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.


July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Executors, administrators, guardians and conservators have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries or wards (trustees have their own, separate body of law, although they are fiduciaries also). The fiduciary’s duty (in the absence of explicit directions in a will) …

” … is to provide honest, intelligent management … [h]owever it might be more accurate to think of the [fiduciary] as a co-manager (and perhaps a junior co-manager at that) with the court being the other manager. The [fiduciary] can do very little without the prior approval of the court. The [fiduciary’s] responsibility is to be knowledgeable about the estate, to anticipate problems and dangers, as well as opportunities, to decide upon the intelligent and prudent thing to do, and then to go to the Chancellor to try to get the authority to do it.” Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi, 3rd Ed., §2.34, p. 65.

Absent directions in a will or court authorization, or specific authority by statute, the fiduciary has no authority to: bind the estate by contract such as a lease or note; purchase or sell real estate or any other asset; warrant title on behalf of the estate; borrow money for the estate; mortgage property of the estate; or even to continue a decedent’s business except to wind it up or as provided in MCA 91-7-173.

MCA §93-13-38 requires the guardian or conservator to improve the estate of the ward, and to “apply so much of the income, profit or body thereof as may be necessary for the comfortable maintenance and support of the ward and his family, if he have any, after obtaining an order of the court fixing the amount.” The duty of the fiduciary is to employ the funds in their hands profitably, and they may be liable on their bonds for failure to improve the estate.

Does that duty to improve the estate mean that there is a duty to invest?

The answer to that question, of course, is that every case is different, and several factors come into play, including:

  1. Whether the the amount of funds in excess of those needed in the immediate future to pay claims and administration expenses, and in the case of wards, the necessary, authorized expenses, make investment practical;
  2. The economic conditions in the markeplace;
  3. Whether in the case of a decedent’s estate that it will be open for a length of time that would make investment practical.

In the case of McNeil v. Hester, 753 So.2d 1075 (Miss. 2000), the court held that the fiduciary has no duty to invest because MCA 91-13-3 because that statute uses the permissive may rather than the mandatory shall.

But simply because there is no explicit statutory duty does not mean that not investing would be prudent. The fiduciary is under a duty to deal prudently with the estate, and in a given circumstance non-investment may be judged imprudent. MCA 91-13-3 says that the ” … fiduciary shall exercise the judgment and care under the circumstances then prevailing which men of prudence, discretion, and intelligence exercise in the management of their own affairs, not in regard to speculation, but in regard to the permanent disposition of their funds, considering the probable income as well as the probable safety of the capital.”

MCA 91-13-3 and -5 allow certain investments to be made without specific authority of the court, giving the fiduciary some flexibility to park funds until a more prudent investment, if any, can be made. Those investments, unless prohibited by court order, include: time certificates of deposit; savings or other interest-bearing accounts of any state or national bank whose main office is located in Mississippi, and whose deposits are FDIC-insured; any state or federal savings and loan association whose main office is located in Mississippi, and the deposits of which are FSLIC-insured. Not included are credit union accounts, online banks, e-trade, Schwab or Fidelity, or the mayonnaise jar buried in the back yard.

Whether a given investment is prudent was the issue in the COA case of In re Estate of McGee, 982 So.2d 428 (Miss.App. 2007)in which the court held that, where the decedent had invested in the stock market for many years and the fiduciary had received his portfolio, which he put in the control of a reputable broker pursuant to court order, the fiduciary was not liable to the heirs when the portfolio declined in value after 9-11-01. The court pointed out that “administrators are not insurers or guarantors of the estate’s assets.” Citing Harper v. Harper, 491 So.2d 189, 198 (Miss. 1986).

So what exactly is and is not prudent? For guidance in addition to particular case law you might want to look at the Mississippi Uniform Prudent Investor Act, MCA 91-9-601- et seq., which actually applies to trustees, but would certainly be persuasive authority for any court to consider in weighing the prudence of any other fiduciary. Section 603 sets out factors for the court to consider as a standard of care. Other sections in the law address the duties of diversification, loyalty, impartiality, reasonability of cost, and care in delegation of management responsibility.

The attorney representing a fiduciary has a duty to advise him or her of the responsibilities involved, and to make sure that the fiduciary is acting prudently and in compliance with the law. The subject is more complex than the scope of this post, so consider this an introduction and prompt to study it in adequate depth to be of service to your clients.

[Much of the information here is derived from a presentation by Bob Williford, Esq. to the chancery judges last April]


September 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

MCA 93-13-38 (1)  states:

All the provisions of the law on the subject of executors and administrators, relating to settlement or disposition of property limitations, notice to creditors, probate and registration of claims, proceedings to insolvency and distribution of assets of insolvent estates, shall, as far as applicable and not otherwise provided, be observed and enforced in all guardianships.

MCA 93-13-255 provides that a conservator appointed by the court shall have “the same duties, powers and responsibilities as a guardian of a minor, and all laws relative to the guardianship of a minor shall be applicable to a conservator.”

That means that in your guardianship or conservatorship you will need to file your affidavit of creditors in the proper time, publish to creditors, file an inventory, and do all the other acts and things required of fiduciaries in estates.

And keep in mind that the MSSC has made it abundantly clear that there are dire consequences for both the fiduciary and the attorney for failing to do so.

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