Constructive Desertion

June 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

It’s not often that constructive desertion cases come around, particularly on appeal, so when one does, it is noteworthy.

Kevin Watson claimed that his wife Carole was guilty of constructive desertion of him, entitling him to a divorce. Following a trial, the chancellor agreed and granted Kevin a divorce on that ground. Carole appealed.

In Watson v. Watson, decided June 2, 2020, the COA reversed and rendered. Here is how Judge McDonald’s opinion for an 8-0 court (Barnes not participating) addressed the issue:

¶8. The chancellor found that Kevin was entitled to a constructive-desertion divorce because “many instances [of Carole’s behavior] rise to the requisite level of conduct.” In so doing, the chancellor mentioned one specific incident that occurred during Kevin and Carole’s March 2013 trip to the British Virgin Islands. Otherwise, the chancellor found that Kevin was entitled to a constructive-desertion divorce due to “Carole’s combative public outbursts” and “Carole’s constant, and in many cases, irrational accusations against Kevin.”

¶9. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that a constructive-desertion divorce is available under the following limited circumstances:

If either party, by reason of such conduct on the part of the other as would reasonably render the continuance of the marital relationship unendurable, or dangerous to life, health[,] or safety, is compelled to leave the home and seek safety, peace[,] and protection elsewhere, then the innocent one will ordinarily be justified in severing the marital relation and leaving the domicile of the other, so long as such conditions shall continue, and in such case the one so leaving will not be guilty of desertion. The one whose conduct caused the separation will be guilty of constructive desertion[,] and if the condition is persisted in for a period of one year, the other party will be entitled to a divorce.

Benson v. Benson, 608 So. 2d 709, 711 (Miss. 1992) (quoting Day v. Day, 501 So. 2d 353, 356 (Miss. 1987)). Said differently, “constructive desertion occurs when the innocent spouse is compelled to leave the home and seek safety, peace, and protection elsewhere because the offending spouse has engaged in conduct that would reasonably render the continuance of the marital relation, unendurable or dangerous to life, health or safety.” Hoffman, 270 So.
3d at 1126-27 (¶24) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Griffin v. Griffin, 207 Miss. 500, 505, 42 So. 2d 720, 722 (1949)). [Fn 2] “Chancellors should grant a divorce on the ground of constructive desertion only in extreme cases.” Id. at 1127 (¶24).

[Fn 2] “The line between . . . constructive desertion and . . . habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is blurred . . . .” Hoskins v. Hoskins, 21 So. 3d 705, 710 (¶21) (Miss. 2009). “[T]he only distinction” is that in a constructive-desertion case, one spouse “is compelled to leave and the [other spouse’s] objectionable conduct continues for a year.” Id.

¶10. The case is not one of those extreme circumstances. One basis the chancery court used to grant Kevin a divorce occurred in March of 2013. Kevin testified that Carole must have drugged him one night during their trip to the British Virgin Islands “[b]ecause one minute [he] was fine, and the next minute [he] wasn’t[,]” and Carole “always had Xanax and the drugs that she got . . . from her psychiatrist.” Although Kathy Boyd, who was among the four other people on the trip, said she “felt like Kevin had been given something” because his state was inconsistent with the alcohol that he consumed, neither she nor Kevin testified that they saw Carole put anything in Kevin’s drink. [Fn 3] There was also testimony in the record that both Carole and Kevin often drank to excess.

[Fn 3] Although Kevin also testified that “there were other instances . . . where that very same scenario took place . . . ,” he did not elaborate regarding when or how often those “other instances” occurred.

¶11. In addition to the insufficient evidence that Carole “drugged” Kevin on the trip, the March 2013 incident did not cause Kevin to leave the marital home. He continued to live there after the trip. Kevin did not tell Carole that he wanted a divorce until December 2013 and did not leave the marital home until approximately a month later. Thus, Kevin endured the supposedly unendurable marriage for approximately ten months after the incident in the British Virgin Islands.

