Not Allowed to Testify

January 23, 2019 § Leave a comment

We visited the Sheridan v. Cassidy COA case yesterday, in which the court affirmed a chancellor’s decision not to allow the testimony of a twelve-year-old boy to testify as to his preference. There was a dissent.

In the same case, the chancellor also refused to allow either the twelve-year-old son or his eight-year-old sister to testify. The COA affirmed:

¶24. Farra also contends that the chancellor erred in summarily excluding testimony from the twelve-year-old son and the ten-year-old daughter. Farra argues that the chancellor was required to conduct a hearing pursuant to Jethrow v. Jethrow, 571 So. 2d 270 (Miss. 1990). In Jethrow, the supreme court stated that “there can be no per se prohibition against a child witness testifying in a divorce case between his parents.” Id. at 273. There, the mother wanted to call the parties’ eight-year-old child “as a witness to testify to acts of violence against her by [the father],” but the chancellor refused. Id. at 271. The supreme court reversed, concluding that certain procedures should be followed in deciding whether to
exclude “the testimony of a child witness of tender years in a divorce proceeding.” Id. at 273. First, determine if the child is competent to testify and second, determine whether it is in the child’s best interests to testify. Id. at 273-74.

¶25. Here, the chancellor did not conduct a Jethrow hearing, and neither party requested one. The chancellor did state that it was not in the children’s best interest to testify because he thought pitting the children against the parents would be detrimental to the children. He stated, “That is not fair. This is not their fight, they didn’t start it. They didn’t cause the divorce, they are the victims of it.” The chancellor further expressed his opinion that the children had been coached, so any testimony would be unhelpful. In this instance, we find no abuse of discretion by the chancellor.

If the law is that “there can be no per se prohibition against a child testifying,” then it would seem that the only way to document a refusal to allow it would be to conduct a Jethrow examination. For my part, I seldom do that with children who are in their late teens unless there is obvious immaturity, or some condition such as autism or low intelligence, or obvious intimidation. I would almost certainly conduct a Jethrow examination with an eight year old, but whether to do so with a twelve year old would depend on my assessment of the child’s maturity and mental and emotional health. If a party specifically requests a Jethrow examination, I would likely do it.

One caution: Notice that the COA pointed out that no party had requested a Jethrow exam, and then went on to uphold the judge’s findings without it. That signals to me that, if you do not request the Jethrow exam, you may well be stuck with whatever the judge’s conclusions are about whether the child or children should testify.

Not Allowed to State a Preference

January 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Most chancellors do not like having the children testify in litigation between the parents. Among other objectionable things, it subjects them to stresses that they are often too young to bear, it forces them to choose sides, and it subjects them to a tug-of-war between the parents.

In the modification case between Farra Sheridan and her ex-husband, James Cassidy, Farra wanted to call her twelve-year-old son as a witness to state his preference, and both he and his eight-year-old sister on the merits, but the chancellor refused, stating that he believed the children had been coached and that pitting the children would not be in their best interest. He said, “That is not fair. This is not their fight, they didn’t start it. They didn’t start the divorce. they are victims of it.” Farra appealed.

In Sheridan v. Cassidy, handed down December 11, 2018, the COA affirmed. On the issue of the preference testimony of the 12-year-old, Chief Judge Lee’s majority opinion read:

¶21. Farra argues that the chancellor committed reversible error by refusing to allow her twelve-year-old son to state a preference. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-11-65(1)(a) (Rev. 2013) provides that a child’s preference may be taken into account in determining child custody:

[I]f the court shall find that both parties are fit and proper persons to have custody of the children, and that either party is able to adequately provide for the care and maintenance of the children, the chancellor may consider the preference of a child of twelve (12) years of age or older as to the parent with whom the child would prefer to live in determining what would be in the best interest and welfare of the child. The chancellor shall place on the record the reason or reasons for which the award of custody was made and explain in detail why the wishes of any child were or were not honored.

(Emphasis added). “[T]he chancellor is not bound by the election of a minor child.” Floyd [v. Floyd], 949 So. 2d [26] at 30 (¶12) [(Miss. 2007)]. But, if a chancellor declines to follow a child’s preference, he must place the reasons in the record. Id.

¶22. During the hearing, Farra asked that the twelve year old be allowed to state his preference. The chancellor declined this request, stating that based upon prior testimony, he believed the child had been coached by Farra. The chancellor allowed Farra to make a proffer regarding the twelve year old’s testimony. The proffer was as follows:

The twelve year old loves his father, loves his mother, would love to spend time with his father. Would prefer to be in Arkansas where he has friends, where he has extended family, where he likes to do things in Arkansas in the proximity to other places that they can go in Arkansas, outside of Benton, Little Rock, etc. And all of the things that are available there that are not in Oxford. . . . He seems to think that there is a lot of stuff to do around Arkansas that is not available here.

¶23. In his Albright analysis, the chancellor stated that he did not allow the child to testify because he had concerns that Farra had coached the child on what to say. The chancellor further stated that although this child wanted to live with Farra (based upon the proffer), “the preference of the child in this situation [did] not have much bearing on the Court with all of the factors that I have gone over thus far.” Considering that the majority of the Albright factors favored James, we find no abuse of discretion in this instance. This issue is without merit.

Affirmed on that point by the majority, but Carlton dissented, joined by Griffis and Fair, and Tindell in part:

¶27. I respectfully dissent. The chancellor abused his discretion in failing to allow the twelve-year-old son to testify regarding his preference as to custody. Anderson v. Anderson, 961 So. 2d 55, 59-60 (¶¶7-12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). In Anderson, this Court found that the chancery court abused its discretion in a child custody modification hearing when the chancellor failed to allow the children to testify as to their custodial preference, effectively preventing the mother from presenting her case-in-chief prior to the court entertaining the father’s motion for an involuntary dismissal under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b). Id.

