The Application for joint Custody

October 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

Justin Brown and Kristin Anklum had a child together, but were never married. They got into a custody dispute that brought them before a chancellor. Both petitioned the court for custody.

After three days of trial, the judge awarded them joint physical and legal custody. Brown appealed, complaining that it was error for the court to award joint custody.

In Brown v. Anklum, decided July 24, 2018, the COA affirmed. Judge Westbrooks wrote for the majority:

¶11. Brown argues that the parties have to make an express “application” asking for joint custody in order for the chancellor to order joint custody. However, Brown does not cite any authority in favor of his argument outside of Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(2)-(3) (Rev. 2013). This code section states in part:

(2) Joint custody may be awarded where irreconcilable differences is the ground for divorce, in the discretion of the court, upon application of both parents.

(3) In other cases, joint custody may be awarded, in the discretion of the court, upon application of one or both parents.

¶12. This Court has held that the application of joint custody may be made by one or both parents if the arrangement is in the best interest of the child. See Crider v. Crider, 904 So. 2d 142, 148 (¶16) (Miss. 2005). As Anslum pointed out in her brief, in irreconcilable differences cases the court may award joint custody when the parties request the court to determine custody. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “when parties consent in writing to the court’s determination of custody, they are consenting and agreeing to that determination and this meets the statutory directive of ‘joint application’ in § 93-5-24(2).” Id. at 148 (¶15). Thus, a mere request to determine custody satisfies the “application” requirement. Id.

¶13. Accordingly, we find this issue is meritless.

Not a lot to ponder here, but it is a reminder that joint custody is almost always in the picture when you are litigating custody.

I wonder whether the application of law would be different if both parties pled or stipulated that joint custody would not be in the child’s best interest. My guess: that would not rule out an award of joint custody if the chancellor found that to be in the child’s best interest.

Judge Carlton, joined by Tindell, disagreed with the majority that the chancellor’s findings in favor of joint custody were supported by the evidence. You might find some of her rationale useful if you find yourself on that side of a similar equation.

Another Joint Custody Award in a Non-Divorce Case

December 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

In previous posts that you can read here and here, we talked about awards of joint custody in cases that did not involve divorce. The former link was a paternity case; the latter was a third-party custody dispute between grandparents.

In yet another paternity case the chancellor awarded joint custody and his decision was affirmed in Rayner v. Sims, handed down October 17, 2017, by the COA.

The case is not particularly noteworthy, except to add it to your stockpile of authority supporting awards of joint custody in non-divorce cases.

The COA’s decision does include a discussion of one way that a chancellor may calculate child support in a shared-custody arrangement. Here’s what Judge Griffis’s opinion had to say about it:

¶29. Mackie further claims the chancellor “engaged in his own computation of the child support obligation that is not supported by or authorized by statute.” We disagree. The chancellor ordered that Chance would have physical custody three days per week, and Mackie would have physical custody four days per week. The chancellor found that child support for the minor child would be based “upon 14 percent of each party’s adjusted-gross income” and that each party “shall pay child support in proportion to their periods of shared custody and their incomes.” [Fn 6] We find statutory support for the chancellor’s decision.

[Fn 6] The chancellor stated he would leave it up to the attorneys to “do the math.”
Counsel subsequently submitted an exhibit, which outlined the child-support calculation.

¶30. Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-19-101(1) (Rev. 2015) provides that 14% of a party’s adjusted gross income should be awarded for the support of one child. Pursuant to section 43-19-101(2), the percentage outlined in subsection (1) applies unless the court “makes a written finding or specific finding on the record that the application of the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in a particular case as determined under the criteria specified in section 43-19-103.” Under Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-19-103(g) (Rev. 2015), the “particular shared parental arrangement” is a factor the chancellor may consider in his adjustment of the statutory guidelines established by section 43-19-101(1). Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-103(g).

¶31. Here, the record shows that the chancellor found the statutory percentage, as outlined in section 43-19-101(1), should be adjusted based on the parties’ joint custody arrangement, “in proportion to their periods of shared custody.” The chancellor further ordered that Chance shall continue to provide insurance for Frances. Such decision is supported and authorized by statute. Accordingly, we find no error and affirm.

We have all seen this apportionment of child support process handled a hundred different ways. I am sure you have seen some creative ways yourself. As long as the result comports with the statutory percentages and takes into account the shared custody arrangement, the judge’s decision would likely be affirmed.

Joint Custody Outside of Divorce

November 14, 2017 § 1 Comment

We all know that the chancellor may award joint physical custody in an irreconcilable-differences divorce, but what about when the natural parents have never been married to each other and they are before the court in a custody dispute? May the chancellor award joint custody?

