Reprise: Forget-Me-Not

February 28, 2020 § Leave a comment

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


February 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

It’s a familiar scene. The witness is asked a crucial question and suffers that dreaded lapse of memory.  “I don’t remember,” she says, and the lawyer knows the answer is right there on counsel’s table.  How do you recover?

Unfortunately many lawyers follow the “I don’t remember” response with a leading question in an attempt to suggest the answer.  That provokes a series of objections to leading questions and even, “The witness has already said she doesn’t remember, so she can’t answer any questions about this!”  Often the examining lawyer gives up and moves on to something else.

The solution is in MRE 612, which allows a witness to use just about anything, admissible or not, to refresh his or her recollection.

Instead of asking that suggestive question, simply ask the forgetful witness whether there is anything she could refer to that would refresh her recollection.  When she says she needs to look at her calendar, or her checkbook, or her diary, or her driver’s license, hand it to her and ask her to take a moment and look it over, and then ask the question again.  Any objection should be overruled because she said she needed to refresh her recollection, and she should be allowed to do so.  Note that any object can be used.  It may be a photograph of a loved one, or a pencil, or a cell phone.  The rule does not require that it be admissible in evidence.

Whatever object is used is subject to examination and inspection by the other side.  And, of course, that is the practice as to any document or object used by a witness on the witness stand.  The other party has the right under Rule 612 to offer into evidence those portions relating to the witness’s testimony, and there is a procedure for objecting to portions of the document that are not relevant, and preserving for appellate review any matter not made a part of the record.

It is quite common in court for a witness to say, “I need to look at some papers on the table to answer that.”  The court will routinely allow the witness to look at what he or she needs to answer.

Rule 612 is the only procedure available to refresh a witness’s recollection.  It is limited to a writing or a tangible object, and does not apply to an out-of-court oral statement, which would simply be an attempt to circumvent the hearsay rule.  Eastover Bank v. Hall, 587 So.2d 266, 269 (Miss. 1991).

Some lawyers apparently confuse attempts to refresh the recollection of the witness with MRE 803(5), which pertains to the admissibility of a recorded recollection in a memorandum or record in lieu of the witness’s testimony when the witness has no recollection of the facts in the record.  The two rules address different problems:  Rule 612 is a method to refresh the recollection of the witness; Rule 803(5) is a way to get the facts in the record via documentary proof when the witness has no recollection.

Another source of confusion for older lawyers is that Rule 612 is a departure from pre-MRCP practice.  In the era before MRCP it was much more cumbersome to refresh a witness’s faulty memory.  But that was then (now 28 years ago) and this is now.  If you’re still playing tapes of pre-rules practice in your head after all these years, you need to get out a rule book and get up to date.

High Income, Large Marital Estate, Equitable Distribution, and Alimony

February 26, 2020 § Leave a comment

I don’t know about other chancellors, but one of the most difficult tasks for me is to figure out whether there is truly a disparity requiring alimony after equitable distribution.

In the recent COA case, Descher v. Descher, decided January 14, 2019, the chancellor ordered Jeffrey Descher to pay his ex, April, $7,500 a month in periodic alimony, even though her equitable distribution, lump-sum alimony, and even child support, were substantial. The COA affirmed. Judge Lawrence’s majority opinion on the issue is chock-full of helpful authority and rationale, so here it is:

¶25. Finally, Jeff argues that the chancellor erred by awarding April permanent periodic alimony. “Alimony is considered only after the marital property has been equitably divided and the chancellor determines one spouse has suffered a deficit.” Castle v. Castle, 266 So. 3d 1042, 1053 (¶43) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018) (quoting Lauro v. Lauro, 847 So. 2d 843, 848 (¶13) (Miss. 2003)), cert. denied, 267 So. 3d 278 (Miss. 2019). This Court is bound to “consider the totality of the chancellor’s awards upon the divorced parties, including the benefit to the payee spouse and the concomitant burden placed on the payor spouse.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Arrington v. Arrington, 80 So. 3d 160, 167 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012)). “Our scope of review of an alimony award is familiar and well settled. Alimony awards are within the discretion of the chancellor, and his discretion will not be reversed on appeal unless the chancellor was manifestly in error in his finding of fact and abused his discretion.” Coggins, 132 So. 3d at 640 (¶8) (quoting Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So. 2d 1278, 1280 (Miss. 1993)).

