November 26, 2018 § 2 Comments
Trey Speights did not bother to appear at his divorce trial, even though he was properly summoned and he did file a contest to the complaint. The chancellor granted a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness and equitably divided the marital estate. Trey appealed.
The COA affirmed the granting of a divorce and rejected Trey’s argument that the chancellor erred in allowing Trey’s parents to attempt to represent his interests at trial. The court reversed and remanded the equitable distribution, however.
The court’s opinion on the reversed issues in Speights v. Speights, rendered September, 18, 2018, was penned by Judge Barnes:
¶21. Trey contends that it was error for the chancellor to attempt to distribute the marital estate without requiring both parties to file financial disclosure forms under Uniform Chancery Court Rule 8.05. Trey contends that because of this failure, there was no information upon which the court could make a determination of marital and nonmarital assets, and a subsequent equitable division of the marital assets. We agree.
¶22. Rule 8.05 requires “each party in every domestic case involving economic issues and/or property division” to provide a “detailed written statement of actual income and expenses and assets and liabilities.” The parties must submit their income-tax returns for the preceding year and a general statement of employment history and earnings from the inception of the marriage or from the date of divorce, depending on the type of action. The rule also states that financial statements are not necessary if excused by court order for good cause shown. “It is vital to the effective administration of justice in the domestic relations arena that chancellors undertake this task while in possession of accurate financial
information.” Trim v. Trim, 33 So. 3d 471, 478 (¶16) (Miss. 2010).
¶23. At trial, no mention was made of Rule 8.05 forms. In her appellate brief, Kimberly states that the issue is without merit “because the parties had already exchanged financial affidavits during the discovery process.” Yet, no Rule 8.05 forms are in the record, and there is no indication on the chancery-court docket that any financial forms were exchanged, filed, or excused. However, Trey does not suggest, and we do not find, that there was any fraudulent intent by either party in failing to comply with this rule.
¶24. Citing Luse v. Luse, 992 So. 2d 659 (Miss. Ct. App. 2008), Kimberly argues that this issue is waived since Trey did not appear at the proceedings. We disagree. In Luse, the appellant, John Luse, argued that the chancery court erred in failing to require the parties to file Rule 8.05 statements; therefore, there was no documentation in the record regarding ownership of the property or any evidence justifying the court’s division of property. Luse, 992 So. 2d at 664 (¶16). The chancellor had stated in her findings that because child support and alimony were not at issue, and John failed to appear, the chancery court waived the Rule 8.05 disclosures. Id. at (¶19). This Court found no error in that regard, and that John, in failing to defend the suit in the chancery court, was attempting to do so on appeal, which was improper. Id. at (¶¶18-19).
¶25. However, Luse is distinguishable. While John “never responded to the complaint or entered an appearance in the court,” here, Trey took the actions of hiring counsel and timely answered the complaint, but he did not appear further. Id. at 660 (¶3). Therefore, we cannot say that Trey waived this issue. Because we are reversing and remanding on the property division, as explained below, on remand the chancery court should require both parties to complete and file Rule 8.05 financial forms.
As for the issue of the division of the marital estate, the court went on:
¶26. Trey contends that the chancery court erred in failing to make findings of fact regarding the equitable distribution of the marital property under the Ferguson factors. We agree.
¶27. “To equitably divide property, the chancellor must: (1) classify the parties’ assets as marital or separate, (2) value those assets, and (3) equitably divide the marital assets [based upon the Ferguson factors].” Anderson v. Anderson, 174 So. 3d 925, 929 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015). Although the chancellor need not evaluate every Ferguson factor, the chancellor must consider the factors relevant to the case, on the record, in every case. Sproles, 782 So. 2d at 748 (¶25); Heimert v. Heimert, 101 So. 3d 181, 187 (¶24) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing Lowrey v. Lowrey, 25 So. 3d 274, 280 (¶7) (Miss. 2009)). The policy consideration behind this requirement is “not only essential for appellate purposes,” but to provide trial courts “a checklist to assist in the accuracy of their rulings . . . [and to] reduce[ ] unintended errors that may affect the court’s ultimate decision. The absence of an analysis of these factors and failure to apply the law to the facts at hand create error.” Id.