That was one of the issues before the COA in the case of Roberts v. Eads, handed down October 10, 2017. In that case, Lauren Roberts sued Tyler Eads for custody and support of their son, Thomas. Tyler counterclaimed for custody, sole or joint. The chancellor granted them joint physical and legal custody, and Lauren appealed. The COA affirmed. Judge Carlton wrote for a unanimous court:

¶22. In addition to challenging the chancellor’s application of the Albright factors, Lauren claims that the chancellor’s award of joint physical custody violates Easley v. Easley, 91 So. 3d 639 (Miss. Ct. App. 2012), and Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(2) (Rev. 2013).

¶23. In Easley, the chancellor granted the parties an irreconcilable-differences divorce. Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). Section 93-5-24(2) provides that joint custody may be awarded in an irreconcilable-differences divorce “in the discretion of the court, upon application of both parents.” Following a trial in Easley, “the chancellor determined that joint physical custody was in the children’s best interest, but he erroneously concluded that the statute did not allow it to be awarded unless both parties expressly presented joint custody for consideration.” Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). The chancellor therefore awarded sole custody of the parties’ children to the father while granting the mother visitation. Id. On appeal, this Court concluded that, “after finding joint custody to be in the children’s best interest, the chancellor’s award of custody to one parent was an error of law.” Id. at (¶2). We therefore reversed the chancellor’s judgment and remanded the case so the chancellor could apply the proper legal standard. Id.

¶24. Upon review of the present case, we find no merit to Lauren’s claim that the chancellor’s award of joint physical custody violated either section 93-5-24(2) or our holding in Easley. As stated, section 93-5-24(2) provides a chancellor with the discretion to grant joint custody in an irreconcilable-differences divorce. However, the present case involves no such divorce since the parties were never married. We further note that section 93-5-24(3) provides a chancellor with the discretion to award joint custody “[i]n other cases . . . upon application of one or both parents.” As the record here reflects, in responding to Lauren’s custody petition, Tyler requested sole custody or, in the alternative, joint custody.  Furthermore, after considering the Albright factors, the chancellor determined that joint legal and physical custody served Thomas’s best interest. [Fn omitted] As Easley recognized, a chancellor may grant joint custody, even where both parties do not present the issue, if such an arrangement
is in the child’s best interest. See Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). We therefore find no merit to Lauren’s assertion that the chancellor’s judgment violated Mississippi statutory law and caselaw.

¶25. The chancellor’s judgment is affirmed.

That’s something you might be able to put to good use.

Ready for Review?

August 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

If a chancellor orders joint custody to be effective only until the child turns five in 2017, at which time the matter will be reviewed, is that a final, appealable judgment?

That was one of the questions addressed by the COA in the case of Thames v. Thames, decided July 28, 2015. We discussed this case here before in the context of the reasonability of a joint custody arrangement.

I say it was “addressed” because the court dealt with it as if the appeal had raised the R54(b) argument as a jurisdictional issue. The appellant, though, did not argue it that way. Rather, she contended that the chancellor erred by violating the maxim that “equity delights to do justice completely and not by halves” when he failed to determine who would have custody of the parties’ daughter after she started five-year-old kindergarten.

What the chancellor actually said was that the parties could have the option either: (a) to agree to a review hearing in February, 2017; or (b) to certify the judgment as final and appealable per R54(b). Despite that, in the record there is no order or judgment agreeing to a review hearing, and there is no R54 certification.

Undeterred, Debra Thames appealed. The case was reversed on other grounds, but here is how Judge Lee dealt with Debra’s maxim argument:

¶10. While Debra does not argue that the judgment was not final and appealable, the underlying issue is the same, and that is whether any issues remain to be resolved [in the litigation before the chancellor]. Following the reasoning in Crider [v. Crider, 905 So.2d 706, 707-08 (¶¶3-5) (Miss. App. 2004)], we find that the judgment was final, and it disposed of all of the issues until Sofia starts five-year-old kindergarten. While the chancellor in this case did not specify the exact month and year in the final judgment as did the chancellor in Crider, the visitation schedule ends in February 2017 [Fn omitted], and the chancellor stated that the order is to remain in effect until further order of the court and only until Sofia starts five-year-old kindergarten. Furthermore, the chancellor gave the parties the option of agreeing to a future hearing to review custody or making the judgment a Rule 54(b) judgment. Either way, a future hearing was to be held to revisit custody. Formal recognition of the need to revisit custody before Sofia starts five-year-old kindergarten did not prevent the judgment from being final.

