Children as Messengers

June 20, 2013 § 2 Comments

Robert Lyles and Christal Carpenter had a child together whom they named Emily Lyles. They entered into an agreed order under which Christal had custody of Emily. Robert was to have some specified visitation and telephone contact with the child. They also agreed to the following:

“[S]chool and extracurricular activities of the minor child shall be communicated to the other parent when the receiving parent first receives notice of the event and any associate[d] preparation dates, including date, time and place so as to allow both parties to attend when possible.”

Robert sued Christal for contempt claiming that she violated the agreed order by: (1) not allowing him alternating weekend visitation; (2) not notifying him of Emily’s extracurricular activities; and (3) not allowing him his telephone contact with the child.

In her defense to point (2), Christal averred that she had notfied Robert because Emily had her school backpack with her when she visited, in which were notes from the school about the extracurricular activities. She took the position that she was not in contempt because Robert had notice, if only he would take the trouble to look through Emily’s backpack.

The chancellor found Christal in contempt:

[T]he reason [the contenpt] is willful is because you assume that he should go through the backpack of your daughter … and find that document out, find that information out by himself. That [is not] what the Order says. It says as soon as you find out about that, you need to notify him. You [cannot] assume he got it from somewhere.

Christal appealed, and the COA, in Carpenter v. Lyles, decided May 28, 2013, affirmed.

I write to say that I, too, would have found Christal in contempt. As the chancellor said here, there is no question that Christal’s conduct violated not only the letter, but also the spirit and intent of the provision. It was her duty to communicate immediately and directly with Emily’s father, which she failed to do. I would have found an additional failure here, however.

My firm opinion is that parents may not discharge their responsibilities by shirking them off on the child. Christal was wrong, I would say, by leaving it up to Emily to be  her messenger. There are several points here to consider:

  • When parent A tasks the child to communicate information to parent B, parent A is putting the child squarely in the middle of what is quite often a conflict-ridden situation.
  • What punishment should the child receive for garbling the message or confusing the reply?
  • When the child is the messenger, parents are in a position to weigh the child down with adult, parental concerns that should be none of the child’s business or source of worry.
  • A child used as a messenger is often used as a bearer of critical and demeaning communications between adults.
  • Using the child as a messenger teaches the child that she is more important to the parents as a conduit of communiqués between combatants than she is as a beloved child.
  • Using the child as a messenger enlists the child as an ally to one side or the other, usually to the more embittered, negative side that has more invested in the twisted process.

No parent should be allowed to discharge his or her parental duties by proxy through a child. It’s damaging to the child, and definitely not in her best interest.    

I would encourage you to counsel with your clients to find ways to interact with opposing parents in an adult way that leaves children completely out of the conflict between them.

WHAT YOUR UNCONTESTED PROOF NEEDS TO INCLUDE

May 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve posted here before about the inadequate proof that most attorneys offer when presenting an uncontested divorce or child custody case.

I’m not talking here about corroboration and substantial evidence of the grounds in a divorce case. I’m talking about addressing all of the applicable factors that pertain to your particular case. For instance … After establishing that your client is entitled to a divorce, he says he wants the house and all the equity. Is that good enough? Or your client testifies that she wants custody and has had the child with her for the past 18 months. Is that all you need?

The answer in both scenarios is “No.” You need to give the judge enough evidence to enable findings on all of the Ferguson factors for the judge to award that equity, and you need to address the Albright factors for the judge to make sufficient findings to award custody. And so on with all of the type cases that involve factors.

That is what the MSSC held in Lee v. Lee, 78 So.3d 326 (Miss. 2012).

I usually sign will sign the judgment based on a modicum of proof. If, however, a proper post-trial motion is filed, I will set aside that part of the judgment that is not supported with findings on the applicable factors as required by case law. As the court said in Lee, at 329:

¶13. By failing to appear at the hearing, [the appellant] forfeited his right to present evidence and prosecute his divorce complaint. But he did not forfeit the right to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence or the judgment. And whether absent or present at the trial, the appropriate time to challenge a judgment is after it has been entered. [Appellant] did so in his Rule 59 motion and at the hearing following it. The fact that [he] failed to attend the divorce trial does not relieve the chancellor of his duty to base his decision on the evidence, regardless of by whom presented, nor did it nullify this Court’s mandate in Ferguson.