¶26. Permanent periodic alimony serves an important purpose as a “substitute for the marital-support obligation.” Rogillio v. Rogillio, 57 So. 3d 1246, 1250 (¶11) (Miss. 2011). More specifically,

[t]he award of permanent periodic alimony arises from the duty of the husband to support his wife. We have also said that the husband is required to support his wife in a manner to which she has become accustomed, to the extent of his ability to pay. To update our language: Consistent with Armstrong, a financially independent spouse may be required to support the financially dependent spouse in a manner in which the dependent spouse was supported during the marriage, subject to a material change in circumstances.

Castle, 266 So. 3d at 1053 (¶43) (emphasis altered) (quoting Rogillio, 57 So. 3d at 1250 (¶11)). This duty, however, is not absolute. A spouse that seeks alimony must have “a deficit with respect to having sufficient resources and assets to meet his or her needs and living expenses.” Jackson v. Jackson, 114 So. 3d 768, 777 (¶22) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (emphasis added).

¶27. Without a periodic alimony award, April would have been forced to draw on her lump-sum award for the rest of her life. [Fn 9] That is not a “sufficient resource” that Jackson anticipated. Id. April still worked for the Descher corporation at the time of trial. The most money she ever earned was when she worked for the Descher corporation. According to her Rule 8.05 statement, when April worked at the Descher corporation, she earned $3,024.00 before taxes. After taxes, April earned $2,491.25. She listed $12,784.82 in total personal monthly expenses. In addition, her children’s expenses were listed as $3,402.33 each month. Because she received the home and her vehicle free and clear of any debt, April no longer has a mortgage payment or a car note in her monthly expenses. That means April’s personal monthly expenses, after the chancellor’s judgment, was $7,199.50. Jeff, on the other hand, was able to attend what McDonald’s calls “Hamburger University” and as a result qualified
to own and manage McDonald’s restaurants. The businesses he now owns are free and clear of any interest April held. Those businesses bring in over thirty-one million dollars per year in gross revenue. While the lump-sum alimony award was $856,794.98, which is certainly a large sum to most people, it does nothing to cure the fact that there is still a “significant income disparity” between Jeff’s and April’s incomes from the businesses, which were portions of the marital property. Jeff earns over $71,000 per month after taxes. April earns $2,491.25 per month after taxes if she is even still employed with the Descher business conglomerate. The lump-sum alimony award did not address this obvious income disparity.

[Fn 9] The dissent argues that the chancellor did not consider April’s $856,794.98 lump-sum alimony award as part of her “resources and assets” available to meet her expenses. Post at (¶46). The chancellor, however, specifically stated that “[i]n view of the significant income disparity following the equitable distribution of the marital estate, the lack of April having any meaningful potential future earnings potential, the length of the marriage, the parties’ accustomed standard of living, and the [c]ourt finding that it would be inequitable to require April to live exclusively off of the moneys she is to receive as the lump-sum alimony portion of the equitable distribution of the marital assets . . . this [c]ourt finds that April is entitled to an award of periodic alimony.” That indicates the chancellor did in fact consider the lump-sum alimony award as an asset.

¶28. The question now becomes whether $7,500 per month in permanent periodic alimony is excessive. Excessive awards of alimony by the chancellor have been overturned by this Court before. In Cosentino v. Cosentino, 912 So. 2d 1130 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (Cosentino I), this Court held that the wife was not entitled to $7,000 in permanent periodic alimony. Id. at 1131 (¶1). This Court reversed and remanded the case to the chancery court for a proper Ferguson and Armstrong analysis. [Fn 10] Id. at 1133 (¶12). When Douglas Cosentino again appealed the chancellor’s decision after remand, we reversed and rendered judgment for failure to justify the permanent periodic alimony award when the wife had received $2,615,815 as part of the marital estate. Cosentino v. Cosentino, 986 So. 2d 1065, 1066 (¶¶1-3) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (Cosentino II). The instant case is distinguishable from our decisions in Cosentino I and Cosentino II.

[Fn 10] Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 926 (Miss. 1994) (finding that awards of alimony are appropriate if after dividing the marital property there is still inequity between the two parties); Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So. 2d 1278, 1280-81 (Miss. 1993) (noting the twelve factors necessary for a chancellor to consider when entering a judgment for alimony).