From this we can take away that a chancellor in a case such as this may leave open the possibility of a future custody arrangement based on a future event that will be a major turning point in the child’s life, such as beginning school, and the fact that it will need to be revisited will not affect its finality for appeal. Allowing chancellors this kind of flexibility provides more options for the trial judge to employ for the best interest of the child.

I think this is a very narrow holding, and you will be unsuccessful if you try in different set of facts to stretch this holding to justify an appeal from an incomplete judgment.

The Practicality of Joint Custody

August 10, 2015 § 7 Comments

We are seeing joint custody arrangements more and more frequently in ID divorces. And recent cases out of our appellate courts have signaled not only that joint custody may be awarded in a contested case, but that it should be considered in every case.

When MCA 93-5-24 was first adopted to provide for joint custody arrangements, it was frowned on by many chancellors who believed it was in the best interest of the child “to know where his home is,” and because once it was imposed, it was devilishly difficult to get out of because it required the same showing as modification of custody (material change in circumstances + adverse effect + best interest).

Over time, experience taught us that stability for a child arises more out of a loving, safe, attentive home environment than out of a particular place, and that there were plenty of parents who could provide that kind of environment, even when living apart in separate households.

Another change that made joint custody more attractive was the amendment of MCA 93-5-24(6) to provide that: “Any order for joint custody may be modified or terminated upon the petition of both parents or upon the petition of one (1) parent showing that a material change in circumstances has occurred.” That’s significantly easier to modify than sole custody.

Just because your client wants to agree to joint custody, however, does not mean that it should be adopted. A recent case shows how the practicality of the custody arrangement must be taken into account.

Debra and Christopher Thames separated in 2013, when Debra left Mississippi and moved to San Antonio, Texas, taking the parties’ one-year-old daughter with her. Christopher filed for divorce, and the parties entered into a consent for the judge to adjudicate custody. The chancellor ordered that the parties share joint physical and legal custody, alternating one-month periods of physical custody between them. Debra appealed.

In Thames v. Thames, handed down July 28, 2015, the COA reversed and remanded. Judge Lee, for the court:

¶11. “[T]he polestar consideration in child[-]custody cases is the best interest and welfare of the child.” Albright v. Albright, 437 So. 2d 1003, 1005 (Miss. 1983). To that end, chancellors must conduct an Albright analysis, weighing each of the applicable factors. Id. Where both parties consent in writing to submit the issue of custody to the chancellor for his determination, and the chancellor finds both parents fit, joint custody may be awarded. Crider v. Crider, 904 So. 2d 142, 143-49 (¶¶3-17) (Miss. 2005). “[J]oint custody should not be awarded[, however,] where it is impractical or burdensome to the children.” Jackson v. Jackson, 82 So. 3d 644, 646 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). The parents must also be capable of cooperating if joint custody is to be awarded. Crider, 904 So. 2d at 148 (¶16).

¶12. Debra does not attack the soundness of the chancellor’s Albright analysis, but argues that the chancellor failed to consider whether the joint-custody arrangement was practical due to the distance Sofia had to travel every month. Debra also claims the chancellor failed to consider whether the parties were capable of cooperating. Because we find that the joint custody arrangement is impractical, we decline to address whether the parties are capable of cooperating.

¶13. “There have been prior decisions regarding initial joint-custody arrangements that became impractical after one or both parents moved.” Massey v. Huggins, 799 So. 2d 902, 906 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (citations omitted). In McRee v. McRee, 723 So. 2d 1217, 1218-19 (¶4) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998), this Court affirmed the chancellor’s decision to modify custody based on the father’s relocation to Houston, Texas. The chancellor found that “[t]he joint-custody agreement, which provided for the child to stay with each parent on alternating months, was impractical once [the father] moved to Texas.” Id. at 1219 (¶6). He found that a modification was inevitable and that the question to be answered was who was to have primary custody. Id. The parties to that suit agreed. Id. In Massey, 799 So. 2d at 905-06 (¶¶6-13), this Court agreed with the chancellor that joint physical custody was impractical where one party moved to Long Beach, Mississippi, and the other to Petal, Mississippi. The chancellor was quoted as saying, “as I view the situation, the biggest change that has occurred, as far as these parties are concerned, is that their joint[-]physical[-]custody arrangements are not possible now because they live in different areas of the state.” Id. at 906 (¶13). He stated that there would “have to be a change of [physical] custody” and that the issue was “whether it’s going to be with the mother or father.” Id. The initial custody arrangement in Massey had four exchanges between the parents each week, and both parents sought sole custody upon modification. Id. at 905-06 (¶¶5-13).