¶28. Similarly, the chancellor’s failure to hear the testimony of the twelve-year-old child in this case not only prevented him from expressing his custodial preference, but also denied Farra the right to present her child as a witness regarding a material change in circumstances. I recognize that the version of section 93-11-65 in effect at the time Anderson was decided has since been revised to slightly weaken the child’s right to choose his custodial parent. [Fn 3] Relevant here, however, is that under either version of the statute, and under the applicable case law, a parent is entitled to present a child’s testimony regarding parental preference for custody in order to demonstrate a material change in circumstances. Anderson, 961 So. 2d at 59-60 (¶¶7-12); see also Boyd v. Boyd, 83 So. 3d 409, 418 (¶29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (mother allowed to present daughter’s preference testimony).

[Fn 3] In Anderson, section 93-11-65 (Rev. 2004) provided that “any . . . child who shall have reached his twelfth birthday shall have the privilege of choosing the parent with whom he shall live.” (Emphasis added). The current statute, also in effect at the 2016 child custody modification hearing in this case, provides that if the chancellor finds the two parties fit and proper, then “the chancellor may consider the preference of a child of twelve . . . years of age or older as to the parent with whom the child would prefer to live in determining what would be in the best interest and welfare of the child.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-11-65 (Rev. 2013)(emphasis added). The statute further provides that “[t]he chancellor shall place on the record the reason or reasons for which the award of custody was made and explain in detail why the wishes of any child were or were not honored.” Id.

¶29. In short, although under section 93-11-65 the chancellor does not have to honor the twelve-year-old child’s preference, see, e.g., Floyd, 949 So. 2d at 30 (¶12), the mother has a right to present the evidence at the custody hearing. The chancellor abused his discretion in this case by declining Farra’s request to present her twelve-year-old son’s testimony on this issue. I maintain that this case must reversed and remanded due to the chancellor’s abuse of discretion in refusing to allow the twelve-year-old son to state his preference on the record.

Here, because “a majority of the Albright factors favored” the father, the majority found no error.” That won’t always be the case, however. It’s not a good idea for a judge to curtail a party’s proof without overwhelming justification. I think this was a borderline situation; the judge found the child’s credibility dubious and did not believe it was in the child’s best interest to testify.

My opinion is that a Jethrow examination substantiating those conclusions would have made the judge’s ruling airtight.

And what about the judge’s ruling that the two children were not allowed to testify on the merits? You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

A Totality of Circumstances Case

January 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

Modification of custody may be based on a  finding of changed circumstances that arises from a totality of the circumstances in which the child is living.

That is what happened in the case of Farra Sheridan in which the chancellor modified custody from her to her ex-husband, James Cassidy, based on multiple factors. Unhappy with the trial judge’s decision, Farra appealed.

In Sheridan v. Cassidy, a December 11, 2018, decision, the COA affirmed. Chief Judge Lee wrote the majority opinion:

¶10. “[I]n modification cases, as in original awards of custody, we never depart from our polestar consideration: the best interest and welfare of the child.” Johnson v. Gray, 859 So. 2d 1006, 1013 (¶33) (Miss. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, modification issues are different from original custody determinations. In order to succeed on a request for modification, “the non-custodial party must prove: (1) that a substantial change in circumstances has transpired since issuance of the custody decree; (2) that this change adversely affects the child’s welfare; and (3) that the child’s best interests mandate a change of custody.” Mabus v. Mabus, 847 So. 2d 815, 818 (¶8) (Miss. 2003). In Riley v. Doerner,
677 So. 2d 740, 744 (Miss. 1996), the supreme court held:

[W]here a child living in a custodial environment clearly adverse to the child’s best interest, somehow appears to remain unscarred by his or her surroundings, the chancellor is not precluded from removing the child for placement in a healthier environment. . . . A child’s resilience and ability to cope with difficult circumstances should not serve to shackle the child to an unhealthy home, especially when a healthier one beckons.

¶11. The chancellor found the following amounted to a material change in circumstances: Farra’s involvement with a married man; her numerous violations of the PSA, including allowing her boyfriend to spend the night while the children were present; her decision to abuse alcohol while taking prescription medications; her poor financial decisions; her refusal to co-parent with James; her inciting the children to access private information on James’s electronic devices; the children’s school absences and tardies related to weekend trips to Arkansas; the children’s living situation while visiting Arkansas; and issues with one child’s failure to complete school assignments. The chancellor also had concerns about Farra’s credibility.

¶12. We cannot find that the chancellor’s findings regarding a material change in circumstances were manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous …

I include this case only to illustrate for you how a chancellor may view the living situation of the custodial parent, and how Riley v. Doerner may come into play.

 

Relocation and Joint Custody

June 11, 2018 § Leave a comment

Julia Bennett and her husband, Andre, were divorced in 2011 on the ground of irreconcilable differences. Their PSA provided that the parties would share joint physical and legal custody, with Julia to have the children with her most of the time.

When Julia decided to relocate from Rankin County to St. Louis, Andre filed to modify, seeking sole custody, and to keep the children in Rankin. Julia counterclaimed for sole custody, and to modify the visitation based on her new residence in Missouri.

At hearing, Andre testified that he was actively involved in the lives of his children, and that he had recently purchased a home suitable for them to stay with him. Julia testified that her father and fiancé lived in St. Louis, and that she had a job awaiting her there. She said, too, that she had been in the process of enrolling the children in school in Missouri until the chancellor had entered an emergency order that the children be enrolled in Rankin County schools. One of the children, Madeline, age 14, testified that her preference was to stay with her mother, with whom she was close. She conceded that she was close to her father also, and that she would abide by the court’s order either way.