It’s so simple to take the few extra minutes to put on the evidence that will support the required findings. Then, you incorporate them into your judgment and the judge will gladly sign it. Only, don’t expect the judge to sign it if she did not hear testimony on point.

If your judgment has the necessary findings, it should withstand any post-trial attack based on that reason. Your client will appreciate that. After all, that’s what you were paid to do.

A MINORITY CONUNDRUM

March 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

I posted here about a case pending in my court in which a lawyer had filed a motion to void two agreed judgments for custody that had been executed by a 19-year-old mother. The basis for his motion was that the mother lacked the legal capacity to execute the judgments, and that they were not binding on her in any way.

The lawyers have settled the case, and the now-22-year-old mother has signed an agreed order that has the effect of supplanting the previous agreed judgments. So the concern about her legal capacity is moot in that case.

Still, the state of the law has me concerned. I did not find any authority for an unmarried minor to enter into an agreed judgment in  a case of this sort. Neither did my staff attorney or even other judges who took the time to answer my query on our listserv. I found no authority, either, for subsequent ratification or approval by the court, although other states have addressed the ratification issue.

The reason for my concern is that a married minor is considered emancipated for the purpose of dealing with divorce, custody and support, but an unmarried minor is in a legal limbo vis a vis his or her offspring. Is there any legal or policy reason, given Mississippi’s high rate of unmarried parenthood, why we do not go ahead and recognize that young, unmarried parents, at least in the 18-21 age group, should not also be considered emancipated for the purpose of dealing with child custody and other parentage issues? Young people in that age group are emancipated by law to deal with their choses in action, so why do we not emancipate them by statute to deal with their parentage issues?

I wish that the legislature would look at this issue in light of the reality many of see every day in our state: children are having children. We have to have effective ways to deal with that.

THE BENEFIT OF A WHOLESOME AND STABLE ENVIRONMENT

November 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

MCA 93-5-24(1)(e)(i) provides that, if the court finds both parents have abandoned or deserted a child, it may award physical and legal custody to ” … [t]he person in whose home the child has been living in a whoesome and stable environment.” And the case of Lucas v. Hendrix, 92 So.3d 699, 705-6 (Miss. App. 2012) says that once the chancellor has found that both parents have deserted the child, custody may be awarded per the statute without first addressing the Albright factors.

Those little gems are in ¶ 17 of the decision in Hamilton v. Houston, decided by the COA November 6, 2012.

In that case, the chancellor found that both of the natural parents had deserted the child. Once he made that finding, the chancellor did go through an Albright analysis, the result of which was to award custody of a minor child to the paternal grandparents over objection of the mother. The COA upheld the chancellor’s decision, and several points raised in Judge Maxwell’s opinion are ones you should file away for future use:

  • Desertion involves forsaking a person to whom one is legally obligated, or forsaking or avoiding one’s duty to that person. In re Leverock & Hamby, 23 So.3d 424, 429-30 (Miss. 2009).
  • Abandonment is relinquishment of a right or claim (¶ 17).
  • A finding of either abandonment or desertion by clear and convincing evidence is enough to rebut the natural parent presumption. In re Smith, 97 So.3d 424, 429-30 (Miss. 2012).
  • In this case, although both parents paid some support for the child, they both admitted that the money they paid was not sufficient to support him.
  • An unusual feature of this case was that the grandparents, who were awarded custody, did not file their own pleadings, but merely joined in their son’s (father of the minor child) petition for custody. The COA held that prayer in the son’s petition that he be awarded custody was adequate to empower the judge to adjudicate the issue in any way that was in the best interest of the child.

The fact pattern in this case should be unhappily familiar to any lawyer who has done much family law in the past several years. It seems that grandparents are more frequently becoming surrogate parents, and chancellors are more often called upon in these cases to be arbiters of the child’s best interest.

