Trial Factors aka “Checklists”

March 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

The MSSC threw down the gauntlet in 1983 in Albright v. Albright, mandating that trial judges must make findings of fact as to certain specific factors when making an award of child custody.

Since then, the number of factor-driven cases has multiplied. There are 13 now, by my count.

I call it “Trial by checklist” because you can reduce every list of factors to a convenient checklist that you can use at trial. I suggest you copy these checklists and have them handy in your trial materials. Build the outline of your client’s case around them. In your trial preparation design your discovery to make sure that you will have proof at trial to support findings on the factors applicable in your case. Subpoena the witnesses who will provide the proof you need. Present the evidence at trial that will support the judge’s findings.

If you don’t put on proof to support findings of fact by the chancellor, your case will fail, and you will have wasted your time, the court’s time, your client’s money. You will have lost your client’s case and embarrassed yourself personally, professionally, and, perhaps, financially.

If the judge fails to address the applicable factors in his or her findings of fact, file a timely R59 motion asking the judge to do that, because failure to make findings with respect to the applicable factors is cause for remand  — an expensive do-over. But remember — and this is critically important — if you did not put the proof in the record at trial to support those findings, all the R59 motions in the world will not cure that defect.

Here is an updated list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Child Support.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

I try to remind folks twice a year about the importance of using checklists in making your cases.

Trial by Checklist

September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

If you’re a newcomer here, I want to acquaint you with the concept of what I call “checklists.” I’ve posted about it here numerous times. A post with a list of trial checklists is at this link. You can also find a checklists category up there on the right in the “Categories” search box.

We all know that the MSSC and COA have spelled out certain factors that the chancellor must consider to adjudicate custody, equitable distribution, alimony, and a host of other issues. The idea is that to help you make sure that you put on proof of each of the factors applicable to your case, you turn them into a checklist that is a template for your presentation of evidence.

As I said in a prior post:

Remember that these factors are the ones that must be decided by the judge in order to decide your case. In essence, the factors are the elements of the case that will determine its outcome. If you are not putting on proof as to each factor that applies in your case, you are running the risk that the Chancellor will find that there is not enough evidence to rule in your favor.

Practice Tip: When trying a case involving any of the foregoing issues, have a list of the factors applicable your case at hand, and methodically cover them in your questions for the witnesses. Give some thought to questions that will best develop evidence that will support a finding in your client’s favor for as many factors as possible, and how to minimize the impact of factors that are not in your favor.

 

Checklisting

April 21, 2015 § 11 Comments

You old timers know of my fondness for what I refer to as “Checklists” — those lists of factors that apply in various cases in chancery court. Newcomers may not be acquainted with the concept, so I republish this list of checklists every now and then to spread the word. It’s a concept I’ve referred to as “Trial by Checklist.”

The idea is that the chancellor is required to address various factors in various types of cases. If you are not putting on evidence to support the judge’s findings of fact under each of those factors, then you are: (a) losing the case; and (b) failing in your duty to represent your client, as well as wasting the court’s time; and (c) committing malpractice.

Here they are:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Child support.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

And here are two checklists that will help you in probate matters:

Closing an estate.

Doing an accounting in a probate matter.

My recommendation is that you keep each checklist, with citation of authorities, handy, either in a notebook or accessible in your computer where you can photocopy or print them out each time you have a case involving them. For instance, in a divorce case, you might need the checklists for child custody, child support, equitable distribution, and alimony. then, as you prepare, tailor your proof to make a record as to each factor. At trial, you can use each checklist as a template for presentation of your case.

In my courtroom, I keep a notebook on each side of the room with every checklist for lawyers to have handy in a pinch.

Bear in mind that if the judge does not have the proof to support her findings on the applicable factors, your case is in jeopardy on appeal — that is, if the judge somehow ruled in your favor in the first place.

Checklists, Checklists, Checklists

August 12, 2014 § 11 Comments

You can skip over this post if you’ve been paying attention to this blog for any appreciable length of time.

For you newcomers and oblivious long-timers, you need to know and appreciate that proving many kinds of cases in chancery court is a matter of proving certain factors mandated from on high by our appellate courts. I’ve referred to it as “trial by checklist.” 