The family master, serving as a guardian ad litem (GAL) found that no material change had occurred, because Julia had not moved; however, a move would create a material change adverse to the children, and, if so, Andre should have custody. The GAL’s report incorporated an Albright analysis, which included Madeline’s preference. The chancellor agreed with and adopted the GAL’s recommendations and entered a judgment providing that if Julia relocated to Missouri Andre would have custody, Julia would have liberal visitation, and she would pay child support.

Julia appealed, challenging only the determination not to honor Madeline’s preference. In Bennett v. Bennett, decided April 10, 2018, the COA affirmed unanimously. Judge Fair wrote for the court:

¶12. Julia only challenges one Albright factor – the preference of the minor child. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-11-65(1)(a) (Rev. 2013) provides that a child’s preference may be taken into account in determining child custody:

[I]f the court shall find that both parties are fit and proper persons to have custody of the children, and that either party is able to adequately provide for the care and maintenance of the children, the chancellor may consider the preference of a child of twelve (12) years of age or older as to the parent with whom the child would prefer to live in determining what would be in the best interest and welfare of the child. The chancellor shall place on the record the reason or reasons for which the award of custody was made and explain in detail why the wishes of any child were or were not honored.

“[T]he chancellor is not bound by the election of a minor child.” Floyd v. Floyd, 949 So. 2d 26, 30 (¶12) (Miss. 2007). However, if a chancellor declines to follow a child’s election, he must place the reasons in the record. Id.

¶13. In his Albright analysis, the family master noted the following regarding the child’s preference:

The preference of the child at the age sufficient to express a preference: [Madeline] is fourteen (14). She is over the age of twelve (12). She is able to make a preference. She did make that preference for mother. This factor would favor mother in this regard. [] The stability of the home environment, I believe, favors [Andre] Bennett primarily because he’s been here with the children and with mom up until recently. That is a stable environment, one in which the children are familiar with. You know, [Julia] Bennett, the testimony was you’re going to live with your dad. You don’t really have a place to live. You are not married yet. [There are] a lot of unknowns, a lot of question marks. I am not faulting you for it. I’m just saying that’s just the way it is. All things considered, the best evidence before the [c]ourt on this half is that the material change of circumstances was adverse to the children favors a modification of custody to – to dad.

¶14. We find that the family master appropriately explained his reasons for awarding custody to Andre instead of Julia in the event that Julia relocates, even though Madeline expressed a preference to reside with her mother. It was within the chancellor’s discretion to adopt the family master’s recommendation. Accordingly, we affirm.

Some ruminations:

  • Anticipatory modifications have not been favored. See, McMurry v. Sadler, 846 So. 2d 244 (Miss. App. 2004), in which the court affirmed the chancellor’s decision to dismiss pleadings that alleged that a material change and adverse effect would result if an event happened. In most cases, this approach would be wise because it would be speculative to find material change and adverse effect would occur until they do.
  • Here, it was practical for the chancellor to address the impending move and its effect on joint custody.
  • Relocation almost always plays havoc with joint custody, leaving everyone — the judge included — dissatisfied with the result. To compound matters, the party who does’t wind up with what he or she wanted always feels cheated because joint custody is what they negotiated for, or what was ordered, in the first place.
  • This case highlights that the court is never required to follow a child’s preference. If the preference is not followed, however, the court must state the reasons why. Here, by adopting the GAL’s report and findings on preference, the chancellor made a record as to why he did not follow the child’s preference.

Doing Away with Alimony: Two Routes

April 10, 2018 § 4 Comments

Adam Lewis filed a complaint to terminate alimony against his ex-wife, Karen. Adam contended that Karen was cohabiting or in a de facto marriage with her boyfriend, Dobel, since the parties’ 2002 divorce. There was a lot at stake, since the parties’ divorce agreement provided that Adam would pay Karen $15,000 a month in periodic alimony.

Following a trial, the chancellor dismissed Adam’s case per MRCP 41(d). Adam appealed. The COA affirmed the dismissal in In the Matter of the Dissolution of the Marriage of Lewis, decided March 20, 2018. You can read the facts as developed at trial for yourself. Here is how Judge Wilson addressed Adam’s arguments on cohabitation and de facto marriage:

A. Cohabitation

¶17. “Modification of alimony may occur upon the existence of a situation of mutual support between the recipient spouse and another individual which alters the recipient spouse’s financial needs.” Scharwath v. Scharwath, 702 So. 2d 1210, 1211 (¶6) (Miss. 1997). “[C]ohabitation creates a presumption that a material change in circumstances has occurred. This presumption will shift the burden to the recipient spouse to come forward with evidence suggesting that there is no mutual support . . . .” Id. at (¶7) (citation omitted).

¶18. In the present case, Adam did not prove cohabitation and failed to prove any mutual financial support. Adam admitted that Karen and Dobel maintain separate homes and do not spend the night at each other’s homes. Adam also admitted that he had subpoenaed Karen’s financial records but had found no evidence that Dobel financially supported Karen or vice versa. On this record, the chancellor did not clearly or manifestly err by finding that Adam failed to meet his burden of proving cohabitation or mutual financial support.

