Ravenstein: Sizzle or Fizzle?

July 21, 2014 § 7 Comments

I vote fizzle.

Last December I reported that the MSSC was asking for additional briefing in the case of Ravenstein v. Hawkins ” … addressing whether equal protection would be violated by an interpretation that child support may not be ordered for adult children who are mentally or physically incapable of self-support under Sections 93-5-23 and 93-11-65, given the mandate of Section 43-19-33 that a certain class of people may receive such support …”

To me, that signaled that the high court was preparing to address the troubling issue of parental duty to support adult disabled children. The last MSSC case to address the issue was Hays v. Alexander, in June, 2013, about which I posted here. Back then, I said this:

The MSSC yesterday ruled in Hays v. Alexander that there is nothing in the common law that would empower the court to create a duty in parents to support adult disabled children. The court said at ¶ 15: “The power to grant the authority to require parents in Mississippi to support their adult children is confided to a separate magistry: the Legislature. Our courts are without the constitutional power to declare otherwise.”

The court handed down its adjudication of Ravenstein last Thursday, and, the bottom line is that we are exactly where we were post-Hays v. Alexander.

John and Elisha Ravenstein were divorced from each other in 1998. In the divorce judgment, the chancellor ordered Mr. Ravenstein to pay lifetime child support for his handicapped son, Ryan. The chancellor found that it would be unjust for the child to become a ward of the state upon attaining age 21 when the parents had the financial ability to care for him. John filed a R59 motion, but never appealed.

When Ryan turned 20, his mother filed a petition asking to be appointed Ryan’s conservator. John counterclaimed that he should be appointed conservator, or that both parents be appointed co-conservators.

When Ryan turned 21, John stopped paying child support to Elisha or Ryan, and deposited the money into the registry of the court. He also filed a MRCP 60(b) motion asking the court to find that the 1998 judgment was void as a matter of law, since it improperly extended his child support obligation beyond Ryan’s 21st birthday.

The chancellor ruled in Elisha’s favor on the conservatorship. She also overruled John’s plea for R60 relief. John appealed.

The MSSC, by Justice Waller, affirmed the chancellor’s ruling on the R60 issue, the rationale for which is worth a read. The court reversed and remanded on the appointment of the conservator because the court applied the wrong legal standard.

On the issue of the application of the code sections cited above, the court said:

 ¶32. After a thorough review of the supplemental briefs filed by the parties and the State, we find that it is unnecessary to address this issue.  We find that John waived his right to challenge his child-support obligation when he failed to appeal Chancellor Lutz’s 1998 judgment and waited thirteen years to attack it collaterally. We reach this conclusion without deciding whether Sections 93-5-23 and 93-11-65 of the Mississippi Code should be interpreted to allow for the provision of post-majority support for adult disabled children. The constitutionality of Section 43-19-33(3), which does not apply to the parties here, is not relevant to the disposition of this case.  See Kron v. Van Cleave, 339 So. 2d 559, 563 (Miss. 1976) (“It is familiar learning that courts will not decide a constitutional question unless it is necessary to do so in order to decide the case.”).

Thus, when he failed to appeal in 1998, John waived his right of review and the court was deprived of authority to address the issue.

Justice King wrote a brilliantly-reasoned dissenting opinion making a strong case that our law in this area is unconstitutional as a denial of equal protection. If you ever have a case involving this issue, he has written your brief for you.

I think this is an issue that must be addressed eventually. Ravenstein, however, proved not to be the vehicle due to its peculiar procedural posture.

Maybe when the right case goes up Justice King will write the majority opinion.

Next Step for Adult Disabled Children?

December 9, 2013 § 3 Comments

NOTE … If you have any interest at all in this issue, you should read Paul Snow’s comment to this post.

I posted here about the MSSC case, Hays v. Alexander, which I thought may have laid to rest the issue of a court-created duty of support for adult disabled children.

Well, hold on while I slam on the brakes, and I hope I’m not giving anybody whiplash.