It appears to me that these cases are trending toward giving more weight to the quality of the parental relationship and less to the quantity. As in this decision, a parent who, for instance, provides some financial support but forsakes the parental duties of emotional support, presence, attention, and other parenting responsibilities, is at risk for a finding of desertion.

WHEN VISITATION GOES BAD

October 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

It’s becoming more customary for the parties to provide in custody settlements for the non-custodial parent to have more visitation than the usual “standard visitation” (i.e., every other weekend, split of holidays, and some summer). Sometimes it works splendidly. When it does not, it can be a mess.

The latter is what happened in the COA case of Goolsby v. Crane, decided October 23, 2012. In that case, Michael Goolsby and his ex-wife, Angela Crane, agreed that Angela would have sole physical custody, and Michael would have visitation with his daughters every other weekend, and, in addition, from Monday afternoon to the return to school on Wednesday morning in non-weekend-viaitation weeks. After a while the parties agreed to deviate from the schedule to move Michael’s mid-week visitation to Wednesday-to-Friday-morning.

Things began to unravel when Angela filed pleadings to get an increase in child support and a family master increased it by $171 a month and ordered Michael to pay DHS $250 in attorney’s fees.

Michael filed a Rule 59 motion and then filed a counter-petition to modify custody and child support. He wanted the custody changed to joint physical due to the extent of his visitation, and he wanted the child support reduced based on the amount of time he had the children with him.

At trial the chancellor rejected the modification, finding that there was no proof of a material change in circumstances that adversely affected the children to the extent that custody should be changed. He did, however, find that the visitation schedule was not working, and he modified it to conform more to “standard” visitation, eliminating the mid-week visitation. His findings were based primarily on the testimony of the testimony of the 13-year-old daughter, who said that it interfered with her school work and made her uncomfortable for some other, personal reasons. The chancellor also increased the child support, although he recalculated it and found a figure somewhat less than that determined by the family master.

Michael appealed. His arguments and the COA’s conclusions:

  • The court rejected the argumant that it was error for the chancellor to refuse to modify custody, and then to modify visitation. The COA pointed out that there was a substantial basis to support both decisions. All that needs to be shown to change custody is that the visitation schedule is not working, and there was ample proof here.
  • The extent of visitation that was agreed did not amount to a relinquishment of control or abandonment of responsibility by Angela that would amount to a material change. The cases cited by the court beginning at ¶ 22 are cases you need to have in your repertoire of important modification cases, particularly Arnold v. Conwill, 562 So.2d 97, 100 (Miss. 1990), a case I’ve discussed here before
  • And, finally, the COA rejected (beginning at ¶ 29) Michael’s argument that liberal visitation by the non-custodial parent is tantamount to joint legal custody.

When you craft an agreement incorporating visitation that extends beyond the usual, make sure the language leaves no doubt as to who has what form of custody. Don’t swap around terms like “visitation” and “custodial time.” Instead of simply going along with what your client is proposing for visitation, play devil’s advocate and tease out some of the possible pitfalls that you’ve experienced and that your client may not even have thought of. Are there other ways to provide more time for the non-custodial parent that might not be so disruptive as they proved to be in Goolsby? One size does not fit all.

ANOTHER ALBRIGHT SCORECARD CASE FAILS

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Back in July, in a post entitled “Quibbling with Albright,” I questioned the wisdom of attorneys who at trial and on appeal concentrate their efforts on a scoresheet-type approach to the child custody factors. As I said there:

Albright is not a mathematical formula or a scorecard. It is a matrix for the trial judge to use in making sure that all factors that bear on the best interest of the child in a custody case are considered, and in turn used by the appellate courts to evaluate whether the chancellor did her job properly. If all of the Albright factors that apply in a given case are considered and addressed by the chancellor, and there is substantial evidence to support the chancellor’s decision, then the chancellor’s decision should be affirmed. Any quibbling about this one factor or that, or trying to readjust the “scoresheet,” should be brushed aside on appeal.