¶29. In Cosentino II, we found that the chancellor’s failure “to provide any justification for the alimony award” was error. Id. at 1068 (¶8). Since “[t]he chancellor did not articulate any reason why Phyllis [Cosentino] needed more than the $2,615,815 that she was awarded,” this Court found that there was no evidence of a reasonable need for additional alimony. Id. at (¶9). Here, however, the record supports the chancellor’s finding that additional, permanent periodic alimony was necessary. The chancellor noted in his amended judgment that “April’s equitable distribution share of the marital estate [was] non-income producing” and that “even under the best of circumstances [any potential investment income] is not assured and pales in total insignificance when compared to the income historically received by Jeff.” The chancellor continued:

In view of the significant income disparity following the equitable distribution of the marital estate, the lack of April having any meaningful future earning[] potential, the length of the marriage, the parties’ accustomed standard of living, and the [c]ourt finding that it would be inequitable to require April to live exclusively off the moneys she is to receive as the lump-sum alimony portion of the equitable distribution of marital assets while Jeff receives $65,913.33 in monthly gross income [Fn 11] from his share of the marital estate, the [c]ourt finds that April is entitled to an award of periodic alimony.

(Emphasis added). The chancellor was not manifestly wrong in making this factual determination and did not abuse his discretion in addressing this obvious disparity.

[Fn 11] This figure is taken from Jeff’s Rule 8.05 statement and is not the recalculated, adjusted after-tax income that the chancellor found to be $71,377.66 per month. It is not clear why the chancellor resorted to $65,913.33 for purposes of this paragraph when he found the correct figure to be $71,377.66. Be that as it may, either figure (the one used by the chancellor in this paragraph or the corrected, recalculated figure as determined by the chancellor) showed a vast disparity in income between the parties from the marital businesses.

¶30. This Court’s recent holding in Castle is more analogous to the instant facts. When distributing the marital property in Castle, the chancellor found that the husband was at a greater benefit than the wife. Castle, 266 So. 3d at 1048 (¶22). To make the parties equitable the chancellor awarded the wife a “equalization payment” of $584,608.41. Id. On top of that, the chancellor also awarded lump-sum alimony in the amount of $1,600,00.00 and $6,500.00 a month in permanent periodic alimony. Id. This Court upheld the full award because “it [was] not difficult to understand how the chancellor recognized a deficit between [the husband] and [the wife] in their projected future ability to continue living in the style to which they became accustomed.” Id. at 1054 (¶47) (emphasis added).

¶31. The same can be said in this case. The chancellor specifically stated that the share of marital property awarded to April was non-income producing. More importantly, the record indicates that thirteen of the fourteen McDonald’s restaurants that Jeff owns were acquired during the marriage. Jeff admitted this in the following testimony:

Q. All of the entities described on Exhibit C — excuse me, 30, on Plaintiff’s Exhibit 30 that’s admitted into evidence, starting with No. 1 through No. 7 were acquired during your marriage to April?

A. That’s correct.

“The law presumes that all property acquired or accumulated during marriage is marital property.” Id. at 1049 (¶28) (quoting Stroh v. Stroh, 221 So. 3d 399, 409 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017)). “Assets acquired or accumulated during the course of a marriage are subject to equitable division unless it can be shown by proof that such assets are attributable to one of the parties’ separate estates prior to the marriage or outside the marriage.” Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So. 2d 909, 914 (Miss. 1994). “Alimony and equitable distribution are distinct concepts, but together they command the entire field of financial settlement of divorce. Therefore, where one expands, the other must recede.” Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 929 (Miss. 1994). Truly, “the issues of property division and alimony are intertwined.” Ali v. Ali, 232 So. 3d 770, 774 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing McKissack v. McKissack, 45 So. 3d 716, 723 (¶41) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010)).

¶32. If this Court were to agree with Jeff and reverse on the permanent-periodic alimony award, April would be forced to live off the lump-sum alimony award and potentially run the risk of eventually running out of funds from the lump-sum payment, while Jeff would continue to earn an estimated $71,377.67 in after-tax income each month. As the chancellor noted in his judgment,

April and the children are entitled to maintain their accustomed standard of living and the [c]ourt has attempted from the record before it not to go beyond what it believes is necessary [to] assure their accustomed standard of living. The [c]ourt further notes that Jeff’s income permits him to pay these sums and to continue his accustomed standard of living.

Every month of every year until he sells his interest in the businesses or dies, Jeff will make income from the thirteen McDonald’s restaurants and other businesses acquired during the marriage. April will make nothing. While Jeff draws income permanently, April would be forced to live on the dwindling lump-sum alimony if the chancellor had not awarded permanent periodic alimony.