This appeared on the MSSC decisions web page last Thursday:

EN BANC
2012-CA-01085-SCT

John W. Ravenstein v. Elisha Ravenstein (Hawkins)

      ; Madison Chancery Court; LC Case #: 96-350-B; Ruling Date: 04/18/2012; Ruling Judge: Cynthia Brewer; Disposition: On the Court’s own motion, the parties are directed to file the original and nine copies of supplemental briefs, and to serve a copy of the briefs on the Office of the Attorney General, addressing whether equal protection would be violated by an interpretation that child support may not be ordered for adult children who are mentally or physically incapable of self-support under Sections 93-5-23 and 93-11-65, given the mandate of Section 43-19-33 that a certain class of people may receive such support, due on the following schedule: within 30 days of the entry of this order John shall file his supplemental brief which shall not exceed 25 pages; within 30 days of the service of John’s supplemental brief, Elisha shall file her supplemental brief which shall not exceed 25 pages; and within 14 days of the service of Elisha’s supplemental brief, John may file a supplemental reply brief which shall not exceed 10 pages. The Clerk of this Court shall serve a copy of this order on the attorneys of record, as well as on the Office of the Attorney General. If the Attorney General chooses to file a brief, it shall be due within 30 days of the service of Elisha’s supplemental brief and shall not exceed 25 pages. Lamar, J., Disagrees. Order entered.

It appears this particular case is a matter of statutory interpretation, not a request for the court to create a remedy. It’s an interesting possible development.

Stay tuned.

IF ADULT DISABLED CHILDREN ARE TO RECEIVE POST-MAJORITY SUPPORT, THE LEGISLATURE WILL HAVE TO DO IT

June 7, 2013 § 6 Comments

The MSSC yesterday ruled in Hays v. Alexander that there is nothing in the common law that would empower the court to create a duty in parents to support adult disabled children. The court said at ¶ 15: “The power to grant the authority to require parents in Mississippi to support their adult children is confided to a separate magistry: the Legislature. Our courts are without the constitutional power to declare otherwise.”

A wrinkle in this case was that the case was brought as a modification action in chancery court by the mother acting as conservator of the child. The chancellor ruled that a modification action was not the proper vehicle, but he went beyond that and ruled that he had no authority to impose a post-majority obligation on the father. The supreme court affirmed on both points.

This is an issue that lawyers and judges have encountered and speculated about for many years, as long as I have been practicing. For a while the speculation was that the supreme court, given just the right set of facts, would impose that duty.

Yesterday’s decision would appear to lay that speculation to rest. If there is no common-law authority to draw on, and the court holds that there is a separation-of-powers impediment, that would be conclusive, in my opinion.

Justice King dissented, taking the position that the legislature has, indeed, given the courts all the authority they need in existing legislation. You can read his dissent and form your own conclusions. Dickinson, Kitchens, and Chandler joined his dissent.

There is an interesting footnote, number 5, on the eighth page of the opinion (¶ 13). Here’s the text:

The Legislature has created two exceptions to the common law. Post-majority maintenance is statutorily provided for in Mississippi Code Section 43-31-28. It provides that a county board of supervisors may require certain family members to provide care for a pauper who is unable to work, as follows, in relevant part:

The father and grandfather, the mother and grandmother, and brothers and sisters, and the descendants of any pauper not able to work, as the board of supervisors shall direct, shall, at their own charge, relieve and maintain such pauper; and, in case of refusal, shall forfeit and pay the county the sum of One Hundred Fifty Dollars ($150.00) per month, for each month they may so refuse, to be recovered in the name of the county; and shall be liable to any governmental entity who supplies such poor relative, if abandoned, with necessaries, not exceeding said sum per month . . . .

Miss. Code Ann. § 43-31-28 (Rev. 2004) (emphasis added). We have held that “this statutory liability can only be enforced in the manner provided by statute.” Wright[et al. v. Coleman], [137 Miss. 699,] 102 So. [774] at 777 [(1925)].

Post-majority support also is statutorily provided for in a Department of Human Services paternity case. A putative father who has acknowledged paternity and is responsible for making support payments for a minor child is required to continue making support payments if the child has a disability that continues into adulthood. Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-33(3) (Rev. 2004) (“in the case of a child who, upon reaching the age of twenty-one (21) years, is mentally or physically incapable of self-support, the putative father shall not be relieved of the duty of support unless said child is a long-term patient in a facility owned or operated by the State of Mississippi.).

You might have known about those two provisions. I did not.

The issue of parental support for adult disabled children has many facets and ramifications. If it is to be addressed at all, it appears that the Mississippi Legislature, with all of its institutional wisdom and foresight, will be the body to do it.

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