If you don’t put on proof to support findings of fact by the chancellor, your case will fail, and you will have wasted your time, the court’s time, your client’s money. You will have lost your client’s case and embarrassed yourself personally, professionally, and, perhaps, financially.

I suggest you copy these checklists and have them handy at trial. Build your outline of the case around them. In your trial preparation design your discovery to make sure that you will have proof at trial to support findings on the factors applicable in your case. Subpoena the witnesses who will provide the proof you need. Present the evidence at trial that will support the judge’s findings.

If the judge fails to address the applicable factors in his or her findings of fact, file a timely R59 motion asking the judge to do that. But remember — and this is critically important — if you did not put the proof in the record at trial to support those findings, all the R59 motions in the world will not cure that defect.

Here is an updated list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Child Support.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

And here are two checklists that will help you in probate matters:

Closing an estate.

Doing an accounting in a probate matter.

More Factors for the Court to Address for Child Support

April 22, 2014 § 6 Comments

I think it’s fair to say that in most districts up to now, chancellors have customarily looked at the paying party’s income and set child support at the statutory percentage, unless there is proof to support a deviation.

In most of the case law between the 1989 adoption of the guidelines, it has been held sufficient for the chancellor to address the steps in MCA 43-19-101, followed by an analysis of any deviation criteria, and a conclusion of the amount of child support.

The MSSC decision in Huseth v. Huseth, an imputed income case handed down April 10, 2014, re-emphasizes some criteria that the trial court must address. The court ruled that, although the chancellor did apply the guidelines, she failed to take into account Mike Huseth’s lack of available funds and other pertinent factors bearing on his ability to pay. Here is how Justice Kitchens explained it in his opinion:

¶30. The chancellor granted child support in the amount of $988, as that is fourteen percent of the income of $7,058 the chancellor imputed to Mike … Additionally, the chancellor’s computation of child support based upon a percentage of Mike’s imputed income, using only the statutory guidelines, did not properly reflect Mike’s ability to pay the child support. In awarding child support, the chancellor should consider

1. The health of the husband and his earning capacity.

2. The health of the wife and her earning capacity;

3. The entire sources of income for both parties;

4. The reasonable needs of the wife;

5. The reasonable needs of the child;

6. The necessary living expenses of the husband;

7. The estimated amount of income taxes the respective parties must pay on their incomes;

8. The fact that the wife has the free use of the home, furnishings, and automobile, and

9. Such other facts and circumstances bearing on the subject that might be shown by the evidence.

Gillespie v. Gillespie, 594 So. 2d 620, 622 (Miss. 1992) (emphasis added) (citing Brabham v. Brabham, 226 Miss. 165, 176, 84 So. 2d 147, 153 (1955)).

¶31. “When entering a child support decree, the chancellor should consider all circumstances relevant to the needs of the children and the capacities of the parents.” Tedford v. Dempsey, 437 So. 2d 410, 422 (Miss. 1983) (second emphasis added). Here, the chancellor imputed the living expenses of Mike as income, without offsetting those same expenses in her determination of the money Mike had available to pay child support. She did not consider the necessary living expenses of the husband in computing the amount of child support. Additionally, as noted previously, she failed to outline how much of Mike’s imputed income was based upon his earning potential, and upon what his earning potential was based. Therefore, we reverse the chancellor’s child support award and remand for a determination of child support in which all of the facts and circumstances, including what Mike actually can pay, are taken into account. [Bold added in text]

[Note: the phrase ” … imputed the living expenses as income” refers to the fact that Mike’s parents were giving him money to live on, which funds he applied to his expenses.]

Gillespie is the case that first set out the concept that the child support guidelines are merely guidelines, and it is still up to the judge to determine the need and support required. Many cases in the 25 years since the guideline statutes took effect, however, have treated the guidelines as mandates requiring accurate arithmentic and rigid adherence to the letter of the statutes.

Does Huseth signal a return to a more Gillespie-like approach? Huseth is, after all, a MSSC decision. The Gillespie court said that the award of child support is a matter within discretion of chancellor, and it will not be reversed unless the chancellor was manifestly wrong in his finding of fact or manifestly abused his discretion.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the appellate courts.