B. De Facto Marriage

¶19. “In the absence of cohabitation, alimony can be terminated based on proof of what has been termed a ‘de facto marriage.’” Hughes, 186 So. 3d at 400 (¶18). “A de facto marriage may be proven in two ways.” Id. “First, a chancellor may find a de facto marriage if the alimony recipient is deliberately avoiding remarriage merely to continue receiving alimony.” Id. (citing Martin v. Martin, 751 So. 2d 1132, 1136 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999)). “Second, a de facto marriage can be found . . . if the alimony recipient and another person have ‘so fashioned their relationship, to include their physical living arrangements and financial affairs, that they could reasonably be considered as having entered into a de facto marriage.’”
Id. (quoting Pope v. Pope, 803 So. 2d 499, 504 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002)).

¶20. In Martin, Ben and Linda’s divorce judgment required Ben to pay Linda periodic alimony. Martin, 751 So. 2d at 1133 (¶3). After the divorce, Linda became involved in a long-term relationship with Norm Anderson. Id. at (¶5). Linda wore a diamond engagement ring that Anderson gave her, and the couple consistently told friends that they planned to marry “next year.” Id. Moreover, on cross-examination, Linda “admitted . . . that she and Anderson had not married because she need[ed] the financial support provided by the alimony received from [Ben].” Id. Linda and Anderson maintained separate residences, but Anderson’s was a “small . . . efficiency apartment,” while Linda’s was a “luxurious home.” Id. at 1133, 1136 (¶¶6, 15). Anderson had a key to Linda’s home, spent the night at her home a few times each month, ate meals at her home regularly, ran errands for her, and did yard work and other household chores. Id. at 1133 (¶6). In addition, Linda had written Anderson checks totaling over $11,000 over a three-year period. Id. Anderson also provided Linda with substantial discounts on clothes and cosmetics from the store where he worked. Id. Based on this evidence, the chancellor found that Linda and Anderson had entered into a “de facto marriage” and terminated Ben’s alimony obligations. Id. at 1134-35 (¶¶10, 14).

¶21. On appeal, this Court affirmed the chancellor’s finding that Linda had “structured her relationship with Anderson in an attempt to circumvent the appearance of cohabitation so as to continue her alimony.” Id. at (¶16). We did so based on Linda’s admission under oath “that she and Anderson had not married because she need[ed] the financial support provided by [her] alimony.” Id. We held that when “an alimony recipient spouse purposefully avoids marriage merely to continue receiving alimony, equity should not require the paying spouse to endure supporting such misconduct.” Id.

¶22. In contrast, in Hughes, supra, the chancellor found that the alimony payor failed to prove that his ex-wife, Mariel, had entered into a “de facto marriage” with her boyfriend, Darrell. Hughes, 186 So. 3d at 396 (¶3). Mariel and Darrell had been in an exclusive dating relationship for four years, and Mariel wore a diamond ring that Darrell had given her. Id. at 398-99 (¶¶11, 13). They maintained separate residences, but they spent the night at each other’s homes once a week or more. Id. at 398 (¶11). They also traveled and vacationed together, and Darrell had exhibited one of his Corvettes at the National Corvette Museum with a plaque stating that the car was on loan from “Darrell Hill & Mariel Hughes.” Id. at
399 (¶13). Mariel and Darrell denied that they had discussed marriage or planned to get married. Id. at (¶14). However, there was testimony that Mariel once “said that marrying Darrel would ‘mess things up’ in some unspecified way.” Id. at 401 (¶22).

¶23. On those facts, we affirmed the chancellor’s finding that the alimony payor failed to prove the existence of a de facto marriage. We concluded that Martin was distinguishable because there was no outright admission or other clear evidence that Mariel “was avoiding remarriage solely to continue her alimony payments.” Id. at 401 (¶22). In addition, the evidence was, at best, conflicting as to whether Mariel and Darrell had “so fashioned their relationship, to include their physical living arrangements and financial affairs, that they could reasonably be considered as having entered into a de facto marriage.” Id. at 403 (¶26) (quoting Pope, 803 So. 2d at 504 (¶12)). They were in a long-term, exclusive relationship, she wore a diamond ring that he gave her, they traveled together frequently, and they spent the night together regularly. However, they maintained separate homes and had no access to one another’s financial accounts. Id. at 402-03 (¶26). Therefore, there was evidence to
support the chancellor’s finding that the long-term, exclusive relationship was not a scheme to avoid remarriage to continue alimony payments or a de facto marriage. Id. We emphasized, as we had in a prior case, that “[t]he most important distinction” in our precedents on de facto marriage “is the finding of the chancellor.” Id. at 403 (¶26) (quoting Burrus, 962 So. 2d at 621 (¶15)). “We will not reverse a chancellor’s findings regarding the existence or nonexistence of a de facto marriage unless they are manifestly or clearly erroneous.” Id.

¶24. We reach the same conclusion in the present case. Karen and Dobel obviously are in a long-term, serious relationship. However, unlike Martin, there is no outright admission or any other clear or direct evidence that Karen is avoiding remarriage just to continue receiving alimony. Adam testified that he believes that is what Karen is doing. However, Adam did not call Karen or Dobel as an adverse witness. In addition, although Adam apparently deposed Karen prior to trial, he did not seek to introduce any part of her deposition into evidence. See M.R.C.P. 32(a)(2) (“The deposition of a party . . . may be used [at trial] by an adverse party for any purpose.”); Fred’s Stores of Tenn. Inc. v. Pratt, 67 So. 3d 820, 827-28 (¶¶39-44) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (Maxwell, J., concurring in part and in result) (explaining that a plaintiff may introduce a defendant’s deposition during the plaintiff’s case in chief). Moreover, as in Hughes, Karen and Dobel maintain separate residences and separate finances. As noted above, Adam admitted that he had found no evidence that Dobel supports Karen financially or vice versa. Therefore, as in Hughes, we cannot say that the chancellor manifestly or clearly erred by finding that Adam failed to prove a de facto marriage.

