Essential Jurisdictional Facts for Divorce
September 9, 2015 § 9 Comments
There are four fundamental facts you need to know about divorce in Mississippi:
- Venue is jurisdictional.
- Residence is jurisdictional.
- There must have been a marriage for there to be a divorce.
- Pleadings are not evidence.
Knowing those four things, then, you need to make sure that you put proof in the record, most usually in the form of testimony, that establishes venue and residence — ergo jurisdiction — and that there was a marriage.
Here are the jurisdictional facts that need to be in the record for the court to exercise jurisdiction over a divorce:
- That there was a valid marriage. When and where were the parties married?
- When was the separation? Separation is not essential for the granting of a divorce, per MCA 93-5-4, but it helps the judge understand the context of the divorce. Many chancellors will want you to establish that, despite the non-separation, they have not had consensual sexual intercourse.
- Where is venue? For a fault-based divorce, the case must be filed in: (1) the county where the defendant resides; or (2) the county where the plaintiff resides if the parties lived in that county up to the time of the separation and the plaintiff has continued to live there; or (3) the county where the plaintiff resides if the defendant is a non-resident or not to be found in the state. If the ground for divorce is solely irreconcilable differences, the complaint may be filed in the county of either party. MCA 93-5-11. If the action is not filed in the proper county, the court has no jurisdiction, and the case must be transferred to the proper county, per MCA 93-5-11 and MRCP 82(d).
- Is there the requisite residential period? One of the parties must have been a bona fide resident of the State of Mississippi “within this state” for six months “next preceding” the commencement of the case. That means that there must be six uninterrupted months of actual residence inside the state. It is not enough to move here four months before filing and claim that you actually changed your residence to Mississippi two months before moving here, or to stitch together several periods of residency to make six months. The six-month period does not apply to U.S. military actually stationed in Mississippi, provided that the member resided with the spouse in Mississippi, and the separation occurred in Mississippi. Residency must not have been acquired to secure a divorce. MCA 93-5-5.
Don’t forget the UCCJEA allegations if custody is an issue.
Just because you plead all of the jurisdictional requirements, that does not prove anything because pleadings are not evidence, and the only way to prove something is to get evidence into the record — meaning the trial transcript.
I find that even experienced lawyers fail to get this vital proof into the record in some cases. It happens primarily in cases where the plaintiff’s attorney calls the other party adversely as the first witness. Those jurisdictional fact questions somehow never get asked. Maybe the attorney is afraid that the adverse party will deny residency or something similar. Maybe the attorney is more preoccupied with confronting the cheater with videos, or making him admit he squandered the family fortune gambling. Maybe it’s simple oversight. Whatever, it should not be left up to the judge to inquire about these jurisdictional nuances.
The Bite of Draftsmanship
September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
How you draft your legal instruments can have a huge impact on your clients’ future.
Take, for instance, the parties’ property settlement agreement (PSA) in the case of Aaron v. Aaron, a COA case handed down September 9, 2014. George and Annie Aaron were divorced in 2002 on the ground of irreconcilable differences. At the time, George was employed with the Amory Police Department, and was a participant in PERS. We don’t know from the court’s opinion the exact language of the parties’ agreement, but we know this much from ¶ 1:
As part of the divorce, George agreed to pay Annie one-half of his retirement funds acquired during the marriage. The judgment stated the funds would be transferred through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). At the time the judgment was entered, George was not receiving any retirement benefits. The judgment did not state which party was responsible for entering the QDRO.
We also can divine from the opinion that: the language of the PSA did not specify whether Annie was to receive 1/2 of the retirement accumulated during the marriage, or 1/2 of all George’s retirement, a significant portion of which would be earned after the divorce; it did not spell out what consideration would be given to future pay increases on George’s ultimate obligation to Annie; it also did not settle the question whether the payments were intended to be paid out in a lump sum as property settlement or whether they were intended to be paid monthly as benefits were paid out to George, in the nature of alimony.