¶33. The dissent complains that “Jeff’s substantial income is not, by itself, a sufficient basis for the chancery court’s award of $7,500 per month in permanent alimony.” Post at (¶48). Jeff’s “substantial income,” however, is part of, and derived from, the businesses acquired and formed during the marriage as part of the marital estate. The chancellor noted this fact in his findings of fact, and the parties agreed that it was true. Despite the fact that those assets and businesses were acquired during the course of the marriage, Jeff never associated April’s name with any of those assets or businesses. As a result of the divorce, April received $7,500 per month to alleviate the “significant income disparity” that the chancellor found to exist. The award of permanent periodic alimony was not based solely on April’s expenses or Jeff’s substantial income. The chancellor’s findings of fact with regard to the permanent periodic alimony are clearly articulated based on the evidence presented and are in accordance with the correct legal standards.

¶34. Finally, the dissent argues the chancellor abused his discretion in not considering April’s assets acquired after the divorce when he awarded her $7,500 per month in permanent periodic alimony. A review of Jeff’s income versus his monthly expenses indicates Jeff’s monthly income after taxes was $71,377.67. Jeff listed his Rule 8.05 monthly expenses at $24,829.11. At trial, Jeff admitted that $10,000 of that $24,928.11 in monthly expenses was actually paid by one of the Descher corporations he owned. Therefore, his actual out-of-pocket monthly expenses is $14,829.11. After his taxes and monthly expenses are paid, Jeff still has $56,548.56 left over each and every month as a result of the income produced by the businesses created during the marriage. The chancellor ordered Jeff to pay $7,500 a month in child support and $7,500 a month in permanent periodic alimony. After Jeff pays that court-ordered child support and alimony, as well as his monthly expenses, Jeff still has $41,548.56 left over each and every month. On the contrary, April has personal monthly expenses in the amount of $7,199.50 and presently collects $7,500 in alimony. Therefore, Jeff has $41,548.56 left over while April has $300.50 left over each month from the businesses that were part of the marital estate. [Fn 12] The chancellor attempted to lessen this disparity by his award of permanent periodic alimony coupled with the lump-sum alimony and the division of the marital estate. That finding by the chancellor is supported by the record and does not appear excessive or to be an abuse of discretion. Therefore, the order of alimony is affirmed.

12 This figure does not include the children’s expenses or the child support payment of $7,500 that Jeff was ordered to make each month. Further, this figure would not include any other expenses that April does not have if she is still employed by the Descher corporation.

Judge Jack Wilson wrote the dissent, joined by Judge Cory Wilson.

An Assertion is not Conclusive Proof

February 25, 2020 § Leave a comment

Raymond Reynolds appealed from the chancellor’s ruling on equitable distribution in his divorce case with his wife, Kay. Raymond complained on appeal that the chancellor had erred in not considering Kay’s withdrawal of $6,000 from their joint account counter to the temporary order’s injunction.

The COA affirmed 10-0 in Reynolds v. Reynolds, decided December 17, 2019. Here’s how Judge Tindell’s opinion dealt with Raymond’s claim:

¶19. Prior to distribution, the chancellor entered a temporary order on May 20, 2014, which enjoined the parties from liquidating, transferring, or changing beneficiaries for any marital assets. Raymond claims that Kay transferred approximately $6,000 from the couple’s joint checking account after this order was entered. Raymond now argues that the chancellor abused his discretion by failing to consider this transfer in his Ferguson analysis before distributing the couple’s marital assets.

¶20. The second Ferguson factor requires the chancellor to consider any dissipation of the marital assets, or “the degree to which each spouse has expended, withdrawn or otherwise disposed of marital assets and any prior distribution of such assets by agreement, decree or otherwise.” Ferguson, 639 So. 2d at 928. While Mississippi has no specific test for discerning the dissipation of marital assets, “we find it reasonable when considering if marital assets have been dissipated to look to whether the assets in question were actually wasted or misused.” Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1268 (¶37) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011).

¶21. In his final judgment, the chancellor stated that he did not find any unreasonable dissipation of marital assets by either party prior to the injunction of the temporary order or prior to trial. Raymond disagrees with this finding, arguing that he provided the chancellor with undisputed testimony that Kay took approximately $6,000 from the parties’ joint checking account in violation of the temporary order and that the chancellor failed to include this in his Ferguson analysis. However, Kay disputed Raymond’s testimony herself by testifying that Raymond actually withdrew $7,000 from the joint checking account, and she did not. She further testified that when she withdrew from the account, there was only approximately $1,000 left in the account.

¶22. Also, as Kay asserts in her brief, no evidence exists in the record establishing if or exactly when any transfers from the joint checking account would have occurred. Raymond provided no documentation of the alleged transfer to the chancellor prior to or during the trial. The only evidence Raymond used to establish this claim is his own testimony and nothing more. As such, the chancellor had no substantial evidence of Kay’s alleged transfer before him to incorporate into his Ferguson analysis. We therefore find Raymond’s argument to be without merit and find that the chancellor was well within his discretion in determining that no dissipation of assets occurred.