¶25. To reiterate, a trial judge’s ruling on a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss “is, for purposes of appeal, treated like any other finding of fact. In other words, [her] decision will not be disturbed on appeal unless it was manifestly wrong.” Gray, 477 So. 2d at 1357. On such a motion, the trial judge is entitled to weigh the credibility of the plaintiff’s evidence as if “making findings of fact and rendering final judgment.” Id. at 1356-57. Thus, to the extent that Adam offered circumstantial evidence that could have permitted an inference of a de facto marriage, the chancellor was “not required to look at the evidence in the light most favorable to [Adam],” nor was she required to give him “the benefit of all favorable inferences.” Mitchell v. Rawls, 493 So. 2d 361, 362 (Miss. 1986) (quoting Davis v. Clement, 468 So. 2d 58, 61 (Miss. 1985)). The chancellor was entitled to judge the credibility of the evidence and make findings of fact. And we will reverse her decision only if she would have been “obliged to find for [Adam] if [Adam’s] evidence were all the evidence offered in the case.” Corson, 612 So. 2d at 369. Adam’s evidence was not so compelling as to oblige the chancellor to find in his favor. Therefore, we affirm.

Voilà, a textbook statement of the law on modification of alimony.

Some observations:

  • Cohabitation and de facto marriage are the two main avenues to termination of alimony.
  • Mutual support is the key characteristic of cohabitation. That will require financial proof. Discovery and use of subpoenas duces tecum are what it will take to develop your proof.
  • As far as de facto marriage is concerned, try to get an admission of avoiding marriage to preserve alimony. Friends may provide admissions of the principals against interest. Living and financial arrangements are crucial evidence. As with cohabitation, commingled finances and mutual support may create circumstantial evidence.

No Findings = Reversal

April 2, 2018 § 1 Comment

It’s axiomatic that the chancellor’s conclusions have to be supported by findings of fact.

A recent iteration of that rule is in Gipson v. Jackson, a COA case decided February 13, 2018, in which the court reversed and remanded a case for failure of the judge to make findings supporting an upward modification of child support in excess of the statutory child-support guidelines. Judge Westbrook wrote for the court:

¶9. Gipson argues that the chancellor failed to make specific findings on the record, as required for a modification of child support; yet there was a $200 increase. [Fn 3]

[Fn 3] Jackson asserts that the core issue of the case is whether the chancellor has the authority to increase child-support payments for a noncustodial parent without providing any factual support for his decision or consulting the Mississippi Child Support Guidelines. Jackson further asserts that this issue is an issue of first impression. However, this Court and the Mississippi Supreme Court have addressed child-support modifications involving a noncustodial parent and specific on-the-record findings of fact. See Dailey v. McBeath, 151 So. 3d 1038, 1044 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014); Klein v. McIntyre, 966 So. 2d 1252, 1258 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007); Wallace v. Bond, 745 So. 2d 844, 847 (¶11) (Miss. 1999).

¶10. This Court has held that “the chancellor must apply the guidelines to make the determination that their application would be unjust.” Evans v. Evans, 75 So. 3d 1083, 1091 (¶31) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citation omitted). But there are exceptions to the guidelines regarding the modification of child support in Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-19-103 (Rev. 2015). This section provides:

The rebuttable presumption as to the justness or appropriateness of an award or modification of a child[-]support award in this state, based upon the guidelines established by [Mississippi Code Annotated section] 43-19-101 [(Rev. 2015)], may be overcome by a judicial or administrative body awarding or modifying the child[-]support award by making a written finding or specific finding on the record that the application of the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in a particular case as determined according to the following criteria:

(a) Extraordinary medical, psychological, educational or dental expenses.
(b) Independent income of the child.
(c) The payment of both child support and spousal support to the obligee.
(d) Seasonal variations in one or both parents’ incomes or expenses.
(e) The age of the child, taking into account the greater needs of older children.
(f) Special needs that have traditionally been met within the family budget even though the fulfilling of those needs will cause the support to exceed the proposed guidelines.
(g) The particular shared parental arrangement, such as where the noncustodial parent spends a great deal of time with the children thereby reducing the financial expenditures incurred by the custodial parent, or the refusal of the noncustodial parent to become involved in the activities of the child, or giving due consideration to the custodial parent’s homemaking services.
(h) Total available assets of the obligee, obligor and the child.
(i) Payment by the obligee of child-care expenses in order that the obligee may seek or retain employment, or because of the disability of the obligee.
(j) Any other adjustment which is needed to achieve an equitable result which may include, but not be limited to, a reasonable and necessary existing expense or debt.

Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-103 (emphasis added).

¶11. Jackson presented a Rule 8.05 financial statement to the chancery court, and Gipson testified that he could pay an increase in child support – although the amount of the increase was not discussed. The chancery court discussed the fact that Gipson and his wife traveled frequently and the fact that Gipson had purchased gifts [Fn omitted] for himself and his wife. However, the chancellor made no specific findings as to Gipson’s adjusted gross income and gave no specific reasons for deviating from the guidelines.

¶12. The chancellor stated that while Gipson was not working due to a chronic ankle injury, he could get a part-time job and earn more income. The chancellor also stated the following:

As to the modification of child support, there’s no doubt in this [c]ourt’s mind that this man can work. He is what you call a typical deadbeat. For a man to make only $500.00 a month, and has got all of the toys around his house that he’s got, but they belong to daddy. This [c]ourt wasn’t born yesterday. And he says he likes to fish[.] I do[,] too. It costs me $50.00 to $100.00 every time I go fishing — gasoline, the bait, and everything else. But this man is able to fish, he is able to do carpenter work, he is able to do a lot of other stuff, but he physically cannot hold out to hold a job. This [c]ourt doesn’t believe it. I’m going to set the child support at $350.00 a month, increase it.