The legal considerations that remained unaddressed in the parties’ agreement were, at least, the following:
- PERS takes the position that federal ERISA and Mississippi law do not allow division of PERS benefits by QDRO. The agreement should have provided that it would be divided by payment, unless George left PERS employment and withdrew his account, at which time it would be divided by specified percentages between them. No mention should have been made of a QDRO vis a vis the PERS benefits. Also, whose responsibility it was to trigger the payment of benefits should have been specified in the agreement.
- Final calculation of the PERS benefit is based on the highest four years of earnings. Since George was not a retirement age at the time of the divorce (he did not retire until 2011), the parties should have negotiated and included in their agreement how Annie’s 1/2 benefit would be calculated, taking into account the probability of George’s future pay increases.
- PERS benefits can not be paid out in a lump sum unless the employee leaves PERS employment. As mentioned above, this obvious point should have been addressed in the parties’ agreement. In essence, these parties had no choice but to have Annie’s share paid out over time. That is what the chancellor in Pruitt v. Pruitt tried to do, but was reversed by the COA. The problem, based on Pruitt, seems easy to address in a rational way, but is in reality deceptively difficult to resolve.
Every one of the foregoing deficiencies came back to bite these parties in the proverbial nether regions. Annie brought a contempt action against George because he did not initiate a QDRO, and for her unpaid benefits. George countered that he owed nothing, since PERS could not be divided by QDRO. The chancellor calculated what she concluded was Annie’s portion, and ordered that Annie receive that from George’s retirement payments as paid, and she awarded Annie a judgment with modest interest for the benefits that he had received and not shared with Annie. She died not find George in contempt.
George appealed, raising all of the points above. The COA affirmed.
It would have saved everyone involved a lot of legal fees, costs, aggravation, anxiety, and time if only some more attention and effort had been put into the drafting of the PSA in the first place. Yes, it would have required more time for negotiation and drafting, but it would have settled the issue as early as 2011 without the need for further litigation. It’s called draftsmanship.
A Rule 54(b) Dismissal With a Twist
June 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
We’ve talked here numerous times about the unappealability of a judgment that disposes than fewer than all of the issues pending before the court. If you type “54(b)” in that search box over there it will take you to the many posts on the subject.
The COA case of Newson v. Newson, handed down May 13, 2014, presents a scenario that just might apply in one of your cases, so you should take notice.
In May, 2011, the chancellor entered a judgment granting Lori Newson a divorce from her husband, Anthony, on the ground of adultery. On that day, Anthony’s attorney advised the court that his client had filed for bankruptcy, so the judge reserved ruling on alimony and equitable distribution until the status of the bankruptcy was clarified.
In March, 2012, the chancellor gave the parties the go-ahead to proceed. In August, 2012, the parties submitted a partial agreement, and the court made a partial ruling. The court stated that “the responsibility of the indebtedness of the respective parties, spousal support/alimony, attorney’s fees and/or costs owed by the parties would be reserved for a final hearing. Apparently there was another hearing, because in October, 2012, the court entered an order styled or referred to as a final order, granting Lori periodic alimony, and finding that Anthony was in arrears in the sum of more than $64,000 in alimony, for which he was in contempt. The judge left the record open for Lori’s attorney to present a statement of services rendered so that he could adjudicate attorney’s fees. Anthony filed a motion asking the court to reconsider (R59, I guess, since there is no such thing as a motion for reconsideration), which the court overruled. Anthony appealed.
The COA predictably ruled that, since the chancellor had left the record open without finally adjudicating the issue of attorney’s fees, and without certifying the case, the COA was without jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal.
Now, here’s the twist …
Quite often lawyers ask the court to combine into the final hearing the contempt issues that accrue during the pendency of a divorce. It’s not unusual for the court in such a situation to adjudicate finally all of the divorce issues — grounds, custody, child support, equitable distribution, alimony, attorney’s fees on the divorce — and then to treat the contempt issues. In addressing the contempt issues, the court many times will order that the contemnor do certain things to purge himself of contempt, and for the matter to be reviewed at a later date. Sometimes there is a second or even a third review hearing. In such a case, you are stuck with an unappealable divorce judgment until the trial judge finally adjudicates everything.