In O’Briant v. O’Briant, decided by the COA October 16, 2012, Judge Maxwell hammered the point home better and with more authority than I can muster. The case involved a custody dispute between Jonathan and Olivia O’Briant in Madison County Chancery Court. Here’s what Judge Maxwell said:

¶14. Jonathan argues the chancellor misapplied Albright because she miscalculated one of the factors and failed to weigh the evidence properly. Because the chancellor is to use Albright as a guide, not a formula, and weigh the evidence as she sees fit, we find no reversible error.

¶15. “Determining custody of a child is not an exact science.” Lee v. Lee, 798 So. 2d 1284, 1288 (¶15) (Miss. 2001). Instead, it “is one of the most difficult decisions that courts must make.” Brewer v. Brewer, 919 So. 2d 135, 141 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). In Albright, the Mississippi Supreme Court gave a list of factors to consider to help chancellors “navigat[e] what is usually a labyrinth of interests and emotions.” Lee, 798 So. 2d at 1288 (¶15) (citing Albright, 437 So. 2d at 1005). The Albright factors provide chancellors guidance, not a mathematical formula. Id. “[E]ven when the trial judge sensitively assesses the factors noted in Albright and [its] progeny, the best the judiciary can offer is a good guess.” Love v. Love, 74 So. 3d 928, 932 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Buchanan v. Buchanan, 587 So. 2d 892, 897 (Miss. 1991)).

¶16. Jonathan argues the chancellor committed legal error because she “recast” one Albright factor into two—causing the factor to favor Olivia. Jonathan analogizes this perceived error to an umpire botching the number of outs in an inning. But unlike baseball, an Albright analysis is not premised solely on a scoring system to determine which parent “wins.” Blakely v. Blakely, 88 So. 3d 798, 803 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing Lee, 798 So. 2d at 1288 (¶15)). “Instead, the Albright factors exist to ensure the chancellor considers all the relevant facts before she reaches a decision.” Id. And our review for manifest error is not a mechanical check on the chancellor’s score card to see if she “tallied” each parent’s score correctly. See id. Instead, we ask whether the chancellor considered all relevant facts, giving deference to the weight she assigns each factor.

¶17. Here, the chancellor considered all the relevant facts by applying each Albright factor:

(1) age, health, and sex of the child;

(2) a determination of the parent that has had the continuity of care prior to the separation;

(3) which has the best parenting skills and which has the willingness and capacity to provide primary child care;

(4) the employment of the parent and responsibilities of that employment;

(5) physical and mental health and age of the parents;

(6) emotional ties of parent and child;

(7) moral fitness of the parents;

(8) the home, school and community record of the child;

(9) the preference of the child at the age sufficient to express a preference by law;

(10) stability of home environment and employment of each parent and other factors relevant to the parent-child relationship.

Lee, 798 So. 2d at 1288 (¶15) (citing Albright, 437 So. 2d at 1005). While Jonathan takes issue with the chancellor addressing the stability of each parent’s employment when considering their employment responsibilities, then later in her order, assessing the stability of their respective home environments, he cannot argue the chancellor failed to consider these relevant factors. Thus, we find no “misapplication” of Albright occurred.

The primary driving force behind all of the foregoing is that it is the chancellor’s exclusive province to judge the weight of the evidence. Judge Maxwell’s opinion continues:

¶18. Jonathan also contests the chancellor’s findings as to which parent demonstrated the continuity of care prior to the separation, which has the best parenting skills, and which has the willingness and capacity to provide primary child care, as well as her findings on the physical and mental health and age of the parents. He specifically claims the chancellor ignored evidence of his good parenting skills and Olivia’s bad parenting skills, “penaliz[ing]” rather than crediting him for having his mother next door to help with Maguire. He also suggests the chancellor put too much weight on the three months he was committed to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield in 2000. These challenges are premised on the chancellor’s evidentiary and credibility assessments.