Every chancellor can recount from experience many times when the only evidence on a particular point is one party’s assertion opposed by the other party’s assertion, both unsupported by any other evidence. In that situation the lawyers have left it up to the judge to conclude either that (1) both are credible and the conflict simply can not be resolved, or (2) one is credible and the other is not, and the court goes with the credible one.

When I am presented with a similar situation I wonder why neither party offered the bank statements into evidence, or a series of corroborating text messages, or an admission, or something, anything, to break the tie. Most lawyers do enough discovery to foresee the conflicted positions and to anticipate a way around it. I’m not trying to criticize the lawyering in this case because I don’t know everything that transpired. I am only using this case to illustrate for you what can happen when the testimony is conflicting on a point that proves to be important in your case.

High Income and College Support

February 24, 2020 § 3 Comments

In the COA case, Descher v. Descher, rendered January 14, 2020, the court considered Jeffrey Descher’s argument that the chancellor had erred in ordering him to pay college support for his two children. Judge Lawrence wrote the 7-2 affirming opinion (Tindell not participating) on the issue:

¶15. Jeff next argues that it was manifest error to require him to be obligated for all of the children’s college tuition and related expenses. The chancellor’s judgment stated in part:

Jeff shall be responsible for the reasonable cost and expense of both [the children’s] college or university education, to include tuition, room and board, meals, laboratory fees, books, sorority or fraternity dues and expenses, automobile expenses, and any other cost generally associated with attendance at a four-year public or private college or university, either in-state or out-of-state. . . .

Jeff believes that this exposes him to an endless list of expenses that are unforeseeable. Additionally, Jeff argues the chancellor erred and failed to consider a reduction of his child support obligation once the children enter college.

¶16. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the chancery court may require a parent to pay for college tuition and expenses “when a [parent’s] financial ability is ample to provide a college education and the child shows an aptitude for such. . . .” A.M.L. v. J.W.L., 98 So. 3d 1001, 1020 (¶54) (Miss. 2012) (quoting Saliba v. Saliba, 753 So. 2d 1095, 1101 (¶21) (Miss. 2000)). This authority, however, is not absolute and should be taken on a case by-case basis “dependent upon the proof and circumstances [presented].” Saliba, 753 So. 2d at 1102 (¶24).

¶17. Jeff first claims that because the chancellor failed to set a dollar amount on the award of college support and because the judgment did not require that the children attend an in-state college or university, he is open to insurmountable costs that the chancellor could not properly consider at the time of the trial. Jeff cites the supreme court’s holding in A.M.L. and claims that the law requires the chancellor make what Jeff describes as “specific findings on the record to support an award for expenses.” In A.M.L., however, the supreme court remanded the case for the chancellor to make a specific determination of what college expenses were required only because the chancellor had noted in her order that “[a]ll other aspects of the college expenses as set out in the original [Agreement] shall remain in full force and effect.” A.M.L., 98 So. 3d at 1021 (¶¶57-58). In this case, the chancellor was specific as to the exact expenses that Jeff was required to fulfill. Further, Jeff acknowledged that he had already created trust funds for the children’s college education.

¶18. More in line with the facts of this case is the holding in Saliba v. Saliba, in which the supreme court determined that a father was required to pay for college expenses for his daughter even if the child chose an out-of-state college or university. Saliba, 753 So. 2d at 1103 (¶27). The court noted that when a parent is financially able, a child “is entitled to attend college in accord with [the child’s] family standards.” Id. at 1102 (¶27) (emphasis omitted) (quoting without reference Rankin v. Bobo, 410 So. 2d 1326, 1329 (Miss. 1982)) (citing Wray v. Langston, 380 So. 2d 1262 (Miss. 1980)). The Mississippi Supreme Court reasoned that David Saliba was wealthy and able to provide a college education to any institution his daughter chose. Id. at 1103 (¶27). Specifically, the supreme court stated that “[the father] is able and should be required to contribute to the college education at an institution of his daughter’s choice, commensurate with her parents’ station in life.” Id. Based on the record before this Court, Jeff is more than able to provide his children with collegiate education “commensurate with [their] parents’ station in life” and, in fact, has
already set up and partially funded college-expense trust funds for the children.