- You file a R59 motion (within ten days of the original judgment) asking the court to add the “express determination that there is no just reason for delay,” per R 54(b), and directing entry of a final judgment on the issues of divorce, custody, equitable distribution, alimony, attorney’s fees on the divorce, leaving the contempt issues to take their own, separate course. Or …
- You could make a motion at the conclusion of your case that the issues be severed, and that the court make the R54(b) certification to be included in the final judgment.
Of course, you could ask the court not to combine the contempt issues in with the final divorce hearing in the first place, but most clients want the hourly billing and the courtroom time to end, so it’s usually more efficient from a time and law-weariness standpoint to get it all over with in one hearing.
This is one of those situations where you need to pay attention to where you are and how you got there. Once you realize you are faced with a judgment that may not be appealable for quite some time, you need to take steps to extricate your client from that bind.
“FAMILY USE DOCTRINE” HITS A WALL
June 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
I confess that I am no fan of the so-called “Family Use Doctrine.” That’s the concept that, simply because a separate asset was used by the household, its character changes from separate to marital, in whole or in part. I’ve voiced my concern about it here before.
In its latest manifestation, the COA reversed the chancellor’s ruling that Ceicle Palmer was entitled to one-half of the marital estate, which the chancellor adjudged to include a home separately owned prior to the marriage by her husband, Roland. The parties had lived in the home together, and Ceicle had invested some $2,000 in it. The effect of the judge’s ruling, then, was to award Ceicle half of the home equity, which amounted to more than $30,000. Roland appealed.
In the case of Palmer v. Palmer, decided May 7, 2013, the COA reversed and remanded. At ¶ 9 the opinion by Judge Irving states that, “We agree with the chancellor’s finding that the home is marital property.” That’s the “Family Use Doctrine” clicking into place. The court went on to say, however:
¶10. We have held that “[e]quitable distribution does not mean equal distribution,” and there is no requirement that each spouse must receive half of an interest in the property. Jenkins v. Jenkins, 67 So. 3d 5, 11 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Seymour v. Seymour, 960 So. 2d 513, 519 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006)). “[E]quitable distribution [is] a fair division of marital property based on the facts of each case.” Seymour, 960 So. 2d at 519 (¶15). We point out that the chancellor did not specifically award Ceicle a fifty percent interest in the marital home. Rather, he awarded her a fifty percent interest in the marital estate. However, the effect of awarding her fifty percent of the marital estate was to award her a fifty percent interest in the marital home. In reaching his decision, the chancellor noted that there was no evidence that the home had appreciated in value during the course of the marriage and that Ceicle’s only financial contribution to the home was $2,000 for putting in some carpet and tiling the kitchen floor. At one point, the chancellor stated that there was no evidence that the carpet and tile had resulted in an appreciation in the value of the home. However, the chancellor later said that Ceicle had made $2,000 worth of improvements.
¶11. We acknowledge the clarity in our law—that equitable distribution is committed to the sound discretion of the chancellor. However, we, as an appellate court, have oversight responsibility, and if we could never reverse a chancellor’s decision regarding equitable distribution, our oversight responsibility would be reduced to the ministerial act of simply rubber-stamping a chancellor’s decision. While Ceicle did pay $2,000 for new flooring, it is difficult to conclude that her meager financial contribution, along with her domestic contributions to the relationship, warrants a fifty percent interest in the marital home. The house was already paid for before Ceicle and Roland married. The record reflects that Roland also made domestic contributions to the relationship in addition to providing the home, without any compensation or contribution from Ceicle. The record also reflects that Roland has no money from any source other than his meager Social Security check. He would be forced to sell the home in order to pay Ceicle the $31,502.50 that the chancellor awarded her. At that point, he would be homeless or would have to incur additional expenses for lodging. Even the chancellor recognized this fact, as he specifically found [as much].
The court went on to consider the parties’ relative financial conditions and health, concluding that the equities should be adjusted to give Roland the greater part of the marital estate.