¶12. As for Carole’s “combative public outbursts,” the evidence shows that during the seven years of their marriage, Carole once yelled at a restaurant staff, yelled at two women who cut past her in a line at a concert, and that she blurted out private marital details during a September 2013 dinner with friends. Again, however, this does not constitute substantial credible basis to conclude that Kevin was compelled to leave the marital home.

¶13. Kevin testified that the marriage first became unendurable for him during the summer of 2009 when Carole failed to adequately take care of herself, him, and the marital home. Those were three provisions of their unwritten four-point agreement that they purportedly entered when she stopped working in the latter part of 2007. Kevin also said that the marriage was unendurable because he and Carole “can’t stand to be in the same room together. I mean, it’s just unhealthy [and] . . . stressful. It’s depressing.” But Kevin continued to live with Carole for years thereafter.

¶14. As previously mentioned, our supreme court has commanded that constructive desertion divorces are available only in “extreme” circumstances. Lynch v. Lynch, 217 Miss. 69, 81, 63 So. 2d 657, 661 (1953). In one case, a constructive-desertion divorce was upheld where a wife ignored her blind husband’s protests and frequently left him at his relative’s house for days, left him without food during the week, and allowed her disrespectful grandson to live in the marital home for three years against his protests. Deen v. Deen, 856 So. 2d 736, 737 (¶¶4-6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). A constructive-desertion divorce was also available when a husband was subjected to his wife’s false accusations of adultery several times a week for approximately ten years. Lynch v. Lynch, 616 So. 2d 294, 295-97 (Miss. 1993). But a constructive-desertion divorce is not a remedy when a husband merely says there is “no marriage” and “no relationship,” and he began having an affair nearly one year before he left the marital home. Grant v. Grant, 765 So. 2d 1263, 1267 (¶¶10-11) (Miss. 2000). [Fn 4]

[Fn 4] The chancellor acknowledged that Kevin and another woman had been involved in a clandestine and emotionally romantic relationship for several months before Kevin told Carole that he wanted a divorce. Their relationship became physical approximately two weeks after Kevin finally left the marital home. Kevin did not disclose his relationship to Carole before he left, but she discovered it a few months later. The chancellor did not find that Kevin left Carole because he preferred to be with his paramour.

¶15. After a thorough review of the transcript and record, it is clear that Kevin became increasingly unhappy in the marriage because he felt as though Carole was not fulfilling her marital obligations to take care of herself, him, and the domestic sphere of the relationship. Carole certainly leveled many accusations against Kevin that were not borne out by the  record. Suffice it to say, there was clearly a significant amount of mutual animosity by the time of the divorce trial years later. But it would be unreasonable to find that Kevin’s abandonment of the marital home was the natural consequence of an alleged incident on a trip they took months earlier. See Griffin, 207 Miss. at 504, 42 So. 2d at 722. And it was undisputed that Kevin remained in the marital home for still another month after he told Carole that he wanted a divorce.

¶16. Notwithstanding the clearly acrimonious feelings between Carole and Kevin, the substantial credible evidence shows that “this case is yet another in our developing litany where . . . the problem [in the marriage] is [the couple’s] fundamental incompatibility.” Day, 501 So. 2d at 355. As such, this is not one of the “extreme cases” contemplated by our supreme court. It follows that we are compelled to reverse the chancellor’s judgment.

The main takeaway here is that constructive desertion is no easy path to a divorce. Not only must you make an “extreme case,” but you also have to prove the elements of desertion, about which I posted at this link. And don’t forget that the burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence (HCIT is the only ground that requires only a preponderance of the evidence).

I posted about Hoskins here.

I’m still unsure why we don’t have some kind of incompatibility or separation ground for divorce. The argument I often hear against is that those would open the floodgates of divorce in Mississippi. That presumes that our restrictive laws are keeping those floodgates closed, which I perceive not to be the case at all. Every family-law practitioner in this state knows that our current statutory scheme fosters and even encourages “divorce blackmail,” which often results in inequitable and unfair settlements. I’m not sure that the state truly has a legitimate interest in preserving unhappy, unhealthy, and even dangerous marriages.

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