Constructive Desertion

June 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

It’s not often that constructive desertion cases come around, particularly on appeal, so when one does, it is noteworthy.

Kevin Watson claimed that his wife Carole was guilty of constructive desertion of him, entitling him to a divorce. Following a trial, the chancellor agreed and granted Kevin a divorce on that ground. Carole appealed.

In Watson v. Watson, decided June 2, 2020, the COA reversed and rendered. Here is how Judge McDonald’s opinion for an 8-0 court (Barnes not participating) addressed the issue:

¶8. The chancellor found that Kevin was entitled to a constructive-desertion divorce because “many instances [of Carole’s behavior] rise to the requisite level of conduct.” In so doing, the chancellor mentioned one specific incident that occurred during Kevin and Carole’s March 2013 trip to the British Virgin Islands. Otherwise, the chancellor found that Kevin was entitled to a constructive-desertion divorce due to “Carole’s combative public outbursts” and “Carole’s constant, and in many cases, irrational accusations against Kevin.”

¶9. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that a constructive-desertion divorce is available under the following limited circumstances:

If either party, by reason of such conduct on the part of the other as would reasonably render the continuance of the marital relationship unendurable, or dangerous to life, health[,] or safety, is compelled to leave the home and seek safety, peace[,] and protection elsewhere, then the innocent one will ordinarily be justified in severing the marital relation and leaving the domicile of the other, so long as such conditions shall continue, and in such case the one so leaving will not be guilty of desertion. The one whose conduct caused the separation will be guilty of constructive desertion[,] and if the condition is persisted in for a period of one year, the other party will be entitled to a divorce.

Benson v. Benson, 608 So. 2d 709, 711 (Miss. 1992) (quoting Day v. Day, 501 So. 2d 353, 356 (Miss. 1987)). Said differently, “constructive desertion occurs when the innocent spouse is compelled to leave the home and seek safety, peace, and protection elsewhere because the offending spouse has engaged in conduct that would reasonably render the continuance of the marital relation, unendurable or dangerous to life, health or safety.” Hoffman, 270 So.
3d at 1126-27 (¶24) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Griffin v. Griffin, 207 Miss. 500, 505, 42 So. 2d 720, 722 (1949)). [Fn 2] “Chancellors should grant a divorce on the ground of constructive desertion only in extreme cases.” Id. at 1127 (¶24).

[Fn 2] “The line between . . . constructive desertion and . . . habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is blurred . . . .” Hoskins v. Hoskins, 21 So. 3d 705, 710 (¶21) (Miss. 2009). “[T]he only distinction” is that in a constructive-desertion case, one spouse “is compelled to leave and the [other spouse’s] objectionable conduct continues for a year.” Id.

¶10. The case is not one of those extreme circumstances. One basis the chancery court used to grant Kevin a divorce occurred in March of 2013. Kevin testified that Carole must have drugged him one night during their trip to the British Virgin Islands “[b]ecause one minute [he] was fine, and the next minute [he] wasn’t[,]” and Carole “always had Xanax and the drugs that she got . . . from her psychiatrist.” Although Kathy Boyd, who was among the four other people on the trip, said she “felt like Kevin had been given something” because his state was inconsistent with the alcohol that he consumed, neither she nor Kevin testified that they saw Carole put anything in Kevin’s drink. [Fn 3] There was also testimony in the record that both Carole and Kevin often drank to excess.

[Fn 3] Although Kevin also testified that “there were other instances . . . where that very same scenario took place . . . ,” he did not elaborate regarding when or how often those “other instances” occurred.

¶11. In addition to the insufficient evidence that Carole “drugged” Kevin on the trip, the March 2013 incident did not cause Kevin to leave the marital home. He continued to live there after the trip. Kevin did not tell Carole that he wanted a divorce until December 2013 and did not leave the marital home until approximately a month later. Thus, Kevin endured the supposedly unendurable marriage for approximately ten months after the incident in the British Virgin Islands.

¶12. As for Carole’s “combative public outbursts,” the evidence shows that during the seven years of their marriage, Carole once yelled at a restaurant staff, yelled at two women who cut past her in a line at a concert, and that she blurted out private marital details during a September 2013 dinner with friends. Again, however, this does not constitute substantial credible basis to conclude that Kevin was compelled to leave the marital home.

¶13. Kevin testified that the marriage first became unendurable for him during the summer of 2009 when Carole failed to adequately take care of herself, him, and the marital home. Those were three provisions of their unwritten four-point agreement that they purportedly entered when she stopped working in the latter part of 2007. Kevin also said that the marriage was unendurable because he and Carole “can’t stand to be in the same room together. I mean, it’s just unhealthy [and] . . . stressful. It’s depressing.” But Kevin continued to live with Carole for years thereafter.