¶19. In our narrow review we give deference to the chancellor’s factual findings, asking if they were supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Wilson v. Wilson, 53 So. 3d 865, 867-68 (¶¶7, 10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “The credibility of the witnesses and the weight of their testimony, as well as the interpretation of evidence where it is capable of more than one reasonable interpretation, are primarily for the chancellor as the trier of facts.” Johnson v. Gray, 859 So. 2d 1006, 1014 (¶36) (Miss. 2003) (quoting Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 860 (Miss. 1994)). “‘[T]he chancellor has the ultimate discretion to weigh the evidence the way she sees fit’ in determining where the child’s best interest lies.” Blakely, 88 So. 3d at 803 (¶17) (quoting Johnson, 859 So. 2d at 1013-14 (¶36)).

The court found that the chancellor’s decision was supported by substantial evidence and affirmed it.

This is yet another example of a mistaken approach to Albright. The danger in tailoring your Albright proof to try to prevail on the scoreboard is that you will lose sight of the larger picture, which is what is actually in the best interest of the child. One parent may prevail in more categories than the other and yet not prevail on the issue of custody. When you plan how to present your case, don’t focus on trying to “win” more factors; focus instead on what will convince the court that the best interest of the children lies in being in your client’s custody. Each judge has his or her own ideas of the factors that are most important. Learn what your chancellor’s preferences are, and design your case accordingly.

MARITAL FAULT AS SOMETHING ELSE

October 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve talked here before about how lawyers on appeal often argue that the chancellor’s decision should be reversed on the basis that he or she used custody as a sanction for marital misconduct. And there is case law that supports that argument. Brekeen v. Brekeen, 880 So.2d 280, 287 (Miss. 2004); Smullins v. Smullins, 77 So.3d 119, 129 (Miss.App. 2011); Albright v. Albright, 437 So.2d 1003, 1005 (Miss. 1983).

The thing is that custody may not be used to punish the misconduct, nor may the misconduct be the sole basis, but misconduct may properly be considered as one among the other several applicable Albright factors, and it may be considered as proof of several other factors.

In the case of Collins v. Collins, decided by the COA on October 2, 2012, the chancellor had proof of Kim Collins’ adulterous relationship with a man (Haley) other than her husband, Jarrad. The evidence was that she took trips to rendezvous with the man, leaving her son Conner with someone else, presumably her husband. She spent dozens of hours talking on the phone with her paramour and texting him. Judge Russell’s opinion says:

¶18. It appears from the record that Kim’s adultery was important to show how her behavior with the minor child changed during that period. There was testimony that since her involvement with Haley, Kim appeared to be gone more often and was not around Connor as much as Jarrad. Jarrad’s mother testified that Kim had not been a good mother the last two years because Kim put her relationship with another man before her son.

* * *

¶20. As in Smullins, the chancellor expressed concern over Kim’s involvement with another man because of its impact on her relationship with Connor. Thus, the chancellor’s findings “were not a sanction against an adulterous parent . . . .” Smullins, 77 So. 3d. at 129 (¶46).

When you present your child custody case, don’t put all your eggs in the adultery or other misconduct basket without adding how you want the judge to fit that testimony into the other Albright factors. For instance, when your client testifies about the misconduct, ask why that behavior concerns him or her vis a vis custody, and prepare the witness to address continuity of care, stability, parenting skills, demonstrated willingness and capacity to provide care for the child, physical and mental health, emotional ties, and any other conceivable relevant factors. Only after you have done that should you harp on the moral fitness factor.

in Collins, the chancellor had an ample basis to find that Kim had undercut her own case for custody by choosing to put her relationship with the other man ahead of her attention for her son. When the chancellor put it in those terms, the COA had no way to go but to affirm.

“YOUNG KIDS TAKE EVERYTHING PERSONALLY”

July 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

I found a link to this remarkable article by psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker on Jake Adams’ blog, and I decided that it was so insightful and important that I should reproduce it here.

If you handle divorces involving children, or custody cases of any stripe, I wish you would make a copy of this and give it to your clients. I might even give it to warring litigants in my court. I see so much cruelty and inhumanity in custody battles where the children are treated like instruments of war. Anything to alleviate or put a stop to that is worthwhile. And attorneys are in a unique position to do some good on this point.