¶13. However, we find that the increase in child support was based upon speculative income. In order for there to be a deviation from the guidelines, there must be specific findings of fact on the record. Further, “[w]hen a chancellor makes a ruling without specific findings of fact and a party raises the issue of the amount of child support awarded, this Court will send the issue back to the lower court for the mandatory specific findings of fact as to why the chancellor deviated from the guidelines.” Dailey, 151 So. 3d at 1044 (¶16). As a result, the chancery court’s upward modification of child support is reversed and remanded in order for the chancellor to make specific on-the-record findings that the application of the child-support guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in this case.

As I have said here before, this do-over could have been avoided:

  • Here, seeing that the judge was going off on somewhat of a tangent, it might have been a good idea to ask the court for leave to develop more testimony that would have supported detailed findings by the judge. And then, at the conclusion of the proof, make a motion to conform the pleadings to the proof, since the issue was tried without objection by consent.
  • If you are tasked with drafting the judgment, make sure you address each and every Ferguson and Armstrong factor addressed by the court, with a brief stab at the court’s findings. When you do that you have documented what was not documented here — that the judge did analyze the proper factors. And this goes for every kind of case in which trial factors are required to be addressed.
  • If for some reason the bench ruling is not transcribed, ask the court before everyone is finally dismissed to order that it be done. If that does not work, file a motion to supplement the record to add the bench ruling.
  • If you can’t get the bench ruling into the record, file a timely R59 motion asking the court to make the appropriate findings.
  • Oh, and it should go without saying that it is your responsibility as counsel for one of the parties to make a record of the applicable factors in your case. The judge can not address them without evidence to support them. If you’re wondering what the applicable factors are, here is a link to lists of them , which I have referred to as “Checklists.”

Alimony and Loss of Income

March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

When Charles and Lajuana Easterling were divorced in 2013, the judgment incorporated their property-settlement agreement under which Charles agreed to pay Lajuana $2,500 a month in periodic alimony. He also agreed to pay the monthly note on the former marital residence, which Lajuana continued to occupy.

At the time of the divorce Charles worked offshore as a tool pusher. He later remarried and had two stepchildren and an adopted child by his second wife.

In 2015, Charles’s employment  was terminated for reasons beyond his control. His efforts to file other employment in the oil industry were unsuccessful. He filed a petition for modification asking the court to eliminate the alimony obligation, and there was a temporary agreement reducing his alimony to $600 a month. He quit making the mortgage payment, forcing Lajuana to pay it herself.

At the time of the final hearing in May, 2016, Charles still reportedly had no income. He did have $400,000 in a securities account, an annuity, real property, vehicles, and other assets. He claimed living expenses of $7,574.56 a month. He said that he made up the deficit by increasing credit-card debt.

Following a hearing, the chancellor reduced Charles’s alimony obligation to $1,500 per month. Charles filed a motion for rehearing charging that the court should have terminated, not reduced, alimony. The chancellor denied the motion and Charles appealed.

In Easterling v. Easterling, a February 20, 2018, decision, the COA appealed. Judge Griffis wrote for a unanimous court:

¶11. Here, the chancellor’s final judgment found that Charles’s “decrease in income from his loss of employment was not anticipated at the time of the divorce and is a material change in circumstances[, but] . . . the loss of employment does not justify a termination of alimony[.]” After which, the chancellor considered the Armstrong factors to determine the proper amount of alimony. See Holcombe, 813 So. 2d at 703-04 (¶12).

¶12. “Personal bills cannot be used as a factor to reduce support payments.” Hardin v. Grantham, 201 So. 3d 511, 515 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). Since the divorce, Charles has acquired a new home and land, and has remarried and adopted one child and has two stepchildren. The law is clear that the claim of the divorced wife under an alimony award on the ex-husband’s earnings takes precedence over that of a second wife. De Marco v. De Marco, 199 Miss. 165, 167, 24 So. 2d 358, 359 (1946). The obligations to the first wife also take precedence over any obligations the ex-husband may have as the result of children with his new wife. James v. James, 724 So. 2d 1098, 1104 (¶22) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998). As a result, Charles’s post-divorce personal bills and remarriage cannot be used as factors to reduce his support payments. See Hardin, 201 So. 3d at 515 (¶15).

¶13. Further, the chancellor considered the Armstrong factors and concluded that Charles had not missed any payments on his monthly financial obligations since the divorce. Despite having been fired and claiming that he was in financial jeopardy because of his alimony obligation, all of his debts were current and there was no risk of foreclosure or repossession at the time of the hearing. Charles argues that he was current on all of his debts only because he took on additional credit-card debt through cash advances in order to make the payments. However, “simply alleging, as does [Charles], that one is subsisting on borrowed funds does not show with the required particularity that he is unable to pay.” Varner v. Varner, 666 So. 2d 493, 497 (Miss. 1995).

¶14. At the time of trial, Charles held more than $400,000 in stocks and an annuity, along with real property, vehicles, and other assets. Here he argues that he will run out of money within four years if he is forced to pay $1,500 a month in alimony, $120 a month in mortgage payments— including retroactive payments on each—and his reported $7,574.56 in monthly expenses. If this were the case, at that rate without any other income, Charles would be rendered destitute regardless of the court-required support payments.