¶14. As previously mentioned, our supreme court has commanded that constructive desertion divorces are available only in “extreme” circumstances. Lynch v. Lynch, 217 Miss. 69, 81, 63 So. 2d 657, 661 (1953). In one case, a constructive-desertion divorce was upheld where a wife ignored her blind husband’s protests and frequently left him at his relative’s house for days, left him without food during the week, and allowed her disrespectful grandson to live in the marital home for three years against his protests. Deen v. Deen, 856 So. 2d 736, 737 (¶¶4-6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). A constructive-desertion divorce was also available when a husband was subjected to his wife’s false accusations of adultery several times a week for approximately ten years. Lynch v. Lynch, 616 So. 2d 294, 295-97 (Miss. 1993). But a constructive-desertion divorce is not a remedy when a husband merely says there is “no marriage” and “no relationship,” and he began having an affair nearly one year before he left the marital home. Grant v. Grant, 765 So. 2d 1263, 1267 (¶¶10-11) (Miss. 2000). [Fn 4]

[Fn 4] The chancellor acknowledged that Kevin and another woman had been involved in a clandestine and emotionally romantic relationship for several months before Kevin told Carole that he wanted a divorce. Their relationship became physical approximately two weeks after Kevin finally left the marital home. Kevin did not disclose his relationship to Carole before he left, but she discovered it a few months later. The chancellor did not find that Kevin left Carole because he preferred to be with his paramour.

¶15. After a thorough review of the transcript and record, it is clear that Kevin became increasingly unhappy in the marriage because he felt as though Carole was not fulfilling her marital obligations to take care of herself, him, and the domestic sphere of the relationship. Carole certainly leveled many accusations against Kevin that were not borne out by the  record. Suffice it to say, there was clearly a significant amount of mutual animosity by the time of the divorce trial years later. But it would be unreasonable to find that Kevin’s abandonment of the marital home was the natural consequence of an alleged incident on a trip they took months earlier. See Griffin, 207 Miss. at 504, 42 So. 2d at 722. And it was undisputed that Kevin remained in the marital home for still another month after he told Carole that he wanted a divorce.

¶16. Notwithstanding the clearly acrimonious feelings between Carole and Kevin, the substantial credible evidence shows that “this case is yet another in our developing litany where . . . the problem [in the marriage] is [the couple’s] fundamental incompatibility.” Day, 501 So. 2d at 355. As such, this is not one of the “extreme cases” contemplated by our supreme court. It follows that we are compelled to reverse the chancellor’s judgment.

The main takeaway here is that constructive desertion is no easy path to a divorce. Not only must you make an “extreme case,” but you also have to prove the elements of desertion, about which I posted at this link. And don’t forget that the burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence (HCIT is the only ground that requires only a preponderance of the evidence).

I posted about Hoskins here.

I’m still unsure why we don’t have some kind of incompatibility or separation ground for divorce. The argument I often hear against is that those would open the floodgates of divorce in Mississippi. That presumes that our restrictive laws are keeping those floodgates closed, which I perceive not to be the case at all. Every family-law practitioner in this state knows that our current statutory scheme fosters and even encourages “divorce blackmail,” which often results in inequitable and unfair settlements. I’m not sure that the state truly has a legitimate interest in preserving unhappy, unhealthy, and even dangerous marriages.

Another Divorce Misfire in an HCIT/Constructive Desertion Case

January 28, 2019 § 1 Comment

Brooke Hoffman charged her husband Michael with habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and constructive desertion. After hearing the evidence, the chancellor dismissed her complaint, finding that she had proved neither ground. Brooke appealed the denial of the divorce.

The COA affirmed in Hoffman v. Hoffman, decided October 23, 2018, with Judge Wilson writing for a unanimous court:

¶22. As discussed above, Brooke alleged that she was entitled to a divorce on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and constructive desertion. As a practical matter, there is little difference between these two grounds. “In effect, conduct that would qualify as habitual, cruel, and inhuman treatment becomes constructive desertion when the innocent spouse leaves the home rather than remaining.” Deborah H. Bell, Mississippi Family Law § 4.02[5][d], at 80 (2d ed. 2011).

¶23. “Habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is conduct that either: (1) endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of such danger and renders the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or (2) is so unnatural and infamous as to render the marriage revolting to the non-offending spouse, making it impossible to carry out the duties of the marriage, therefore destroying the basis for its continuance.” Farris v. Farris, 202 So. 3d 223, 231 (¶29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Heimert v. Heimert, 101 So. 3d 181, 184 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012)). “To prove habitual cruelty, the plaintiff must show more than mere unkindness, rudeness, or incompatibility.” Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1263 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “Although in cases of violence a single incident may be sufficient for a divorce, generally the plaintiff must show a pattern of conduct.” Id.

¶24. Similarly, “constructive desertion” occurs when the innocent spouse “is compelled to leave the home and seek safety, peace, and protection elsewhere” because the offending spouse has engaged in conduct that “would reasonably render the continuance of the marital relation, unendurable or dangerous to life, health or safety.” Griffin v. Griffin, 207 Miss. 500, 505, 42 So. 2d 720, 722 (1949). “Chancellors should grant a divorce on the ground of constructive desertion only in extreme cases.” Hoskins v. Hoskins, 21 So. 3d 705, 710 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). The burden of proof is on the party seeking the divorce to prove her ground by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 707 (¶6).