¶14. There are also prior decisions that discourage the use of alternating custody arrangements. Case v. Stolpe, 300 So. 2d 802, 804 (Miss. 1974); Brocato v. Walker, 220 So.2d 340, 343 (Miss. 1969); Daniel v. Daniel, 770 So. 2d 562, 567 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000). See also Lackey v. Fuller, 755 So. 2d 1083, 1088-89 (¶¶27-29) (Miss. 2000). In Daniel, the child was alternating custody back and forth between Arkansas and Mississippi every two weeks. Daniel, 770 So. 2d at 563-66 (¶¶2-14). This Court, noting that this type of arrangement was to be discouraged, declined to make any changes because the child was nearing the age of five-year-old kindergarten, at which time the father was to exercise primary physical custody. Id. at 563-67 (¶¶2-15). We declined to interrupt what had become the child’s regular routine. Id. at 567 (¶15).

¶15. After conducting an Albright analysis, the chancellor in this case found that joint custody was in Sofia’s best interest, irrespective of the distance she would have to travel to spend time with each parent. We do not agree. Given the distance between San Antonio, Texas, and Brandon, Mississippi, a monthly alternating custody arrangement is not in Sofia’s best interest. The distance between San Antonio and Brandon renders this custody arrangement impractical. In McRee, we agreed with the chancellor that an alternating monthly custody arrangement that shifted the child between Houston, Texas, and Jackson, Mississippi was impractical. See Massey, 799 So. 2d at 906 (¶13). The distance between San Antonio and Brandon is even greater. We, therefore, reverse the chancellor’s judgment and remand this case for a reconsideration of the Albright factors and a determination of who is to have primary custody of Sofia.

That’s a nifty review of the law of joint custody in a nice block of research that you can copy and paste into a motion or even a brief.

This decision should remind you that you have got to advise your clients about what is and is not workable as a joint custody arrangement. Practicality is a significant consideration.

One quibble: Are we going to keep talking about “primary physical custody” or “primary custody” when the MSSC has told us in no uncertain terms that the word “primary” when used in conjunction with any form of custody has no meaning in the law?  Porter v. Porter, 23 So.3d 438 (Miss. 2009). I posted about Porter and its pitfall at this link.

Does a Custody Decision Have to Pass Through Joint Custody?

June 22, 2015 § 2 Comments

We’ve talked here before about the principle that, where the parties have consented to allow the chancellor to adjudicate custody, the chancellor may award either party custody, and may award joint custody. That was decided by the MSSC in Crider v. Crider in 2012, and has been elaborated on in cases applying it since.

Does Crider, then, require the chancellor to consider whether joint custody should be awarded before awarding either party sole custody? That was the issue confronting the COA in the case of White v. White, decided June 16, 2015.

Maegan White and Christopher White consented to an irreconcilable differences divorce, with custody of their children, Garrett and Harley, as a contested issue. The chancellor accepted the recommendation of the GAL and awarded sole custody to Christopher, and her opinion made no mention of the possibility or consideration of joint custody. Meagan appealed, arguing that the chancellor’s failure to consider joint custody was error. She contended that Crider and Clark v. Clark, 126 So.3d 122 (Miss. App. 2013) required the judge to consider whether joint custody was in the best interest of the children.

Judge Roberts addressed her argument for the COA:

¶19. Maegan’s interpretation of both Clark and Crider is faulty. In Clark, this Court reversed and remanded a chancellor’s decision to award sole physical custody to the mother, requiring the court to consider the propriety of joint custody on remand. Both parents had requested sole physical custody of their child and submitted the issue to the court for determination. After hearing testimony of the parties, the chancellor had noted: “[In these] kinds of cases . . . it’s hard . . . to give the child to one or the other because everything here would support that. . . . [H]ow can you choose one over the other, but [this court] has to.” Clark, 126 So. 3d at 124-25 (¶10). In reversing the chancery court’s judgment, this Court noted, “Based on our reading of the transcript, it appears that the chancery court may have concluded . . . that it was required to order custody to one parent regardless of whether joint physical custody was in the best interest of [the child].” Id. at 125 (¶12). Noting our concern that the chancery court had incorrectly concluded it was not authorized to consider joint custody, as neither party had requested it, we reversed and remanded for further consideration.