In the meantime, you’d better look at those Gillespie factors and make sure your record includes adequate proof to support your client’s side of the issue.

Inadequate Findings in a Factor Case = Remand

August 21, 2013 § 3 Comments

Most lawyers, when they are through with a case, don’t want to revisit it. That’s what makes a remand so detestable. Those do-overs are a pain.

The most sure-fire way to get a do-over is for the trial judge not to address the factors in a factor case. For those of you who have not been paying attention, certain kinds of cases require that the chancellor consider certain factors in making an adjudication. I have called it Trial by Checklist. When the chancellor does not tick off the items on the checklist, remand is practically automatic.

The latest example is the COA’s August 13, 2013, decision in Pelton v. Pelton, in which the chancellor did not: classify the assets as marital or non-marital; do an analysis of the Ferguson factors in making equitable distribution; or apply the Armstrong factors for alimony. Result is a do-over. 

If you wind up with an adjudication in which you feel that the chancellor did not address the applicable factors, or where you feel that they were not adequately addressed, here are several suggestions to remedy the situation:

  1. File a timely R59 motion asking the court to make specific findings on the applicable factors. In Pelton, the parties did file post-trial motions, but the COA decision does not spell out what the parties were asking the court to do.
  2. If you are concerned that you did not make a good enough record for the judge to make findings on the proper factors, ask the court to reopen the proof to allow you to make a record. That would be a R59 motion, which must be filed within 10 days of the judgment.
  3. You can also in a R59 motion offer to do proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

TWENTY-FIVE WAYS YOU CAN IMPROVE YOUR CHANCERY TRIAL PRACTICE

April 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Twenty-Five Ways You can Improve Your Chancery Trial Practice, published in the Mississippi Law Journal’s online edition Supra. Click on the .pdf link.

WORTHWHILE READING ON ATTORNEY’S FEES

February 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

A subject of vital interest to lawyer is, or should be, what it takes to get an award of attorney’s fees at trial. The cases on the subject are all over the proverbial ballpark, so I found the following language from Judge Fair’s specially concurring opinion to the COA’s decision in Jordan v. Jordan, handed down December 11, 2012, affirming Judge McKenzie, to be quite helpful.

¶23. I write separately to address the award of attorney’s fees by a trial judge, a subject the Mississippi Supreme Court has discussed directly only twice in the last five years.

¶24. It is not disputed by judges and practitioners that the “best practice” in awarding fees is a ruling by the trial judge in which each of the factors set out in McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764, 767 (Miss. 1982), is specifically addressed.

¶25. Ronald argues that the lack of such a discussion should require mandatory reversal as is the case in other “factor determination” cases. See Lowrey v. Lowrey, 25 So. 3d 274, 280 (¶7) (Miss. 2009) (factor tests, as provided in Ferguson and Armstrong, must be considered on the record in every case); Powell v. Ayars, 792 So. 2d 240, 244 (¶8) (Miss. 2001) (holding failure of trial court to address each Albright factor in awarding custody was reversible error).

¶26. Not so, says the Mississippi Supreme Court. In West v. West, 88 So. 3d 735, 747 (¶57) (Miss. 2012), the supreme court upheld the chancellor’s award of attorney’s fees “because it was not manifestly wrong.” The court explained that “[a]lthough the trial judge did not include an analysis of the McKee factors in his judgment, his award was not unreasonable, so we affirm.” Id. at (¶58) (citation omitted).

¶27. The same standard was applied to a circuit court. In Collins v. Coppers, 59 So. 3d 582, 593 (¶35) (Miss. 2011), the court noted:

The trial judge began his discussion of the reasonableness of the defendants’ attorneys’ fees by noting that his analysis was to be guided by the McKee factors . . . . The judge noted that this litigation has been ongoing for over four years, requiring several hearings, and the pleadings are voluminous. After considering those factors, the court’s knowledge of what is charged for legal services in the area, and all other [McKee ] factors, the trial judge found that the amount of attorneys’ fees submitted by the defendants was reasonable.

¶28. While I would continue to recommend an on-the-record analysis of each McKee factor to support an award of attorney’s fees, the failure to do so has not been considered reversible error.

That’s about as good a practice guide on the subject as you will find anywhere.