¶15. At the hearing, Charles could make his obligatory alimony payments to Lajuana, whose living expenses and needs have remained unchanged since the divorce. The supreme court has held:

[i]n property and financial matters between the divorcing spouses themselves, there is no question that, absent fraud or overreaching, the parties should be allowed broad latitude. When the parties have reached [an] agreement and the chancery court has approved it, we ought to enforce it and take as dim a view of efforts to modify it, as we ordinarily do when persons seek relief from their improvident contracts. Weathersby v. Weathersby, 693 So. 2d 1348, 1351 (Miss. 1997) (quoting Bell v. Bell, 572 So. 2d 841, 844 (Miss. 1990)).

¶16. “[T]he chancellor has substantial discretion in reaching a decision that [she] finds equitable and fair to both parties.” Seale v. Seale, 863 So. 2d 996, 999 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004). The chancellor determined that Lajuana had been substantially dependent upon both her disability payments and the alimony payments from Charles since the divorce to meet her monthly living expenses. Her financial situation has not changed. As a result of Charles’s material change in circumstances, the chancellor concluded that a $1,000 reduction in his alimony obligation was warranted. We find the chancellor’s reduction in the amount of the alimony was neither manifest error nor an abuse of discretion. The chancellor’s judgment is affirmed.

It seems a harsh rule when viewed from the payer’s perspective, but the chancellor’s job is to find a solution that is “equitable and fair to both parties.” At ¶10, the court noted that, “When analyzing [the Armstrong] factors and ‘deciding whether to modify periodic alimony,’ chancellors should ‘compar[e] the relative positions of the parties at the time of the request for modification in relation to their positions at the time of the divorce decree.’ Steiner v. Steiner, 788 So. 2d 771, 776 (¶16)(Miss. 2001)(citations omitted).”

The only other thing to which I would call your attention is that there was “no record or written order” documenting the temporary proceeding, per ¶4. That’s just asking for trouble. Here the parties agreed to what had transpired, but absent an agreement it could have been dicey, particularly for Charles, who had reduced his alimony and quit paying the mortgage note. Had Lajuana denied any agreement, Charles might have a big arrearage judgment and may have had his modification case bounced for unclean hands. Make sure you get an order; better yet, make a record and get an order entered.

Spalding is Reversed

February 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

Last summer we posted here about the COA’s decision in Harris v. Harris, in which the court affirmed the chancellor’s decision to reduce alimony based on the ex-wife’s receipt of Social Security benefits derived from those of her husband. You can read my post at this link, if you care to. The chancellor and the COA relied on Spalding v. Spalding as authority for the proposition that the chancellor is required to give the alimony payer credit for Social Security benefits derivative of the payer’s.

The MSSC granted cert, and in Harris v. Harris, decided February 1, 2018, the court reversed the COA and the trial court, overruling Spalding. Here’s what Justice Chamberlin wrote for the court en banc:

¶19. Today, we hold that … Social Security benefits derived from the other spouse’s income do not constitute a special circumstance triggering an automatic reduction in alimony. When a spouse receives Social Security benefits derived from the other spouse’s income, the trial court must weigh all the circumstances of both parties and find that an unforseen material change in circumstances occurred to modify alimony. See Ivison, 762 So. 2d at 334 (holding that the circumstances of both parties are considered to determine whether there was a material change); see also
Tingle, 573 So. 2d 1389, 1391 (Miss. 1990) (holding that change in circumstances must be after-arising and unanticipated). To the extent that Spalding states otherwise, it is overruled.

You can read the other 18 paragraphs reasoning their way through the law of Mississippi and other jurisdictions to get to this point. The court remanded the case to the chancellor to analyze it under Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278, 1280 (Miss. 1993) to determine whether modification was warranted, and, if so, how to modify.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that one of the murkiest areas of alimony law is what effect retirement has on the obligation. Retirement is, after all, a foreseeable event. Social Security benefits are foreseeable. What are we supposed to do? One of the easiest answers until this case was that Social Security benefits derived from the payer created a credit. Now that certainty is taken away. I think lawyers should spend more time negotiating over the future of retirement benefits. Clients absolutely do not want to think or talk about it until retirement is the 500-pound gorilla knocking at the front door. But this decision leaves your clients little choice but to deal with it now or engage in expensive and impoverishing litigation later.

Whose Inconvenience Counts in Visitation?

December 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Mike and Kim Smith were divorced in 2011, both of them lived in the Tupelo area. In 2012, Kim relocated near Atlanta with the children, and the parties agreed to meet for visitation exchanges in Leeds, Alabama, a point approximately half-way.

Mike customarily travelled to Kentucky for work or play, and the parties agreed for a time to meet in Chattanooga, which was more convenient for Mike. Kim, however, found the Chattanooga exchange unacceptable, and insisted on the Leeds exchange location. Mike filed a petition to modify visitation to require the Chattanooga location.

Following a hearing, the chancellor denied Mike’s petition to modify the visitation exchange point. Mike appealed. In Smith v. Mull, decided November 7, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Lee wrote for the unanimous court, Tindell not participating:

¶14. Mike also argues that the chancellor erred in failing to modify the exchange location from Leeds to Chattanooga when he is working or visiting in Kentucky. In doing so, Mike asserts the chancellor “gave no cogent reason” for her decision. We disagree.

¶15. This Court has articulated the relevant principles regarding modifications of visitation: When modification of visitation is at issue, the material change in circumstances test is not applicable because the court is not being asked to modify the permanent custody of the child. To modify a visitation order, it must be shown that the prior decree for reasonable visitation is not working and that a modification is in the best interest of the child. The chancellor has broad discretion to determine the specific times for visitation. H.L.S. v. R.S.R., 949 So. 2d 794, 798 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). With these principles in mind, we find the chancellor’s decision to deny Mike’s request for modification was supported by substantial credible evidence.

