarly, in Hillman v. Vance, 910 So. 2d 43, 47 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005), this Court held that because the chancellor found that the grandparent seeking visitation failed to meet one of the requirements of section 93-16-3(2), the chancellor could have disposed of the visitation request without conducting a best-interest analysis under Martin [v. Coop, 693 So.2d 912 (Miss. 1997)]. See also Smith [v. Martin], 222 So. 3d [255] at 258 (¶2) [(Miss.2017)] (affirming the chancellor’s judgment granting visitation rights to the grandparents when the chancellor considered the Martin factors only “[a]fter determining that the [grandparents] were entitled to visitation under both section 93-16-3(1) and section 93-16-3(2) . . .”).

¶23. Since the record reflects that Angela failed to meet her burden of proving that she had established a viable relationship with Chella Rose, we find that the chancellor was not required to consider section 93-16-5 before granting the motion for directed verdict. This issue lacks merit.

There are, as we know, two types of grandparent visitation. The first, which Professor Bell refers to as “Type 1” is available to grandparents whose child has lost visitation rights and the court finds that visitation is in the child’s best interest.

The court was dealing here with what Bell calls “Type 2” grandparent visitation, which applies to all grandparents who can establish (1) that they have enjoyed a viable relationship with the child(ren) and (2) that the parents are unreasonably denying visitation. Only after those prerequisites are established does the court then analyze the child’s best interest.

Best interest and whether visitation is in the child’s best interest are, under either type visitation, analyzed via the Martin v. Coop factors.

Reprise: Child Support that Isn’t

May 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

Reprise replays posts from the past that you may find useful today.


August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Any agreement that provides for child support must be found by the judge to be adequate and sufficient, and it must be definite and specific enough to be enforceable.

Most agreements meet those requirements. You won’t go far astray if the child support is within the statutory guidelines and the language awarding it is clear and unambiguous as to how it was calculated, the exact amount to be paid, the due dates, and its duration (e.g., “until further order of a court of competent jurisdiction,” or “until the minor child is emancipated by operation of law or order of this court,” etc.).

These requirements don’t stop lawyers from presenting some pretty fanciful child support arrangements that sometimes make chancellors scratch their heads. Here are some that have been proven not to be allowable under Mississippi law, that you should avoid:

  • An unspecified amount. In Lowrey v. Lowrey, 919 So.2d 1111, 1112 (Miss.App. 2005), the court rejected a provision that the mother would pay child support in the form of buying clothes for her children “in an amount that she can afford.” The provision is so indefinite as to be unenforceable. It also violates the fundamental principle that a person can not be held in contempt for failure to comply with a court order that is too vague or ambiguous to be understood. The court in Lowrey said at ¶33, “As it stands, a finding of adequacy and sufficiency depends upon enforceability of the child support provisions contained in a property settlement agreement.”
  • Percentage child support. A provision that “husband shall pay 14% of his adjusted gross income as child support” is unacceptable. In Hunt v. Asanov, 975 So.2d 899, 902 (Miss.App. 2008), the court stated, “Before a party may be held in contempt for failure to comply with a judgment, ‘the judgment must be complete within itself … leaving open no matter or description or designation out of which contention may arise as to meaning’”  [Citations omitted]. In order to determine what the father’s obligation might be or might have been, the court must look beyond the four corners of the judgment to extraneous earnings data and other information that in all likelhood is in controversy. The argument may be made that the case of Rogers v. Rogers, 919 So.2d 184, 188-89 (Miss.App. 2005) is contra. In that case, the COA held as unambiguous a provision that the husband would pay “14% of his adjusted gross income or $600 a month.” The argument raised by appellant there was that the apparent dichotomy betweeen 14% and $600 created an unresolvable ambiguity. The court rejected that argument and found the language clear, as did the chancellor. Rogers, however, did not directly address the problem of enforceability created by the need of the trial court to consider extraneous evidence to make a complete judgment, and the court pointed out that the $600 amount specified was clear enough to give the appellant an idea of his obligation. I do not see Rogers as an endorsement of percentage child support.
  • Amount tied to unspecified return. In Rudder v. Rudder, 675, 678 (Miss. 1985), the court found a provision that the husband would pay any income or divident received from “any investments in the name of the child” was too “indefinite in amount, type, whereabouts, and the name of the holder.” The court held that the award was worthless, as a practical matter, to the custodial parent for enforcement. This type of support order is a subspecie of percentage child support. It requires the court to look to material extraneous from the four corners of the judgment in order to enforce it.
  • Lump sum. In Pittman v. Pittman, 909 So.2d 148, 153 (Miss.App. 2005), the court reversed a chancellor’s award of $26,000 in residential equity as additional child support that he said was more ” … in the nature of child support than accumulated assets.” The COA held that the chancellor has no authority to make an award of lump sum child support. If the chancellor lacks such authority, then I am certain that a chancellor lacks authority to approve such an agreement between the parties. Note: Professor Bell says that the statute authorizing guardians to settle claims on behalf of wards has been held to allow lump sum settlements in paternity actions. Bell on Mississippi Family Law, 2d Ed., §11.06[2][b], p. 321.