¶20. Similarly, in Crider, parents in an irreconcilable-differences divorce each requested sole custody of their child. The parents submitted the issue of custody to the court for determination. After considering testimony presented and conducting an Albright analysis, the chancellor found that, even though neither parent requested joint custody, it was in the child’s best interest. Thus, she awarded joint custody to the parents for a two-year period. The mother appealed, noting that Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(2) (Rev. 2013) [footnote omitted] prohibited a chancellor from awarding joint custody unless specifically requested by the parties. This Court agreed and reversed the chancellor’s judgment, prompting the father to petition for certiorari with the supreme court. After a thorough analysis of the statute and its meaning, the supreme court stated:

It is logical and reasonable that “application of both parties” exists when both parties consent to allowing the court to determine custody. The fact that the parties request that the court determine which parent is to receive “primary custody” does not alter this. The parties are allowing the court to determine what form of custody is in the best interest of the child. If joint custody is determined to be in the best interest of the child using court-specified factors, i.e., the Albright factors, the parties should not be able to prohibit this by the wording of the consent.

Crider, 904 So. 2d at 147 (¶12). The supreme court further noted that the chancellor is in the best position to evaluate the “credibility, sincerity, capabilities and intentions of the parties,” and that it is “incumbent upon a chancellor not to award joint custody” unless in the best interest of the child. Id. at (¶13). The court ultimately held that “when parties consent in writing to the court’s determination of custody, they are consenting and agreeing to that determination and this meets the statutory directive of ‘joint application’ in [section] 93-5-24(2).” Id. at 148 (¶15). Finally, the court affirmed the chancellor’s judgment and noted that a “chancellor may award joint custody in an [irreconcilable-differences] divorce, when the parties request the court to determine custody.” Id. at 148-49 (¶17) (emphasis added).

¶21. Maegan incorrectly interprets both Clark and Crider to require a chancellor to consider joint custody when faced with an irreconcilable-differences divorce. The chancellor “is bound to consider the child’s best interest above all else.” Riley v. Doerner, 677 So. 2d 740, 744 (Miss. 1996). In both Clark and Crider, the chancellors found joint custody to be in the child’s best interest. In Clark, the chancellor incorrectly awarded sole custody to one parent despite the finding that joint custody was the child’s best interest; in Crider, the chancellor awarded joint custody because that was in the child’s best interest, and the supreme court affirmed that award. Crider and its progeny allow—not require—a chancellor to award joint custody when in the best interest of the child. In the present case, the chancellor found that it was in Garrett and Harley’s best interest to give custody to [Christopher]. Though the chancellor’s order makes no mention of joint custody, he is not required to do so. The chancellor’s primary duty is to consider the best interests of the children and make a determination of custody based on that concern. There is no evidence that the chancellor disregarded the children’s best interests when determining custody. The chancellor’s custody award to [Christopher] was not error.

Not much to add to that, except to cite you to this post on Easley v. Easley, and this one with some random thoughts on joint custody, which might make your collection of authorities on this point complete.

 

Joint Custody and the Consent Divorce, and a Maxim Bonus

March 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

The COA decision in Keyes v. Keyes, handed down March 11, 2014, is noteworthy for a couple of points.

Melanie and Dustin Keyes entered into a consent for an irreconcilable differences divorce, leaving custody of their two children to the judge to decide. After a hearing, the chancellor awarded the parties joint physical and legal custody.

Melanie appealed, raising two issues: (1) the chancellor erred in failing to determine whether the parties could cooperate, which is a prerequisite to joint custody; and (2) the chancellor’s decision violated the maxim of equity that “equity delights to do complete justice, and not by halves.”

The COA affirmed. Judge Carlton wrote the opinion for a unanimous court (James not participating). Here’s her take on the first issue:

¶13. [MCA] Section 93-5-24(2) provides that in an irreconcilable-differences divorce the chancellor may, at her discretion, award joint custody “upon application of both parents.” In Crider [v. Crider], the parties filed a written consent to an irreconcilable-differences divorce and asked the chancellor to decide the issues of primary custody, property settlement, and support. Crider, 904 So. 2d at 143 [(Miss. 2005)] (¶3). The supreme court held “that when parties consent in writing to the court’s determination of custody, they are consenting and agreeing to that determination.” Id. at 148 (¶15). The supreme court further stated:

It is logical and reasonable that “application of both parties” exists when both parties consent to allowing the court to determine custody. The fact that the parties request that the court determine which parent is to receive “primary custody” does not alter this. The parties are allowing the court to determine what form of custody is in the best interest of the child. If joint custody is determined to be in the best interest of the child using court-specified factors, i.e., the Albright factors, the parties should not be able to prohibit this by the wording of the consent. . . . To be sure, unless the parents are capable of sharing joint custody cooperatively, it is incumbent upon a chancellor not to award joint custody. This is for the chancellor to determine as he or she is in the best position to evaluate the credibility, sincerity, capabilities[,] and intentions of the parties.