Here’s the article …

TOP 5 KID CONCERNS WHEN PARENTS DIVORCE

If you are divorced or in the process of a divorce, you’re probably wondering what the kids are thinking. Oh, some of them will tell you — loud and clear. But kids also have a way of protecting their parents. Their security depends on the big folks so they often pull their punches. They know that the situation is already upsetting. They don’t want to make things worse.

In a support group for kids or in the therapy room, kids can sometimes feel safe enough to tell us what they really think. Here are the five issues I’ve found concern young kids the most. (Teen issues are a bit different so I’ll leave that for another time.) For kids under 10, then, these concerns top the list:

1. “I just want the fighting to stop!” A little fighting actually helps kids make sense of why their parents can’t stay together. Some of the kids I’ve seen who’ve had the hardest adjustment are those who thought that everything was fine. But when parents continue to fight in almost every contact or when they regularly say bad things about each other, the kids feel torn in half. Kids usually love and want to continue to love both parents. Often they want to comfort their folks. They want them to be okay. They don’t want to take sides (see #2).

2. “I hate being in the middle.” Although it seems that every divorcing or divorced parent I’ve talked to in therapy seems to know it’s a bad idea to put kids in the middle, some can’t seem to help themselves. They make disparaging remarks about the other parent in the kids’ presence. They roll their eyes or sigh when they talk about their ex. They ask the kids to take messages to the other parent instead of dealing with them directly. (For example, “You tell you mother that when she sends you over here, she’d better send more than 1 set of clothes.” “You tell your father to be on time or we won’t be here waiting for him.”) It’s important to remember that kids are intensely loyal to both their parents. Each parent can go about the business of parenting without making negative comments about the other.

3. “I feel like it’s all my fault.” When parents break up, it’s unsettling enough. Harder still is when the kids feel they are somehow to blame. They take it to heart when one or the other parent says things like: “Everything was fine until we had kids!,” or “We had kids too young,” or “I never had a turn to be a teenager cuz I had a baby.” Each of those things may be true. But it’s only part of a much larger truth that made it impossible for the parents to stay together. The kids don’t understand that. When they overhear such things, they feel like they’re not loved and maybe were never wanted.

4. “Will my mother/father divorce me too?” Young kids take everything personally. Yes, it may be that the only job available to one or the other parent is 100 miles or more away. Yes, it might be for the best to move in with the grandparents who live in the next state. Or maybe visitations don’t work out because the boss offers an extra shift or the financial situation means needing two jobs to stay afloat. Whatever the reason, if the kids don’t get time with a parent, they often feel rejected. It’s understandable. Deep inside, every kid has a tiny (or not so tiny) voice that says, “If my parents can divorce each other, maybe they can divorce me too.” They need regular reassurance that it’s the situation causing the reduced contact, not the parent’s feelings about them.

5. “I wish everything could go back to the way it was before.” However difficult family life was before the decision to divorce, it’s still what the kids know. To them, the way they’ve lived is their “normal”. They’ve learned how each parent operates, who to go to for what, and how to get what they need. Parents lose sight of the fact that adults have a broader perspective. Adults have a basis for comparing the relationship they have to the one they want. Kids don’t. It’s understandable that the kids want things to get back to “normal”. Even if it was uncomfortable, even dangerous, they knew what to expect.

Parents need to be mindful that whatever they say in the kids’ earshot has a huge impact. Kids are not little adults. Kids don’t have adult perspective or experience. What may seem obvious and sensible to their parents doesn’t always occur to the kids. One serious talk to explain things doesn’t do it. Kids need ongoing reassurance, conversation, love, and attention as they settle in to a new normal.

Follow Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/MHartwellWalker

BEST INTEREST IN A PARENT – NON-PARENT CUSTODY DISPUTE

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Is it necessary for the chancellor to analyze the proof in light of the Albright factors in a case where the grandparents are seeking to take custody from the natural father, the sole surviving parent, based on a finding of unfitness?