There was a dissent critical of the majority opinion, which was addressed by the majority as follows:
¶13. The dissent apparently misreads the focus of our finding that the chancellor erred in dividing the marital estate, as the dissent states, in paragraph 21, that “Mississippi law does not require a spouse to have made a direct economic contribution to an asset to be awarded an interest.” Nothing in our opinion suggests that our law requires such. We do not find error with the chancellor’s judgment because it awarded Ceicle what is tantamount to a fifty percent interest in an asset that she made no contribution to acquiring. We have discussed the facts surrounding the acquisition of the marital home because those facts are relevant to the greater issue of whether there is substantial evidence to support the chancellor’s finding that a fifty-fifty division of the marital estate is equitable. It is only one piece of the overall equation, but an important piece because the marital home constitutes more than fifty percent of the total value of the marital estate. To be clear, our decision rests upon a consideration of the totality of the factual circumstances, including Roland’s health versus Ceicle’s, Roland’s post-divorce financial situation, and especially the chancellor’s finding and recognition that:
If this court were to direct that Roland Palmer sell the marital home, he would net some cash, but would be forced to either rent or buy and would rapidly deplete any funds realized from the sale of the home. Based upon his current income, he would be unable to afford to either rent or buy.
Despite this finding, the chancellor, in effect, concluded that it was equitable to thrust Roland into the very situation that he specifically found was inequitable and which would leave Roland in dire straits.
It’s hard to reconcile this case with Rhodes v. Rhodes, the family-use case I whined about in that prior post. In Rhodes, the COA held that, among several other factors, the household use of a beach condo a few weeks a year for the several years of the brief marriage converted it to marital poperty. That was viewed as equitable by the COA.
I have joked that our jursisprudence is reaching biblical proportions, meaning that one can now find authority to support nearly every possible position, and even several cases on each opposite side of an issue.
Is this Palmer case an anomaly, an outlier? We’ll see.
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.
SOME SAGE DIVORCE ADVICE
March 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
WordPress has a feature for us bloggers that shows the search terms that brought readers to our sites. Randy Wallace of Clinton used the search terms he collected on his blog as a platform for a Q&A for divorces.
Here’s a link to his post from March 22, 2013 Search terms……….Ask Randy, which I think any family law practitioner would find to be spot on.
While you’re at it, Randy’s post from June of last year 40 Things …… make that 41 NOT to do during your divorce is a masterpiece.
ALIENATION OF AFFECTION: A DISH BEST SERVED COLD
February 12, 2013 § 3 Comments
Alienation of affection survives the Mississippi legislature yet again, per Randy Wallace.
Here’s Philip Thomas’s take.
In the 21st century, what is the justification for continuing this cause of action in effect? Don’t the equitable distribution principles take care of this? Doesn’t the tort simply add a distorting feature to the equitable distribution arrangement?
Our family law has been evolving away from the nineteenth-century retribution-based model to today’s equitable relief, based on valuations and equities. This tort just does not fit.
Maybe some day all of our marital-dissolution law, including associated tort law, will move into the 21st century (hopefully before the 22nd century).
February 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
Tell me, how long, Judge, do I have to wait?
Can you let me know? Why must I corroborate?
— apologies to Rev. Gary Davis “Hesitation Blues”
We’ve visited the issue of corroboration in divorce cases several times on this blog. You can find posts on the subject here, here and here. As Judge Maxwell said in the case of Smith v. Smith, “[C]orroborating evidence need not be sufficient in itself to establish [habitual cruelty], but rather ‘need only provide enough supporting facts for a court to conclude that the plaintiff’s testimony is true.” citing Jones v. Jones, 43 So. 3d 465, 478 (Miss.App. 2009).
If your case lacks corroboration, you will leave the courtroom sans a divorce.
You will find the latest example in the case of Gillespie v. Gillespie, decided by the COA January 29, 2013. I’ll let Judge Griffis’s decision do the talking:
¶13. Habitual cruel and inhuman treatment as a ground for divorce must be proved by a preponderance of credible evidence. Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 859 (Miss. 1994). This Court has stated:
Conduct that evinces habitual cruel and inhuman treatment must be such that it either (1) endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of such danger, rendering the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or (2) is so unnatural and infamous as to make the marriage revolting to the nonoffending spouse and render it impossible for that spouse to discharge the duties of marriage, thus destroying the basis for its continuance.
Fulton v. Fulton, 918 So. 2d 877, 880 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citation omitted). Generally, the “cruel and inhuman treatment must be shown to be routine and continuous; however, a single occurrence may be [sufficient] for a divorce on this ground.” Boutwell v. Boutwell, 829 So. 2d 1216, 1220 (¶14) (Miss. 2002) (citations omitted).