Id. at 147 (¶¶12-13). “The Crider court held that it is logical that when both parties consent for the court to determine custody, they fulfill the ‘application of both parents’ requirement of section 93-5-24(2).” Phillips, 45 So. 3d at 695 (¶33) (citation omitted).

¶14. In the present case, the parties do not dispute that they both consented to the chancellor’s determination of custody and that the “application of both parents” requirement discussed in Crider was met. Therefore, we turn our focus to whether the chancellor erred in awarding joint custody because of the parents’ inability to “shar[e] joint custody cooperatively.” Crider, 904 So. 2d at 147 (¶13). The supreme court has concluded that section 93-5-24(2) “should be interpreted to allow the chancellor to award joint custody in an irreconcilable[-]differences divorce if it is in the best interest of the child.” Phillips, 45 So. 3d at 695 (¶33) (citing Crider, 904 So. 2d at 148 (¶16)).

The decision goes on to find that the chancellor did, in her analysis of the facts, adequately weigh the parties’ ability to cooperate, and that she was in the best position as the trier of fact to determine how to resolve conflicting evidence at trial for the best interest of the minor children. The court concluded that this issue lacked merit.

As for the maxim argument, Judge Carlton addressed it as follows:

¶18. Melanie next argues that the award of joint custody essentially ensures future litigation; therefore, the chancellor violated the maxim that “[e]quity delights to do complete justice, and not by halves.” Melanie asserts that future litigation is likely because the chancellor failed to determine in which county the children should reside or where they should reside once they begin kindergarten. Melanie and Dustin reside in different counties, and Melanie contends that the children will be put “in the unenviable position of shifting back and forth from home to home during the school year.”

¶19. In support of her argument, Melanie relies on this Court’s decision in Daniel v. Daniel, 770 So. 2d 562 (Miss. Ct. App. 2000). The chancellor in Daniel awarded both parents joint legal custody of their minor child, with custody alternating every two weeks. Id. at 563 (¶2). This arrangement was to continue until the child turned five and entered kindergarten, at which time the father would receive physical custody. Id. In affirming the chancellor’s determination of the custody arrangement, we stated:

We are aware of the fact that a practice of constantly alternating a child back and forth to each parent is not a habit that should be encouraged. The Mississippi Supreme Court has spoken on this issue on more than one occasion, ruling that it is not in the best interest of a small child to be shifted from parent to parent. However, in this case, we are mindful that the child is nearing the age of five[-]year[-]old kindergarten and has been subjected to the rotating custody order since the chancellor’s judgment was handed down on December 15, 1998. We therefore can see no reason why what has become the child’s regular routine should be interrupted. Nonetheless, we agree with the chancellor that at such time as the child begins kindergarten, it will be necessary for the child to maintain the stability that is crucial at the beginning stages of her education.

Id. at 567 (¶15) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

¶20. In the present case, Melanie argues that the parties’ two minor children need the same stability given to the minor child in Daniel. She asserts that the parties’ children should reside with her in Warren County, where they currently attend daycare. In light of the Court’s decision in Daniel, and to provide the parties’ children with the stability that is crucial at the beginning stages of education, Melanie asks that the case be remanded with instructions for the chancellor to determine which parent should be the primary physical custodian.

¶21. As previously discussed, the decision to award the parties joint legal and physical custody was within the chancellor’s discretion since the parties agreed to submit this issue to her for determination. Bearing in mind our limited scope of review on appeal, we find that the chancellor did not commit manifest error in awarding joint custody. Therefore, this issue also lacks merit.

Bravo to Melanie’s appellate counsel for making the maxim argument. I thought it was apropos. Don’t let the fact that the COA didn’t buy the argument in this case discourage you from asserting claims based on the maxims in other cases. I’ve stressed here before that the maxims underly all actions in and relief granted by chancery courts, so they are always a legitimate basis for advocating for your client’s position.

When Joint Custody is the Gateway to Sole Custody

November 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

Brittany and Douglas Clark consented to an irreconcilable differences divorce, agreeing to allow the chancellor to adjudicate “the primary physical custody” of their son, Brayden, and several other support and visitation issues.

At trial, the chancellor heard testimony from both sides, and announced that if he were to award custody of the child to either parent, “[he] would be taken care of. [He] would be loved. [He] would be supported. [He] would be nurtured. [He] would be raised properly.” The judge added:

The [Mississippi Supreme Court] has decided [this court] must follow and do what is in the best interest of the child after [it has] gone through all the Albright factors, and . . . these are the kinds of cases that . . . it’s hard . . . to give the child to one or the other because everything here would support that. . . . [H]ow can you choose one over the other, but [this court] has to.