¶19. While Jeff argues that the chancellor failed to make a detailed finding regarding whether the college-expense support obligation minimizes his child support obligation, the laws of this State say differently: “payments toward education are seldom used to offset child support ‘as they do not diminish the child’s need for food, clothing and shelter.’” Weeks v. Weeks, 29 So. 3d 80, 88 (¶34) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (quoting Fancher v. Pell, 831 So. 2d 1137, 1142 (¶23) (Miss. 2002)). There is no guarantee that the children will not live with April during the summer or at any other time when their respective universities are closed for the holidays, meaning that April will need to provide food and maintain the home, among
other things.

¶20. Jeff preemptively argues for a modification of his child support obligation before the children are of the age to go to college. “To obtain a modification in child support payments, there must be a ‘substantial and material change in the circumstances of one of the interested parties arising subsequent to the entry of the decree sought to be modified.’” McEwen v. McEwen, 631 So. 2d 821, 823 (Miss. 1994) (quoting Gillespie v. Gillespie, 594 So. 2d 620, 623 (Miss. 1992)). Jeff earns $71,377.67 per month after taxes and now owns either a half or full interest (without a split for the marital estate) in thirteen McDonald’s restaurants, an apartment complex, a car wash, and an office complex; he is certainly capable of paying future college expenses without causing a financial hardship. Jeff has also added a new McDonald’s restaurant to his portfolio since April filed for divorce. The record is silent as to any material change that Jeff may have suffered at this point or how the payments of college expenses would be a financial hardship on Jeff, especially considering that the children had college-expense trust funds established before the divorce. Therefore, the chancellor did not commit manifest error in obligating Jeff to pay for his children’s college expenses.


Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

February 21, 2020 § 1 Comment

[Sorry for being late. I changed computers and somehow left this in draft form on the old one]

Who’s the Father?

February 19, 2020 § Leave a comment

Michelle Pope and Brian Martin married in 1994. In 2006, Martin had a vasectomy. In 2007, while separated from Martin, Pope became pregnant by Daniel Fountain. All of them knew that Fountain was the biological father, but Martin was listed as father of the child, J.M., on the birth certificate.

Pope and Martin resumed living together, and both worked to support the child. Fountain was allowed to visit with and babysit the child.

In 2012, when the child was 5 years old, Pope and Martin were divorced. The divorce decree named Martin as father, granted custody of J.M. to Pope, granted visitation to Martin, and ordered him to pay child support and provide insurance covering the child.

In 2016, Fountain filed an emergency proceeding seeking temporary custody of J.M., claiming abuse by Pope. The court granted Fountain his temporary relief, which necessitated a full custody trial, but Fountain had filed in a different district from that where the divorce was granted, and so the case had to be transferred to the divorce court and it was.

In the course of proceedings, the chancellor noted several times that Martin (remember him?) had been adjudicated the father, making him a necessary party. But he was never joined, even though he did testify at trial.

Following the hearing, the chancellor adjudicated Fountain to be the father of J.M. and entered a “temporary order” granting Fountain visitation. Michelle appealed, arguing that Martin should have been joined as a party.

In Pope v. Martin, rendered December 17, 2019, the COA reversed and remanded in a unanimous ruling. Judge Corey Wilson wrote the opinion:

I. Rule 19(a)(1)

¶21. As noted supra, for the entirety of J.M.’s life (arguably until now), Martin has been considered J.M.’s legal father. And pursuant to a George County divorce decree, Martin has joint legal custody of J.M., visitation rights, and child support responsibilities. Given these rights and responsibilities, it is apparent that “in [Martin’s] absence complete relief cannot be accorded among [Pope and Fountain]” in this action. M.R.C.P. 19(a)(1).

¶22. Pope has asked the court to “award [her] the sole paramount care, custody and control of [J.M.], as well as [establish] permanent child support payments to be made to [her] . . . .” And in his counter-petition, Fountain has requested a full hearing on the merits to determine
permanent custody, visitation, and support rights and obligations of the parties. If Martin is the plaintiff will have an adequate remedy if the action is dismissed for nonjoinder. not added as a party to this action, the chancery court risks conflicting orders regarding J.M. and his custody, his child support, and his accessibility for visitation.