That Albright analysis question was an issue before the COA in the case of Lucas v. Hendrix, decided by the COA July 17, 2012. At trial, the chancellor had found that the father, Adam Lucas, was unfit, and awarded custody of the two minors, Tyler and Cody, to the maternal grandarents, Jeannie and John Hendrix, without any Albright analysis. Here is how Judge Roberts’ opinion addressed it, beginning at ¶16:

In his first issue, Lucas asserts that the chancellor used an incorrect legal standard by failing to apply an Albright analysis before granting the Hendrixes custody of Tyler and Cody …

¶17. In Albright v. Albright, 437 So. 2d 1003, 1005 (Miss. 1983), the Mississippi Supreme Court outlined multiple factors to be considered when determining which natural parent should receive custody of the child, with the polestar consideration being the best interest of the child. The supreme court and this Court have repeatedly stated that a different analysis must be applied when adjudicating custody between a natural parent and a third party, such as in this case. In custody cases involving a natural parent and a third party, a presumption exists that the natural parent is the best custodian for his child. McKee v. Flynt, 630 So. 2d 44, 47 (Miss. 1993). However, this natural-parent presumption may be overcome by clear and convincing evidence “that the parent has (1) abandoned the child[;] or (2) the conduct of the parent is so immoral as to be detrimental to the child[;] or (3) the parent is unfit mentally or otherwise to have the custody of his or her child.” Id. (quoting White v. Thompson, 569 So. 2d 1181, 1183-84 (Miss. 1990)); see also McCraw v. Buchanan, 10 So.3d 979, 984 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Additionally, pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(1)(e) (Rev. 2004):

Upon a finding by the [chancery] court that both parents of the child have abandoned or deserted such child or that both such parents are mentally, morally or otherwise unfit to rear and train the child[,] the [chancery] court may award physical and legal custody to:

(i) The person in whose home the child has been living in a wholesome and stable environment; or

(ii) . . . any other person deemed by the [chancery] court to be suitable and able to provide adequate and proper care and guidance for the child.

In the current case, the chancellor relied on this statute because Moore, the boys’ natural mother, was deceased; therefore, Lucas was the sole remaining natural parent. If a chancellor finds the remaining natural parent to be unfit, as she did in this case, then the statute gives the chancellor the authority to grant custody to a third party.

¶18. We do not read Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24 or the majority of prior case law to require an Albright analysis if the chancellor finds the sole, natural parent has abandoned or deserted the child or is unfit to raise the child …

The decision went on to distinguish this case from In re Dissolution of the Marriage of Leverock and Hamby, 23 So.3d 424 (Miss. 2009). The primary point of departure between the two cases was that the chancellor made a finding of unfitness in the Lucas case, but there was no such finding in Leverock.

The important feature of the Lucas case is that no Albright analysis is necessary in a contest netween a natural parent and third parties once the chancellor has found unfitness. That finding alone is sufficient to trigger the change and opens the door to either class of custodians set out in the statute, without a best-interest Albright analysis.

Adam argued also that the chancellor erred by not expressly finding by clear and convincing evidence that he was unfit. Without saying it in so many words, however, the COA held the chancellor’s findings to be so detailed and supported by proof that they were tantamount to a finding by clear and convincing evidence, and so brushed aside this contention.

So does this mean you should not bother with proof of the Albright factors when you try a case of this type? I guess, strictly speaking, the answer would be in the affirmative. But why take the chance? Even if the chancellor does not use that evidence, you have it in the record if you need it.

QUIBBLING WITH ALBRIGHT

July 17, 2012 § 2 Comments

In September, 2010, a special chancellor granted Sharon and Allen Flowers an irreconcilable differences divorce and adjudicated custody, awarding it to Allen with Sharon having visitation. Sharon was displeased with the result and appealed

The COA case of Flowers v. Flowers, decided June 19, 2012, includes several points that I found interesting:

  • Sharon claimed that the chancellor improperly used denial of custody to sanction her for a post-separation relationship. Is it just me, or is this claim automatically raised any and every time that the court finds against a party on the “moral fitness” Albright factor?  Chancellors are required to make a finding on every Albright factor for which there is evidence in the record. Here there was evidence that Sharon had initially lied to the GAL about the relationship, and then admitted it. Had the chancellor not taken that into consideration, it would have been error. There is nothing in Judge Ishee’s opinion that would lead one to conclude that the chancellor based his decision solely or even mostly on this factor. Adultery may be the factor among others that tips the scales, but it may never be the factor standing alone that determines custody.
  • The chancellor found that “Both children are male children and therefore this factor favors the father.” The COA found no error on this point, and cited Reed v. Fair, 56 So.3d 577, 582 (Miss. App. 2010). This is a curious conclusion, in my humble opinion. What exactly is the basis for such a finding? What is the socio-scientific basis, if any, upon which to base such a conclusion? Had the chancellor found that the male gender of the children favored the mother, would that have been error? Now, there may have been evidence in the record of differences in disciplinary problems or behavior under the suprevision of males as opposed to females, or something of that sort, but that is not reflected in the appellate opinion. In Reed v. Fair, the court upheld the chancellor’s finding that the twelve-year-old child needed the influence of a man in his life since there were no other male family members available and there had been a need for counselling. Fair enough (no pun intended). But to make the naked assertion that a child of one gender should be in the custody of the parent of the same gender seems simple-minded to me (no offense to the learned chancellor in the Flowers case). There are studies that establish that younger males are actually better off under the influence of the mother. And there is MCA 93-5-24(7), which says that “There shall be no presumption that it is in the best interest of a child that a mother be awarded either legal or physical custody.” Isn’t the same-gender line of thinking based precisely on such a presumption?
  • The COA opinion says that “[Sharon] further argues that the [sex-and-health] factors should have been grouped together as one factor, instead of treating them as two separate factors.” She goes on to argue that the result would have been that she would have prevailed in an additional category, adding one more tally to her column, and perhaps giving her the higher score that would have given her the victory. The flaw in her argument, though is that she could prevail in several more categories than Allen and still lose custody. Albright is not a mathematical formula or a scorecard. It is a matrix for the trial judge to use in making sure that all factors that bear on the best interest of the child in a custody case are considered, and in turn used by the appellate courts to evaluate whether the chancellor did her job properly.

If all of the Albright factors that apply in a given case are considered and addressed by the chancellor, and there is substantial evidence to support the chancellor’s decision, then the chancellor’s decision should be affirmed. Any quibbling about this one factor or that, or trying to readjust the “scoresheet,” should be brushed aside on appeal.

Only last month, in the case of Easley v. Easley, the COA again addressed an appellant’s argument that he should have been awarded sole custody rather than joint custody because he had a slight edge in the Albright scorecard:

[The father’s] argument appears to be based on the mistaken assumption that joint custody cannot be awarded if more of the Albright factors favor him, however slightly. We see no reason why some marginal advantage of one parent should preclude the chancellor from awarding joint custody, so long as both parents are fit and joint custody is found to be in the children’s best interest[]. See Phillips v. Phillips, 45 So. 3d 684, 694 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). “The Albright factors are a guide. They are not the equivalent of a mathematical formula.” Lawrence v. Lawrence, 956 So. 2d 251, 258 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citation and quotation omitted).

The case of Jackson v. Jackson, 82 So.3d 644, 646 (Miss.App. 2011), is also on point.

In one case I tried, I found for the mother in most of the Albright categories. When it came to the mental health of the parties, though, I found that her history of and active mental illness, and her refusal to deal therapeutically with it, overshadowed all of the other factors combined, and I awarded custody to the father. Had I treated the Albright factors as a winner-take-all scoreboard, I would have awarded the two little girls (gender favored the mom?) to an actively delusional, psychotic woman who left a psychiatric hospital against medical advice and who would not take her medication. That case was not appealed, but I am confident that it would have been affirmed.

Perhaps some of the confusion stems from appellate court decisions that direct chancellors to make a finding as to which party prevailed on each factor, giving the impression that the prevailing party “wins on points.” That’s not the law.

I suggest that, when you try a custody case, you should focus your time, attention and effort on developing quality evidence rather than a quantity of evidence designed to put points on the board. The former strategy will work for the best interest of the children. The latter may wind up winning the scoreboard and losing the game.

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