Jointly-titled Separate Property
April 13, 2020 § 3 Comments
Carrie Anderson’s grandmother decided to give her a 59-acre parcel of land in 2013. When she went to the family lawyer’s office to pick up the deed, she found that he had added the name of her husband, T.J., to it as joint tenant. She later said that she was afraid to insist that it be titled in her sole name because of T.J.’s temper.
In 2015 the parties consented to an ID divorce and the chancellor found the property to be part of Carrie’s separate estate. T.J. appealed.
In Anderson v. Anderson, the COA affirmed. Judge Tindell wrote for the unanimous court:
¶18. The chancery court found that the fifty-nine acres from Carrie’s grandmother jointly titled in Carrie’s and T.J.’s names was Carrie’s separate, non-marital property, as follows:
While some coercion may have been placed on Carrie to have T.J.’s name place on the deed [to the fifty-nine acres], even if there had been no coercion, the Court would still find the 59 acres to be Carrie’s separate, non-marital property. The property came from Carrie’s grandmother debt free. The parties never improved the property or put any money into the property.
The chancery court recognized that “[i]nter vivos gifts and inheritances are considered non-marital property unless they have been commingled.” McDonald v. McDonald, 115 So. 3d 881, 885-86 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). The chancery court found that “[t]he fact that the 59 acres was jointly titled [in this case] did not make it a marital asset.” Id. at 886 (¶¶12-14) (finding property purchased with funds inherited by a husband was the husband’s
separate property despite the property being jointly titled in both the husband and the wife); see also Marter v. Marter, 95 So. 3d 733,737-38 (¶¶11-16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (finding that property inherited by a wife prior to marriage and later jointly titled remained the wife’s separate property); Delk v. Delk, 41 So. 3d 738, 741-42 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (recognizing that condominium property separately owned by a wife prior to marriage but
later jointly titled did not become marital property until the couple began using the property as their marital home, and thus the husband was not entitled to a full half of the proceeds from the condominium). The chancery court expressly noted that “[t]he parties never lived on or improved the property. There was absolutely no commingling with marital property nor was the property utilized for domestic purposes.” Continuing, the chancery court found that the fifty-nine acres did “not los[e] its status as nonmarital property,” and ordered that T.J. deed his interest in the tract of land to Carrie.
¶19. T.J. asserts that the chancery court committed manifest error in this determination because the property at issue in this case was never Carrie’s separate property in the first place, and thus the cases the chancery court relied upon in making its determination, McDonald, Marter, and Delk, are distinguishable. T.J. argues that in contrast to the circumstances in these cases, Carrie did not inherit the property, it was not purchased with inherited money, and was it not property Carrie owned prior to the marriage and later jointly titled. Rather, the property was acquired during the marriage and titled directly from Mrs. Hansberger to both T.J. and Carrie as an inter vivos gift; therefore, according to T.J., it is marital property, and he is entitled to an equitable division of that property.
¶20. Carrie, on the other hand, asserts that the evidence supports the chancery court’s determination that the fifty-nine acres from her grandmother is her separate property and that under the cases relied upon by the chancery court, the mere fact that the property is jointly titled in both her and T.J.’s names does not, standing alone, convert the property to marital property subject to equitable distribution.
¶21. In addressing this issue, we acknowledge that “[a]ssets 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); see generally Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 6.03[a], at 139 (2d ed. 2011) (“Because of the presumption in favor of marital property, a spouse seeking separate classification bears the burden of proof.”). Although, as T.J. asserts, the record does contain the 2013 warranty deed from Mrs. Hansberger to both T.J. and Carrie obtained by them during their marriage, we find that the record also contains substantial, credible evidence supporting the chancery court’s determination that this property is attributable to Carrie’s separate estate.
¶22. In particular, although neither Mrs. Hansberger nor the attorney who prepared the deed testified at trial, Carrie testified that it was her grandmother’s intent that she (Carrie) have the property. [Fn omitted] Moreover, there was ample evidence presented at trial that Carrie legitimately feared for her safety and welfare if she did not have the land jointly titled, and thus she was essentially coerced into doing so. [Fn 9] Cf. Estate of Langston v. Williams, 57 So. 3d 618, 620-21 (¶10) (Miss. 2011) (describing the analogous concept of undue influence in the will context as using “undue methods for the purpose of overcoming the free and unrestrained will of the testator so as to control his acts and to prevent him from being a free agent”); Bailey v. Estate of Kemp, 955 So. 2d 777, 783 (¶23) (Miss. 2007) (discussing the analogous concept of duress as requiring “(1) that the dominant party threatened to do something which he had no legal right to do; and (2) that the wrongful threat overrode the volition of the victim and caused him to enter an agreement against his free will”).
[Fn 9] As detailed in the statement of facts, Carrie testified that she was too afraid of T.J. to have title placed in her name alone. Regarding this fear, the record reflects that T.J. had attacked Carrie, punched numerous holes in the walls and doors in both their Tupelo and Senatobia homes, killed several of their dogs, and frequently threatened and verbally abused Carrie. As noted, the chancery court granted Carrie a divorce on the statutory ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.
¶23. In short, there is substantial, credible evidence that the property was intended to be Carrie’s property and that her fear of T.J. prevented her from having it titled in her name. The chancery court therefore was correct in relying on McDonald, 115 So. 3d at 885-86 (¶¶12-14), in determining that “[t]he fact that the 59 acres was jointly titled [in this case] did not make it a marital asset.” See also Marter, 95 So. 3d at 737-38 (¶¶11-16); Delk, 41 So. 3d at 741-42 (¶17). The record reflects that the property was debt-free, the parties made no financial contribution toward the property or its maintenance during the marriage, and the parties did not use it. We find no manifest error in the chancery court’s determination on this issue, and we therefore find that T.J.’s first assignment of error is without merit.