The chancellor awarded custody of Brayden to Brittany, concluding that it would be in the child’s best interest to do so. Douglas appealed, one assignment of error being that the chancellor had failed to award joint physical custody, per Easley v. Easley, 91 So.3d 639 (Miss. App. 2012). [Note: A previous post on the Easley case is at this link].

In the case of Clark v. Clark, decided November 12, 2013, the COA reversed and remanded. Judge Roberts’ opinion, for the court, explained:

¶10. Douglas argues that the chancery court erred when it determined that it could not award joint physical custody. As was quoted above, the chancery court made the following statement before awarding full physical custody to Brittany: “[In these] kinds of cases . . . it’s hard . . . to give the child to one or the other because everything here would support that. . . . [H]ow can you choose one over the other, but [this court] has to.” (Emphasis added). The trial was held and the oral decision of the chancery court was made on June 12, 2012. However, just a few days earlier, this Court handed down the case of Easley v. Easley, 91 So. 3d 639 (Miss. Ct. App. 2012), which is directly on point for this particular issue.

¶11. In Easley, the chancery court stated that joint physical custody was in the best interest of the child, but the court was not permitted by law to grant joint physical custody when it was not requested by both parties in an irreconcilable-differences divorce. Id. at 640 (¶1). Therefore, the court awarded full physical custody of the minor son to the father. Id. Reversing and remanding the chancery court’s decision, this Court found that “[t]he [chancery court] erroneously concluded that joint custody could not be awarded” under Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(2) (Rev. 2004), and it was error to deviate from the child’s best interest by awarding sole custody to the father.Easley, 91 So. 3d at 641 (¶10). Additionally, in Crider v. Crider, 904 So. 2d 142, 148 (¶15) (Miss. 2005), the Mississippi Supreme Court held:

[W]hen parties consent in writing to the [chancery] court’s determination of custody, they are consenting and agreeing to that determination and this meets the statutory directive of “joint application” in [section] 93-5-24(2). This is the only interpretation that conforms to the primary directive of [Mississippi Code Annotated section] 93-5-24(1) [(Rev. 2004)] that “custody shall be awarded as follows according to the best interests of the child.”

Importantly, before awarding joint custody, a chancery court must determine whether the parents are “capable of sharing joint custody cooperatively[.]” Crider, 904 So. 2d at 147 (¶13).

¶12. We are presented with a similar set of facts. Like in Easley and Crider, the divorce was granted on the ground of irreconcilable differences. Based on our reading of the transcript, it appears that the chancery court may have concluded, like the chancery court in Easley, that it was required to order custody to one parent regardless of whether joint physical custody was in the best interest of Brayden. The chancery court made no finding that Brittany and Douglas could not cooperate if joint custody was awarded. See Crider, 904 So. 2d at 148 (¶15) (“It is the chancellor who must determine what is in the best interest of the child, and it is the chancellor who determines the level of commitment parents have to sharing joint custody.”). We are concerned that the chancery court may have concluded that it was not authorized to consider joint physical custody; therefore, we reverse the chancery court’s judgment and remand this case to the chancery court for it to reconsider its award of custody, including the propriety of awarding joint physical custody.

As I’ve said here before, when you consent for the judge to adjudicate custody, you are opening the door to joint custody.

But does this mean that in all cases the judge is required first to consider whether joint custody should be awarded, and, only after finding that it is not in the child’s best interest, then move on to the issue of sole custody? I think it does. I don’t see any other way to read this line of cases.

If my interpretation is correct, it means that joint custody is the default setting for custody in this type case, if the issue is left to the court to decide, and the court must find a basis under case law or in the statute to deny joint custody before moving on to considering an award of sole custody.

At the very least, these are matters you should discuss in detail with your client before drafting that consent.

Can you limit the court’s scope of award via draftsmanship? I question whether you can, based on this language from Crider: “It is the chancellor who must determine what is in the best interest of the child, and it is the chancellor who determines the level of commitment parents have to sharing joint custody.”

JOINT CUSTODY IN THE CHILDREN’S BEST INTEREST

June 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

The case of Easley v. Easley, decided by the COA June 5, 2012, is the latest iteration of the principle that the trial court may award joint legal custody in an irreconcilable differences consent divorce even where there is no specific joint request for it by the parties.