¶25. We affirm the chancery court’s judgment that Brooke failed to prove grounds for divorce. The chancery court noted that Brooke alleged only one incident of physical violence, which Mike denied. The court then noted that Brooke’s single allegation of violence was undermined by a police officer’s observation that she exhibited no signs of physical abuse immediately after the alleged injury. The court also noted that the day
following the alleged abuse Brooke wrote in a diary “that the parties made love and that she could ‘really tell that he (Mike) was emotionally present.’”

¶26. The chancery court also found that Brooke’s allegations related to Mike’s relationship with Matt were not credible. Mike denied Brooke’s allegations and another witness corroborated his testimony. Furthermore, the court found that Brooke offered “no proof” of an actual affair or physical relationship.

¶27. “It requires little familiarity with the institutional structure of our judicial system to know that this Court does not sit to redetermine questions of fact.” Johnson v. Black, 469 So. 2d 88, 90 (Miss. 1985). “The chancellor is the finder of fact, and the assessment of witness credibility lies within his sole province.” Darnell v. Darnell, 234 So. 3d 421, 423-24 (¶8) (Miss. 2017) (quotation marks omitted). “This Court gives deference to a chancellor’s findings in regard to witness testimony, because the chancellor is able to observe and personally evaluate the witnesses’ testimony and the parties’ behavior.” McNeese v. McNeese, 119 So. 3d 264, 275 (¶32) (Miss. 2013) (quotation marks omitted). Applying our familiar standard of review, we cannot say that the chancery court clearly erred in finding that Brooke’s allegations were not credible.

¶28. The same is true of the chancery court’s finding that Brooke’s allegations of emotional abuse were “unpersuasive.” The court noted that Brooke only testified to “a discreet number of unpersuasive specific incidents.” And, again, Mike denied Brooke’s allegations that he was emotionally abusive. It is for the chancellor “alone” to “judge[ ] the credibility of the witnesses” and weigh any “conflicting evidence.” Irle v. Foster, 175 So. 3d 1232, 1237 (¶32) (Miss. 2015). This Court does not reweigh conflicting evidence on such issues of fact. Mayton v. Oliver, 247 So. 3d 312, 322 (¶33) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017).

¶29. Suffice it to say there was conflicting evidence with respect to each of Brooke’s various allegations against Mike. Those conflicts represent issues of fact for the chancery court to decide. Id. The chancery court summarized its reasons for dismissing Brooke’s complaint for divorce as follows:

Brooke may very well have determined for herself that she is no longer willing to countenance the ways in which she and Mike seem no longer to get along, especially when considered from the perspective of another man’s arms with whom she may now seem more compatible. However, . . . for a divorce to be granted on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment there must be proof of systematic and continuous behavior on the part of the offending spouse which goes beyond mere incompatibility . . . .

. . . .

The theory of constructive desertion as a grounds for divorce is reserved for extreme cases. Although Brooke’s and Mike’s marriage might reasonably be characterized on the record made as unhappy and unfulfilling, the evidence does not support a finding that it is to be considered unendurable to Brooke.

. . . .

The [c]ourt takes no pleasure in declining to award relief in a circumstance where the parties are separated and one party professes to be so
unhappy as to seek to be officially unshackled from the bonds of matrimony. The [L]egislature, as the policy makers for this [S]tate, have consistently declined to amend the divorce statutes to provide that one party can obtain a divorce from the other spouse without a showing of fault. Our appellate courts have not expanded the definition of cruel and inhuman treatment to include circumstances which would otherwise comprise mere incompatibility. The [c]ourt is, therefore, constrained by the evidence presented to it and the record made, and cannot find that Brooke’s and Mike’s marriage was unendurable at the time that Brooke left. Thus, the [c]ourt cannot find that Mike is guilty of constructive desertion.

We find no clear error, legal error, or abuse of discretion in the chancery court’s findings and conclusions. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the chancery court dismissing Brooke’s complaint for a divorce.

Some observations:

  • The inescapable object lesson here is one most practitioners have come to appreciate over the years: HCIT is not an easy ground with which to obtain a divorce, even though the burden of proof is only a preponderance of the evidence.
  • In ¶24, dealing with constructive desertion, the court says, citing Hoskins, that “The burden of proof is on the party seeking the divorce to prove her ground by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 707 (¶6).” That can at least be misleading. Hoskins does not say that; when Hoskins mentions burden of proof, it is referring to HCIT. Indeed, the only ground for divorce with a preponderance burden of proof is HCIT. The other grounds require clear and convincing evidence. See, Bell, 2d Ed., § 4.02[1][b]. Bell does say that, “In effect, conduct that would qualify as [HCIT] becomes constructive desertion when the innocent spouse leaves the home rather than remaining.” Id., §4.02[5][d]. So I guess it could be argued that the HCIT burden of proof applies in constructive desertion cases, but I am not aware of any cases that say that directly.

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