Remember that, in a divorce case, you must establish inability to pay before the judge can reach the issue of reasonableness. Gray v. Gray, 745 So.2d 234, 239 (Miss. 1999). After you have laid that predicate, then the question becomes whether the chancellor had sufficient evidence to support his decision on attorney’s fees, whether or not all of the McKee factors are proven or addressed. A case illustrating these points is Tatum v. Tatum, decided December 11, 2012, by the COA.

TRIAL BY CHECKLIST: UPDATED ALIMONY FACTORS

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

The 12 Armstrong factors have long been the decisive authority to be applied by the court in making its determination as to the type, amount, and reasonability of alimony. In the recent COA case of Pecanty v. Pecanty, decided September 18, 2012, however, Judge Fair’s opinion cited (at ¶25) to the 2002 Davis v. Davis case, 832 So.2d 492, 497, where the MSSC laid out 17 factors. Here’s the pertinent language from Davis:

In determining whether to make an award of periodic alimony, the following factors must be considered: (1) the health of the husband and his earning capacity; (2) the health of the wife and her earning capacity; (3) the entire sources of income and expenses of both parties; (4) the reasonable needs of the wife; (5) the reasonable needs of the child; (6) the necessary living expenses of the husband; (7) the estimated amount of income taxes the respective parties must pay on their incomes; (8) the fact that the wife has the free use of the home, furnishings and automobile; (9) the length of the marriage; (10) the presence or absence of minor children in the home; (11) the standard of living of the parties, both during the marriage and at the time of the support determination; (12) fault or misconduct; (13) wasteful dissipation of assets; (14) the obligations and assets of each party; (15) the age of the parties; (16) the tax consequences of the spousal support order; and (17) such other facts and circumstances bearing on the subject that might be shown by the evidence. Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So.2d 909, 912 (Miss.1994); Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278, 1280 (Miss.1993); Hammonds v. Hammonds, 597 So.2d 653, 655 (Miss.1992); Brabham v. Brabham, 226 Miss. 165, 84 So.2d 147, 153 (1955). In determining the amount of support payable to the wife, a chancellor must consider “not only reasonable needs of wife but also right of husband to lead as normal a life as reasonably possible with a decent standard of living.” Massey v. Massey, 475 So.2d 802, 803 (Miss.1985); Hopton v. Hopton, 342 So.2d 1298, 1300 (Miss.1977) (quoting Nichols v. Nichols, 254 So.2d 726, 727 (Miss.1971)).

The Davis factors expand on the Armstrong factors in several significant ways:

  • In addition to “the reasonable needs of the parties,” the court is to consider the reasonable needs of the child. This is significant because it opens the door to evidence about the impact that a child has not only on the expense and availability of child care, as set out in Armstrong, but also to the other needs of the child above and beyond child support, and how those needs impact the alimony recipient’s living expenses.
  • In addition to the Armstrong “tax consequences of the spousal support order,” Davis directs the court to consider the amount of income taxes the respective parties must pay on their incomes. Under Davis, the trial court must address not only the tax consequences, such as deductability, but also the availability of refunds, deductions, exemptions and other factors that influence income taxes upward or downward.
  • The fact that “the wife” (read “payee”) has free use of the home, furnishings and automobile is included as a factor. Granted, it has long been the law in Mississippi that those items are considered as part of the spousal support package, but the inclusion as a factor to be considered promotes it to a higher level of consideration.

It can be argued that Davis does not really add anything new to Armstrong. That may be so, and most attorneys, in presenting their Armstrong proof cover the same bases (except for income tax proof, which lawyers rarely touch on) for the most part. Still, I think it’s worth adding these to your portfolio of useful checklists. After all, in affirming the chancellor in Pecanty, Judge Fair noted with favor that she ” … addressed the seventeen factors set out in Davis … ” If he (and the rest of the COA) considered them noteworthy, we would be wise to do the same.

MORE ABC’S OF GRANDPARENT VISITATION

May 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

We’ve talked here and here about who are the necessary parties in a grandparent-visitation case under MCA 93-16-3. Here is a link to a post on the ins and outs of grandparent visitation.