II. Rule 19(a)(2)

¶23. Along this same vein, Martin “claims an interest relating to the subject of th[is] action,” namely, J.M.12 And the complete “disposition of th[is] action in his absence may (i) as a practical matter impair or impede his ability to protect that interest or (ii) leave any of the persons already parties subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations by reason of his claimed interest.” M.R.C.P. 19(a)(2). Pope notes that disposition of this action has the potential to diminish Martin’s “custodial and visitation rights” as well as dilute Martin’s “rights of inheritance.” We agree, though we do not know why Pope—who as plaintiff sought the very relief the chancery court granted—did not include Martin as a party at the outset or after any of the multiple times the chancery court instructed the parties to join him. Moreover, complete disposition may leave Pope at risk of being subject to inconsistent or contradictory obligations in regard to J.M.’s visitation with Martin and Fountain. For these reasons, we find that Martin is a “necessary party” to this action. See Mahaffey [v. Alexander], 800 So. 3d [1284]at 1285 (¶5).

¶24. “In discussing the joinder of parties under Rule 19, our supreme court has stated that the ‘failure to join interested parties . . . under M.R.C.P. 19(a) justifies reversal and remand as a violation of fundamental due process.’” Am. Pub. Fin. Inc. v. Smith, 45 So. 3d 307, 311 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (quoting Bd. of Educ. of Calhoun Cty. v. Warner, 853 So. 2d 1159, 1170 (¶38) (Miss. 2003)). This is true even if, “on remand, the same result might be reached.” Powell v. Evans, 113 So. 3d 1270, 1275 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013); see also Davis v. Guar. Bank & Trust Co., 58 So. 3d 1233, 1238 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). Accordingly, we reverse the chancellor’s judgment establishing paternity and remand for further proceedings once Martin has been properly joined.

[Fn 12] Martin testified at the May 22 hearing that he considered J.M. to be his child and that he has no intention to voluntarily disestablish paternity.

The opinion states at ¶2 that “Pope … now appeals from the judgment establishing paternity and the temporary order.” At ¶17, the court held that it had no jurisdiction to consider the temporary order, citing McDonald I and II. A temporary order is not a final, appealable judgment per MRCP 54. “We find nothing to review about this explicitly temporary order entered three years ago. Michael v. Michael, 650 So.2d 469, 471 (Miss.1995) (appellate review of temporary orders is improper.)” McDonald v. McDonald, 850 So.2d 1182, 1193 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002).” McDonald v. McDonald, 876 So. 2d 296, 298 (Miss. 2004) [My emphasis].

Contested Venue

February 18, 2020 § 1 Comment

Plaintiff files suit in county A. Defendant files a motion to transfer the suit to county B, claiming that venue is improper in county A. When the matter comes before the court for hearing, plaintiff offers her affidavit saying merely that venue is proper in A, without more. Defendant responds with a detailed affidavit. What law is the court to follow? How do we resolve the issue?

In Weir v. Mayze and Sago, an MSSC case decided January 16, 2020, Justice Ishee authored a succinct statement of the law:

¶6. At issue here is the trial court’s fact determination regarding the location of the accident. This Court has stated that the plaintiff’s choice of venue must be given the benefit of reasonable doubt and “must be sustained unless in the end there is no credible evidence supporting the factual basis for the claim of venue.” Flight Line, Inc. v. Tanksley, 608 So. 2d 1149, 1155 (Miss. 1992); see also Earwood v. Reeves, 798 So. 2d 508, 513 (Miss. 2001); Pisharodi v. Golden Triangle Reg’l Med. Ctr., 735 So. 2d 353, 354 (Miss. 1999). “[C]ourts begin with the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint,” which may be “supplemented—and contested—by affidavits or other evidence in cognizable form.” Tanksley, 608 So. 2d at 1155; see also Park on Lakeland Drive, Inc. v. Spence, 941 So. 2d 203, 207 (Miss. 2006). But if the “plaintiff wishes to defeat a motion to transfer venue, it follows that he or she should be prepared to present some credible evidence supporting his or her choice of forum.” Wilkerson v. Goss, 113 So. 3d 544, 557 (Miss. 2013).

This case involved a suit in county court, and the applicable venue statute was MCA 11-11-3, which is the circuit court statute. I see no reason why the rationale of the case law cited should not apply equally in chancery.

February 17, 2020 § Leave a comment

State Holiday

Courthouse closed


Early Morning in the French Quarter

February 14, 2020 § 4 Comments

The French Quarter pre-dawn and early morning of the morning after.

The streets are mostly quiet, free of tourists, although there are folks out and about. Now and then a drunk staggers into view, sometimes crying out, sometimes desperate for balance. But mostly it is people hurrying by, nodding good morning or keeping to themselves. Some are headed to or from work, or just passing through on their way from one place to another. There are the street people, denizens of the night who sleep on the sidewalks. There are others already at work, cleaning, picking up garbage, prepping food, tending bar at the few all-night joints. Shadowy figures appear and disappear around corners. And there is the ubiquitous trash strewn from pilfered trash bins, and discarded drink containers, beer bottles, pizza boxes, food, and other refuse dropped by visitors on the streets and sidewalks.