In Easley, the parties consented to an irreconcilable differences divorce and submitted the issue of child custody to the chancellor for adjudication. The chancellor found that joint custody would be in the best interest of the children, but concluded that he could not award it because of the language of MCA 93-5-24(2), which reads, “Joint custody may be awarded where irreconcilable differences is the ground for divorce, in the discretion of the court, upon application of both parents.” Since the Easleys had not both applied to the court specifically for joint custody, the chancellor awarded custody to the father and the mother appealed.

The COA reversed and remanded, citing and quoting Crider v. Crider, 904 So.2d 142, 147 (Miss. 2005), as follows:

It is logical and reasonable that “application of both parties” exists when both parties consent to allowing the court to determine custody. The fact that the parties request that the court determine which parent is to receive “primary custody” does not alter this. The parties are allowing the court to determine what form of custody is in the best interest of the child. If joint custody is determined to be in the best interest of the child using court-specified factors, i.e., the Albright factors, the parties should not be able to prohibit this by the wording of the consent. It would be the same if the parties requested that the court determine which party will receive “all marital assets.” The chancellor has the responsibility to determine how to best distribute the assets according to court-specified factors (the Ferguson factors) and must not be bound by the wording of the consent to award all marital assets to one party.

 The COA opinion goes on to reject the appellee’s argument that he prevailed slightly in trial court’s adjudication of the Albright factors, so that the award of exclsuive custody to him should be upheld. Judge Fair’s opinion cited and quoted Jackson v. Jackson, 82 So.3d 644, 646 (Miss.App. 2011), as contrary authority:

[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 COA opinion closes with a remand to the trial court to consider the children’s present circumstances as well as those existing at the time of the November, 2010, trial, and closes with this language at the end of ¶11: “If joint custody remains in the children’s best interest, the chancellor should not hesitate to award it.”

A previous post focusing on Crider is here.

As for the Crider court’s reference to the term “primary custody,” you should keep in mind that the addition of the term “primary” to custody adds no legal meaning whatsoever. You can read a post on that point here.

A previous post about decision-making in joint legal custody arrangements is here.

And some general observations about joint custody are in a post you will find here.

I think Crider is clear that any time you submit custody to the court for adjudication in an irreconcilable differences divorce via consent you are opening the door to an award of joint custody, no matter what the language of the consent, and you can not word the consent in such a way as to rule it out.

JOINT CUSTODY OUT OF THE BLUE

January 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Neither party has asked for joint custody in their pleadings. They consent to a divorce and agree that the chancellor shall adjudicate custody. The husband testifies that he wants sole custody. The wife testifies that she wants either sole custody or joint custody.

Can the chancellor grant joint custody?

The answer is set out in Crider v. Crider, 904 So.2d 142, 148 (Miss. 2005), where the Mississippi Supreme Court stated:

We hold that when parties consent in writing to the court’s determination of custody, they are consenting and agreeing to that determination and this meets the statutory directive of “joint application” in § 93-5-24(2). This is the only interpretation that conforms to the primary directive of § 93-5-24(1) that “custody shall be awarded as follows according to the best interests of the child.” It is the chancellor who must determine what is in the best interest of the child, and it is the chancellor who determines the level of commitment parents have to sharing joint custody.  

So the answer is yes, where the parties have consented to an irreconcilable differences divorce, the judge may grant joint custody regardless whether it was specifically spelled out as an option in adjudication of custody.

It would seem under Crider’s language that the parties may not limit the court’s determination of best interest — say, by a stipulation that joint custody shall not be awarded — any more than could the statute. But to my knowledge that issue has not been addressed by the appellate courts.

The trial court must still weigh whether the relationship between the parties is suitable for joint custody. After all, joint custody is inappropriate where the parties are unable to communicate and cooperate.  Lewis v. Lewis, 974 So.2d 265, 266 (Miss. App. 2008); Crider, at 147.

In Phillips v. Phillips, 45 So.3d 684, 695-96 (Miss. App. 2010), the COA upheld the chancellor’s award of joint custody, alternating a week at a time, despite a history of animosity and strained relatiosnhips. Citing Crider, the court said at ¶34 that “The chancellor is in the best position to evaluate the parties’ capabilities to cooperate.”     

In Watts v. Watts, decided by the COA on January 24, 2012, at ¶ 28, the court again affirmed the chancellor’s award of joint custody, and cited Crider. The parties had entered into a consent for divorce leaving the issue of custody for adjudication by the court. Echoing Crider, the COA held that it was up to the chancellor to evaluate the evidence and to decide whether the level of conflict between the parties made joint custody undesirable or unworkable. 

Another post with some ruminations about joint custody is here.

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