¶14. In Chamblee, the supreme court addressed the requirement that the claims of cruel and inhuman treatment be corroborated by a witness. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d at 860. The court noted that the wife produced only one corroborating witness. Id. The witness simply observed the presence of bruises on the wife’s arm and had no independent knowledge of how they got there. Id. Finally, the husband denied abusing the wife. Id. For these reasons, the court determined the chancellor did not err when he denied the wife a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment because she failed to prove her case by a preponderance of the evidence. Id.
¶15. In Fulton, 918 So. 2d at 880-81 (¶¶9-10), the wife produced three witnesses to corroborate her claim that her husband abused her. Id. at 880 (¶9). Her mother testified she observed bruises. Id. Also, a friend testified that on many occasions the wife called late at night to discuss the altercations between her and her husband. Id. Finally, a cousin testified she took pictures of the wife’s bruises and scratches in her mouth. Id. The cousin also observed tension in the household when she visited. Id. This Court determined that this evidence was sufficient to grant a divorce based on cruel and inhuman treatment. Id. at 881 (¶10).
¶16. Here, Timmy offered one witness, James Moss, to corroborate his claim of cruel and inhuman treatment. Moss observed bruises on Timmy but had no independent knowledge of how Timmy had received the bruises. Moss’s testimony was based not on his own knowledge or information but on what Timmy had told him.
¶17. Timmy also claims that Meagan observed an attack. But, Meagan did not testify to corroborate his claim.
¶18. No corroborating witness, with independent knowledge of the instances of cruel and inhuman treatment, testified to establish the claim of cruel and inhuman treatment. As a result, we find that the chancellor’s finding of grounds for a divorce due to cruel and inhuman treatment was not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. Nevertheless, because we affirm the chancellor as to the grounds of adultery in the following section, this decision does not affect the outcome of this appeal.
The difficult corroboration cases seem to be the ones that I refer to as self-corroboration, which occurs when all that the corroborating witness knows is what he or she was told by the alleged abusee, as in Chamblee. In Smith, the only corroboration was police reports that the alleged victim had made, which were based on her own allegations and nothing else. The Fulton case, above, is a good illustration of the web of circumstantial evidence that will be found to be corroborative.
No corroboration, and you have to hesitate.
ID DIVORCES IN DISTRICT 12
October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
‘Way back in June, 2010, I posted the requirements in this district to present an irreconcilable differences divorce.
As I explained back then …
The chancery judge in an irreconcilable differences (ID) divorce is required by law to make a determination about the sufficiency of the provision for support of the minor children. Different chancellors approach the task in different ways. Some judges require a complete Rule 8.05 financial statement from each party. Some judges take the word of the attorney or litigants.
In District 12, we do not require an 8.05, but we do require that the property settlement agreement (PSA) must include certain information about the income and deductions of the paying parent. Here are our requirements:
- The property settlement agreement must include information showing gross income and deductions for taxes, Medicare and social security for year to date for the paying party, in the form of a pay stub attached to the agreement or a recitation of the actual figures, including monthly and year-to-date figures, in the body of the agreement; or, in the alternative, a statement satisfactory to the court as to why such information is not available. If the pay stub is attached, the agreement itself must include a provision that both parties have seen and are satisfied with the accuracy of the document. If the required information is not included, the agreement will not be approved.
We also have a requirement that the 8.06 disclosures either be in the PSA itself, or that the parties file it with the clerk simultaneously with entry of the divorce judgment. This policy is a recognition of the fact that 99.9% of parties do not file their 8.06 informantion as required in the rules. UCCR 8.06 mandates that the current names, addresses and telephone numbers of both parents must be disclosed and filed in the court file.
We also require at least one of the parties to appear and testify. The witness establishes the jurisdictional facts and answers two questions about the PSA: is it the entire agreement, so that there are no side agreements or unwritten deals; and does it settle all of the marital issues between the parties? If the other party is unrepresented, it would be a good idea to have that party appear also to be available to answer any questions or to make any changes in the PSA that are directed by the court.