¶28. Trey is correct that there were no findings of fact by the chancery court regarding the distribution of marital assets. There was no discussion about which assets were marital, and the record is devoid of any mention of the Ferguson factors. Kimberly argues that these findings were not necessary because Trey did not appear, citing Luse in support. Again, we find Luse distinguishable because Trey actually did answer the complaint and denied Kimberly’s allegations regarding accumulation and division of marital property. Although the court was entitled to proceed with trial because Trey did not appear, the court was still required to make the necessary findings for the property distribution.
It is unfortunately too frequent that lawyers show up for trial without 8.05’s in cases where there are financial issues. I had yet another not too long ago.
This case makes it clear that to do so is to plant error in the record, plain and simple. Every finding by a chancellor must be supported by ample and substantial evidence in the record. Without 8.05’s there is not ample and substantial evidence to support the judge’s equitable division. Ergo, error and reversal as here.
I sympathize with the chancellor who now wears the scarlet letters R&R. Reversed and remanded because he was loath to delay this case further by sending the lawyer back to the drawing board to do what he should have done before trial and to cancel a scheduled trial and create an idle day in a crowded docket.
May 22, 2013 § 10 Comments
The MSSC case of Collins v. Collins, decided May 9, 2013, includes a discussion of one of the most frustrating aspects of divorce trials from the viewpoint of the judge: the party who provides incomplete, incredible, and misleading financial information upon which the court is required to base a financial adjudication.
Perry Collins and his unhappy wife, Iretha, were locked in a divorce battle for more than four years. Perry, who changed lawyers almost as frequently as the wind changed, operated a sole proprietorship heating and air conditioning company. He admitted at trial that his 8.05 financial statement was “incorrect and contained omissions.” For example, he claimed that his business overhead was $300,000, which exceeded his receipts by more than $110,000. He also did not provide income tax returns because he had not filed any in the two years before trial. The opinion is silent as to why he could not provide copies of returns he had filed.
No doubt the chancellor was somewhat put out with Perry’s cavalier attitude toward the financial proof. She simply totaled his receipts, allocated half to overhead, and declared that one-half, or $94,459.57, was Perry’s adjusted gross income. She then socked him for $1,300 in child support.
In reversing on the point, the court said this about Perry’s less-than-adequate 8.05:
¶17. The chancellor’s concern with the document is justified. In fact, we have stated that failure to comply with Rule 8.05 constitutes a fraud on the court. See Trim v. Trim, 33 So. 3d 471 (Miss. 2010). However, if the chancellor makes such a finding, the appropriate remedy for such behavior is to hold Perry in contempt and enter appropriate sanctions – not to punish him by disregarding any other credible evidence provided by him to the court. See Uniform Chancery Court Rule 8.05 (“The failure to observe this rule, without just cause, shall constitute contempt of Court for which the Court shall impose appropriate sanctions and penalties”). Rule 8.05 allows evidentiary discovery in addition to the disclosure. Id. In short, errors or omissions in the form do not preclude consideration of other evidence presented to the chancellor. We therefore find that the chancellor was manifestly wrong when she arbitrarily determined Perry’s monthly income to the exclusion of the undisputed evidence he provided.
The “undisputed evidence” that Perry provided consisted of his 2009 “business bank records,” which the MSSC found had enough information for the judge to deduce that his overhead expenses were considerably more than the one-half that the judge found, so that his actual income was considerably less than what she concluded.
I am shooting from the hip here, but I believe I would have stopped the trial and told counsel to get busy and present the court with a truthful, accurate 8.05, using the business records, and I would not have let them go forward until they did so. In the alternative, I would have offered to appoint a CPA expert at Perry’s expense to do the job.
Dumping a pile of “business bank records” and an incomplete, discrepancy-riddled, incredible 8.05 on the court is judge abuse. It’s also malpractice, but that’s another story. I wish that the supreme court had said that, if you dump on the trial court like that, you get whatever you deserve. Instead, the court’s message is that the burden is on the judge. Knowing that, I don’t imagine chancellors will be so accommodating in the future as the chancellor was in this case. Pity.