Impact on the Harmony and Stability of the Marriage

July 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

Eleanor Ellison and Stephen Williams had a stormy relationship punctuated with Stephen’s numerous departures. After Stephen left her once again and moved in with another woman, Eleanor filed for divorce. Following a trial, the chancellor divided the marital estate, and Eleanor was displeased with the outcome, even though she received a larger share of the marital estate.

She appealed, and one of the issues she raised was that the chancellor had given inadequate attention to the effect of Stephen’s conduct on the marriage, which, of course, is one of the Ferguson factors.

In Ellison v. Williams, handed down June 18, 2019, the COA reversed and remanded on the issue. Judge Westbrooks wrote for a 5-4 court:

¶11. Ellison also asserts that the chancellor should have considered Williams’s extramarital affair. We agree. The Mississippi Supreme Court has reversed and remanded cases when the chancellor did not consider how an extramarital relationship “impacted and burdened the stability and harmony of the marriage.” Watson v. Watson, 882 So. 2d 95, 108 (¶68) (Miss. 2004) (quoting Singley v. Singley, 846 So. 2d 1004, 1009 (¶13) (Miss. 2002)). “Mississippi is in a minority of states in which marital misconduct is a factor for consideration in property division.” Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 6.08[2][e], 176 (2d ed. 2011).

¶12. Here, Ellison did receive a slightly larger portion of the marital estate than Williams, but the chancellor did not cite that as his reasoning. The chancellor stated that he was aware it was Ellison’s family home that they first resided in and then leveraged to purchase another home; he therefore awarded Ellison sixty percent. The chancellor awarded Ellison a fault-based divorce but then did not directly consider how Williams’s absences and infidelity affected the stability and harmony of the home when dividing the estate. Because we believe the chancellor’s lack of consideration was error, we reverse and remand for further proceedings on this issue to allow the chancellor to consider the extramarital relationship in equitably dividing their estate. Additionally, we reverse and remand to allow the chancellor to make a full Ferguson analysis on the record.

Judge Tindell, joined by Carlton, Greenlee, and McCarty, disagreed in part. His concurring and dissenting opinion:

¶20. Because the chancellor heard evidence of Williams’s extramarital relationship and thereafter awarded Ellison with a greater percentage of the marital estate, I would affirm the chancellor’s judgment in its entirety. Where substantial evidence supports a chancellor’s findings, the Court is without authority to disturb the chancellor’s conclusions even if it would have found otherwise in the original matter. Joel v. Joel, 43 So. 3d 424, 429 (¶14) (Miss. 2010). We have previously held that “failure to make an explicit factor-by-factor analysis does not necessarily require reversal where we are satisfied that the chancellor considered the relevant facts.” Palmer v. Palmer, 841 So. 2d 185, 190 (¶18) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). Unless the chancellor’s judgment was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or applies an erroneous legal standard, the judgment should stand. Carambat v. Carambat, 72 So. 3d 505, 510-11 (¶24) (Miss. 2011).

¶21. The final judgment does address Williams’s adultery in the chancellor’s findings of fact. Further, after conducting a full Ferguson analysis, the chancellor awarded Ellison sixty percent of the marital assets and forty percent to Williams. Substantial evidence supported the chancellor awarding a greater portion of the marital estate to Ellison, and he did so accordingly. For these reasons, I find no manifest error in his conclusions and respectfully dissent in part from the majority’s opinion.

To say that there is a crazy-quilt of decisions on point would be a laughable understatement: the chancellor must address all of the Ferguson factors; the chancellor must address only the pertinent Ferguson factors; the chancellor’s consideration of the Ferguson factors may be gleaned from her findings in the record, regardless whether she ever mentions Ferguson; Ferguson factors must be specifically addressed; adulterous conduct must be considered for its impact on the stability of the household; the chancellor may not use property division to punish misconduct or reward good conduct.

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