The kinds of alternative child support provisions that lawyers come up with is only limited by the imagination. It is the court’s duty, however, to make sure that the provisions are adequate and sufficient for the support and maintenance of the child. The further you stray from statutory guideline child support the more likely it is that you will be sent back to the drawing board.

When you draft an agreement you want it to produce tangible benefits for your client. The last thing you should want is for a court to find that language you threw together heedlessly is no more than an illusory mirage or an insubstantial chimera.

Factors for Sanctions

May 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

Dana and Kevin Wilson obtained a TRO against Kevin’s ex-wife, Becky, following a series of unfriendly encounters and confrontations. On the issue of whether to grant a permanent injunction, however, the court granted Becky’s motion for summary judgment. Becky then filed an application for attorney’s fees under MRCP 11 and 54(d), which the chancellor granted in part. Dana and Kevin appealed.

in Wilson v. Wilson, decided March 12, 2019, the COA affirmed and addressed the court’s awarding of sanctions and the factors that trial courts are supposed to consider in their award. Chief Judge Barnes wrote the opinion:

¶14. Becky filed an application for attorney’s fees under Rule 11 and Rule 54(d) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Whether to award monetary sanctions under the Litigation Accountability Act is left to the trial court’s discretion. In re Spencer, 985 So. 2d 330, 336-37 (¶19) (Miss. 2008) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 11-55-7) (Rev. 2002)). This is also true for sanctions awarded under Rule 11. Id. at 337 (¶19) (citing M.R.C.P. 11(b)). In addressing whether to award monetary sanctions, the chancery court examined each of the following factors:

(a) The extent to which any effort was made to determine the validity of any action, claim or defense before it was asserted, and the time remaining within which the claim or defense could be filed;

(b) The extent of any effort made after the commencement of an action to reduce the number of claims being asserted or to dismiss claims that have been found not to be valid;

(c) The availability of facts to assist in determining the validity of an action, claim or defense;

(d) Whether or not the action was prosecuted or defended, in whole or in part, in bad faith or for improper purpose;

(e) Whether or not issues of fact, determinative of the validity of a party’s claim or defense, were reasonably in conflict;

(f) The extent to which the party prevailed with respect to the amount of and number of claims or defenses in controversy;

(g) The extent to which any action, claim or defense was asserted by an attorney or party in a good faith attempt to establish a new theory of law in the state, which purpose was made known to the court at the time of filing;

(h) The amount or conditions of any offer of judgment or settlement in relation to the amount or conditions of the ultimate relief granted by the court;

(i) The extent to which a reasonable effort was made to determine prior to the time of filing of an action or claim that all parties sued or joined were proper parties owing a legally defined duty to any party or parties asserting the claim or action;

(j) The extent of any effort made after the commencement of an action to reduce the number of parties in the action; and

(k) The period of time available to the attorney for the party asserting any defense before such defense was interposed.

Miss. Code Ann. § 11-55-7. The chancery court addressed every relevant factor set forth in section 11-55-7 and found: (1) the Wilsons failed to investigate the validity of their claims; (2) the Wilsons failed to make an effort to reduce the number of claims against Becky; (3) all facts were “readily available to the Wilsons”; (4) “the Wilsons prosecuted the actions for an improper purpose”; (5) there were no issues of fact reasonably in conflict; (6) the Wilsons did not prevail with respect to any claim, and they were not granted any relief or offer any settlement; (7) Becky did not owe a duty to the Wilsons to explain why she was on a public street; and (8) although the Wilsons dismissed Martha from the case, they did not make an effort to dismiss Becky. [Fn omitted] Therefore, finding that Becky had incurred expenses of $715.50 and attorney’s fees of $8,287.50 since January 4, 2018, the Wilsons were ordered to pay Becky $9,003, plus interest.

Dana and Kevin argued that the chancellor’s findings were not supported by evidence in the record, but the COA analyzed the proof and affirmed the trial court.

This is a pretty useful template for proof if you find yourself having to present a case for sanctions. But I have to add that most judges in my experience do not look favorably on sanctions. There has to be a strong reason to discourage people from pursuing their legal remedies.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for May, 2019 at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.