¶16. In his motion, Mike sought to have the exchange location modified to “the most convenient location for . . . the minor children.” He argued that when he is working or visiting in Kentucky, Chattanooga should be the court-ordered exchange location, as it is a slightly shorter distance (approximately 143 miles) from Kim’s home than Leeds (approximately 152 miles). He further argued that the chancellor’s failure to modify the
exchange location was not in the best interests of the children because it requires approximately 150-160 additional miles per exchange when he is in Kentucky. He alternatively sought to have Kim meet him at a different location so long as it did not exceed the 152 miles that Kim would normally drive from her home. Kim testified that Leeds was “very systematic, very structured, it’s what we’re used to, we know the safe places, we know all that stuff.” Kim also testified that, although Chattanooga may be a shorter overall distance from her home, it took longer to travel there than to Leeds.

¶17. To prevail, Mike needed to show that “the prior decree for reasonable visitation [was] not working and that a modification [was] in the best interest[s] of the child[ren].” Id. After hearing testimony from both parties, the chancellor found: “[M]odification of the place of exchange, while perhaps more convenient for [Mike] when he elects to travel out of state, would disturb the children’s routines with which they have become comfortable and which complies with the prior decrees.” The chancellor further stated: “I don’t buy into [Mike’s] argument . . . that the court is inconveniencing the children, because, as their father, [Mike] ha[s] to make whatever decision works for [himself]in their best interest[s].” The chancellor ultimately held that Mike failed to show that visitation was not working to serve the best interests of the children. Upon review of the facts before us, we do not find the chancellor erred by declining to modify the visitation-exchange location. This issue is without merit.

This is actually a somewhat familiar fact situation in chancery court. One or both parties relocate, throwing visitation into controversy. In these cases, I often hear it said that the test is whether the prior order for visitation is working or workable. But that is an incomplete statement. The test is actually whether the prior order for visitation is not working … and whether modification is in the best interest of the child or children. That latter consideration is what tripped Mike up in this case. It’s not what is more convenient for either or both parents; it’s what is in the best interest of the child or children.

The Ups and Downs of Modification

October 30, 2017 § 2 Comments

Modification of child support can get confusing. In one case, you ask for upward modification retroactive to the date of filing and you get modification beginning at the date of judgment. In another the judge grants upward retroactivity to the date of the parent’s increase in income. And in yet another the court does order upward retroactivity to the date of filing. What is the rule?

A good starting point is MCA 43-19-34(4), which reads:

Any order for the support of minor children, whether entered through the judicial system or through an expedited process, shall not be subject to a downward retroactive modification. An upward retroactive modification may be ordered back to the date of the event justifying the upward modification.

Downward: never retroactive. This comports with long-standing Mississippi law that each child support payment vests when and as it comes due, and it can not be forgiven. In Howard v. Howard, 968 So.2d 961, 977 (Miss. App. 2007), the court said:

¶ 41. Child support payments vest in the child as they become due. Tanner v. Roland, 598 So.2d 783, 786 (Miss.1992). Each payment that becomes due and is unpaid becomes a judgment against the supporting parent. Id. A court cannot modify or forgive vested child support obligations. Id. Accordingly, when a payor moves for downward modification of child support, the payments due continue to vest during the pendency of the motion. Cumberland v. Cumberland, 564 So.2d 839, 847 (Miss.1990). Any modification granted will take effect on the date of the judgment granting the modification. Id. However, when an appellate court reverses and remands a child support modification appeal to the chancery court for redetermination of the issue, the effective date of any downward modification granted is the date of the judgment from which the appeal was taken. Setser v. Piazza, 644 So.2d 1211, 1216 (Miss.1994) (reversing and remanding the chancellor’s denial of abatement of child support for further consideration and holding that the effective date of any downward modification granted would be the date of the order that erroneously denied modification.); Cook v. Whiddon, 866 So.2d 494, 500(¶ 22) (Miss.Ct.App.2004) (stating that the chancellor could make any order entered on remand that reduced child support retroactive to the effective date of the judgment cleansing the payor’s hands and reviving the modification issue); Lane, 850 So.2d at 127(¶ 14) (noting that the Court was not at liberty to modify child support retroactively, and stating that on remand, if modification was granted, it would be retroactive only to the date of the judgment from which the appeal was taken).

Howard pre-dates 43-19-34(4).

What about emancipation? It sometimes happens that a modification action has to be filed to terminate a withholding order or for some other reason. Do those support payments that come due after emancipation vest so that they can not be undone, or does the liability continue to accrue while the action is pending? “Child support payments vest when due, and retroactive termination is an impermissible form of ‘downward retroactive modification….’ See Howard v. Howard, 968 So.2d 961, 977 (Miss.Ct.App.2007).” AML v. JWL, 98 So.3d 1001, 1016-17 (Miss. 2012)

In my opinion, if the emancipation is automatic by statute, such as attainment of age 21 or marriage or conviction of a felony, then the obligation terminated at that event, and no further obligation existed or vested, so it is not truly a retroactive modification but rather a judicial recognition of the termination as of the date of the event. MCA 93-11-65(9) is consistent with this reasoning.

If, on the other hand, the emancipation turns on a finding of fact, such as whether the child established independent living, then the obligation continues until the court’s order is entered.

Upward: In the court’s discretion. Id. at 1017 (¶43). The modification may be made retroactive to the event that triggered the modification action, such as a raise in pay. There are no cases of which I am aware interpreting this 2009 statute. My interpretation of the statute is that upward retroactivity may be to any point between the triggering event and the date of judgment. If you really want retroactivity, you should put on some persuasive proof about why it should be.

 

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