Tôt le matin dans le Vieux Carré. Here is New Orleans on two foggy mornings in December.


High Income and Child Support

February 12, 2020 § Leave a comment

When April and Jeffrey Descher were divorced, the chancellor ordered Jeffrey to pay April $7,500 a month in child support, even though the evidence was that the children’s monthly expenses did not exceed $3,400. Jeffrey appealed, arguing that the child support was excessive.

In a January 14, 2020, ruling the COA affirmed. Judge Lawrence’s opinion on this issue in Descher v. Descher follows:

¶10. Based on April’s Rule 8.05 financial statement, the children have estimated monthly expenses of $3,402.33. That sum includes $1,208.33 in health and dental insurance and other out-of-pocket medical expense, which the chancellor ordered Jeff to pay. Following the chancellor’s order, the children’s total estimated monthly expense would be $2,194 per month. The chancellor awarded a total of $7,500 in monthly child support. Jeff claims that the award is excessive because the children’s stated expenses are less than half of what the chancellor ordered. Additionally, Jeff claims that the chancellor erred because he did not make a “specific finding” to support the award as required by Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-19-101(4) (Rev. 2015).

¶11. The statute indicates that for two children the chancellor could award twenty percent of the parent’s adjusted gross income (AGI) for support. Id. § 43-19-101(1). Where the parent makes more than $100,000 annually, however, the chancellor may deviate from the statutory guidelines by making a “written finding in the record as to whether or not the application of the guidelines . . . is reasonable.” Id. § 43-19-101(4). An upward deviation by the chancellor of a child-support obligation may be valid if the increase provides for the children in a manner in which they have become accustomed. Crittenden v. Crittenden, 129 So. 3d 947, 959 (¶42) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013).

¶12. The chancellor found that Jeff’s adjusted net income was $71,377.67 per month or $856,532.04 per year. That amount would have produced a monthly child-support obligation of $14,274.33 if the chancellor had applied the statutory guidelines in subsection 43-19-101(1). The chancellor made a downward deviation of under twenty percent in Jeff’s favor. Jeff, however, still complains to this Court that the amount is too much.

¶13. This Court has previously rejected “the argument that equates reasonable support with subsistence” and adopted the view that “the ‘reasonable needs’ of the child ought to be viewed at least as broadly as the reasonable needs of a wife seeking alimony.” Ali v. Ali, 232 So. 3d 770, 777 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). The monthly expenses provided for in a party’s Rule 8.05 financial statement do not set a cap on an award of child support. Even if a child’s basic needs are met, “[i]t is not an abuse of discretion for the chancellor to consider the standard of living to which the child is accustomed in deciding what amount of support is reasonable.” Ali, 232 So. 3d at 777 (¶21) (citing Moulds v. Bradley, 791 So. 2d 220, 228-29 (¶24) (Miss. 2001) (Diaz, J., concurring)). Even though April claimed less than $4,000 in monthly expenses for the children, her Rule 8.05 declaration did not cap out the maximum amount of child support the chancellor could grant. Jeff’s monthly income and his earning potential far surpass April’s. As Justice Diaz said in his concurring opinion in Moulds, “[t]he trial court should not limit the amount in child support to the child’s ‘shown needs,’ because a child is not expected to live at a minimal level of comfort while the non-custodial parent is living a life of luxury.” Moulds, 791 So. 2d at 229 (¶26) (Diaz, J., concurring) (citing People ex rel. Graham v. Adams, 608 N.E.2d 614, 616 (Ill. App. Ct. 1993)). The Rule 8.05 financial statement is not a locked-in-time child support determination. The children were accustomed to a standard of living where their father made $71,377.67 per month. They are now living on $7,500 per month.

¶14. This Court is not a finder of fact, nor do we apply our own discretion in place of the chancellor’s. The chancellor issued a thirty-two page judgment that clearly articulated his findings of fact from the evidence presented and the correct legal standards. This Court only reverses the decision of a chancellor if his decision is not supported by the record, results in manifest error, or is an abuse of discretion. Here, the chancellor’s award of child support is supported by the record, and his decision was not manifest error, nor an abuse of discretion.

Interesting. There are cases as this does that say the statutory “guidelines” are just that, and that the chancellor must apply some discretion for the best interest of the children. And there are cases that require strict application; in one case I was reversed solely to correct my arithmetic in calculation because I had rounded up.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for February, 2020 at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.