Commingling and Family Use
April 29, 2020 § 1 Comment
Allison Gaskin inherited two parcels of property during her marriage to her husband, Tony.
When it came time for a divorce, Tony took the position that the two parcels were marital, subject to division. Allison disagreed. After trial, the chancellor found the property to be part of Allison’s separate estate. Tony appealed.
In Gaskin v. Gaskin, handed down April 14, 2020, the COA affirmed. Judge Cory Wilson wrote the unanimous opinion:
¶18. During the course of the marriage, Allison inherited interests in two parcels of land: the first was a fourteen-acre tract of land referred to by the parties as the “White House property,” and the second was a sixty-five-acre tract located at 3506 Highway 18 in Rankin County. The chancellor determined that the White House property had been commingled and converted to marital property because Tony had purchased Allison’s brother’s one-half interest in the property and had “made significant contributions in maintaining the property.” The chancellor further found that the property “ha[d] been used by Tony and the boys for hunting and fishing.” The White House property was valued at $160,000, and the chancellor awarded the property to Allison as part of the division of marital assets.
¶19. Regarding the sixty-five-acre tract of land located at 3506 Highway 18, Tony testified that he occasionally bush-hogged the property and stored some Gaskin Plumbing equipment on the property. The parties stipulated that the total value of this parcel was $607,000. In contrast to the White House property, the chancellor found that the sixty-five-acre parcel Allison inherited had not been “commingled to the extent necessary to classify it as marital
property for the purpose of division between the parties.”
¶20. On appeal, Tony asserts that the chancellor erred in finding that the sixty-five-acre tract of land constituted nonmarital property. He contends that the evidence was clear that he spent substantially more time and effort maintaining the sixty-five-acre property than he did maintaining the White House property. Tony also asserts that he would hunt, fish, and play sports on the sixty-five-acre tract with the boys. He contends that these activities effectively commingled the property and converted it to marital property, not Allison’s separate nonmarital property.
¶21. “When dividing marital assets, the chancery court must first classify the property as marital property or nonmarital property.” McDonald v. McDonald, 115 So. 3d 881, 885 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citing Stewart v. Stewart, 864 So. 2d 934, 937 (¶12) (Miss. 2003)). “Marital property is defined as ‘any and all property acquired or accumulated during the marriage. Assets so acquired or accumulated during the course of the marriage are marital assets and are subject to an equitable distribution by the chancellor.’” Id. By contrast, “[i]nter vivos gifts and inheritances are considered nonmarital property unless they have been commingled.” Id. at 886 (¶12) (citing Everett v. Everett, 919 So. 2d 242, 247 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)). “Assets which are classified as nonmarital, such as inheritances, may be converted into marital assets if they are commingled with marital property or utilized for domestic purposes, absent an agreement to the contrary.” Stewart, 864 So. 2d at 937 (¶12) (quoting Boutwell v. Boutwell, 829 So. 2d 1216, 1221 (¶20) (Miss. 2002)).
¶22. Importantly, “we will not substitute our own judgment for that of the chancellor.” McDonald, 115 So. 3d at 886 (¶16). Here, we cannot say that the chancellor erred in finding that the sixty-five-acre property inherited by Allison and her brother remained nonmarital property despite Tony’s assertions that he spent substantial time maintaining the parcel and that he spent time on the property with the couple’s boys. The chancellor found that Tony’s
occasional bush-hogging, equipment storage, and recreational activities with the family were not sufficient to commingle the property with the parties’ marital assets, such that the land should be classified as marital property for the purpose of equitable division. We find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in treating the sixty-five acres as nonmarital property, and this issue is without merit. [Fn omitted]
I think the law of so-called “family use” which is the same as the commingling argument here, could use some attention from the MSSC. We have this case at one end, where hunting, fishing, bush hogging, and storing business equipment is inadequate to bring it into the marital estate. And on the other end we have a case such as Rhodes v. Rhodes, in which use of a separate beach condo once a year by the family and the wife’s selection of drapes for it converted it into a marital asset. I whined about Rhodes in this old post.
Attention is needed indeed. Remember the infamous Pettersen commingling case? These seemingly de minimus use/contribution cases are in conflict with prior cases and make virtually everyone need a pre- or post-nuptial agreement.