After the petitioner has established entitlement to grandparent visitation under the statute, the chancellor must apply the factors set out in Martin v. Coop, 693 So.2d 912, 916 (Miss. 1997). The Martin v. Coop factors are here, in checklist form.

In the recent COA case of Bolivar v. Waltman, decided April 3, 2012, Judge Maxwell outlined the decision-making process:

Once the statutory criteria are established, the chancellor must apply the following Martin factors to determine appropriate visitation:

1.  The amount of disruption that extensive visitation will have on the child’s life. This includes disruption of school activities, summer activities, as well as any disruption that might take place between the natural parent and the child as a result of the child being away from home for extensive lengths of time.

2.  The suitability of the grandparents’ home with respect to the amount of supervision received by the child.

3.  The age of the child.

4.  The age, and physical and mental health of the grandparents.

5.  The emotional ties between the grandparents and the grandchild.

6.  The moral fitness of the grandparents.

7.  The distance of the grandparents’ home from the child’s home.

8.  Any undermining of the parent’s general discipline of the child.

9.  Employment of the grandparents and the responsibilities associated with that employment.

10.  The willingness of the grandparents to accept that the rearing of the child is the responsibility of the parent, and that the parent’s manner of child rearing is not to be interfered with by the grandparents.

Townes v. Manyfield, 883 So. 2d 93, 95-96 (¶17) (Miss. 2004) (quoting Martin, 693 So. 2d at 916). The Mississippi Supreme Court has explained that “making findings of fact under the Martin factors is an integral part of a determination of what is in the best interest of a child.” Id. at 97 (¶29) (quoting T.T.W. v. C.C., 839 So. 2d 501, 505 (¶12) (Miss. 2003)). Because of the “integral” nature of these findings, our supreme court specifically instructs that “the Martin factors are to be applied and discussed in every case in which grandparent visitation is an issue.” Id. (emphasis added).

¶11. There is additional general guidance regarding the amount of visitation that should be awarded. “The visitation granted to a grandparent should be less than that which would be awarded to a non-custodial parent, unless the circumstances overwhelming[ly] dictate that that amount of visitation is in the best interest of the child, and it would be harmful to the child not to grant it.” Id. at 96 (¶21). And in cases where “a chancellor finds . . . a grandparent should be awarded equivalent visitation to that of a parent, those findings must be fully discussed on the record.” Id. at 97 (¶29).

¶12. Further, we note that the grandparent-visitation statute and the Martin factors apply whether the grandparent is seeking visitation from a natural or adoptive parent. T.T.W., 839 So. 2d at 503-06 (¶¶1-2, 7, 10, 17) (finding grandparent-visitation statute and Martin factors applicable where maternal grandparents adopted children, and paternal grandmother sought visitation); see also Woodell v. Parker, 860 So. 2d 781, 785-86 (¶15), 789-90 (¶29) (Miss. 2003). Thus, we find it logical that both the grandparent-visitation statute and the Martin factors should similarly apply to the present situation where a grandparent is seeking visitation rights from the children’s legal guardians. See Townes, 883 So. 2d at 97 (¶29) (instructing that Martin factors must always be applied where grandparent visitation is at issue).

¶13. Because chancellors are required to make specific findings on the Martin factors in every case involving grandparent visitation, the supreme court has vacated grandparent visitation awards unsupported by such findings. Townes, 883 So. 2d at 97-98 (¶30); T.T.W., 839 So. 2d at 506 (¶17); Morgan v. West, 812 So. 2d 987, 992 (¶14), 997 (¶38) (Miss. 2002).

On remand, the chancellor should fully discuss his findings concerning the grandparent visitation statute and Martin factors. Failure to do so may amount to reversible error. See Townes, 883 So. 2d at 97-98 (¶¶28-30).

If your opinion or judgment does not include findings on the Martin factors, file a timely MRCP 59 motion asking the court to make such findings. That assumes, of course, that you put on enough evidence for the court to make such findings. As Judge Maxwell so clearly states, every grandparent vissitation case pivots on the Martin factors. They are vital to your case. Question the witnesses using them. Make your record, and make sure the chancellor addresses them in the ruling.

Only last week the MSSC unanimously upheld the constitutionality of Mississippi’s grandparent visitation statute and application of the Martin factors. We’ll talk about that later.

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