BRIGHT LINE? WHAT BRIGHT LINE?
May 14, 2013 § 2 Comments
The line of demarcation — also referred to in the cases and in legal circles as “the valuation date” — is an important concept in divorce law. It’s something we’ve addressed here in prior posts.
Under the Ferguson case, the trial court must first identify which assets are marital, then value them, and then divide them equitably. The date that the court picks to establish the values of marital assets is crucial, since appreciation and depreciation mean that the value on one particular date may be sugnificantly different from that on another date.
Some lawyers argue that there is a “bright line” rule that the entry of a temporary order in a divorce or separate maintenance case cuts off all further accumulation of marital interests, and, indeed, some case law would seem to indicate that.
But the MSSC, in the case of Collins v. Collins, handed down May 9, 2013, makes it clear that there is no bright line rule. Here’s what Justice Coleman’s opinion says on the point:
[¶9] … The law in Mississippi is that the date on which assets cease to be marital and become separate assets – what we refer to herein as the point of demarcation – can be “either the date of separation (at the earliest) or the date of divorce (at the latest).” Lowrey v. Lowrey, 25 So. 3d 274, 285 (¶ 27) (Miss. 2009).
¶10. In Selman v. Selman, 722 So. 2d 547 (Miss. 1998), the wife had a retirement fund, and the chancellor awarded the husband half its value even though the fund did not begin to accrue until after the husband had vacated the marital home. Id. at 553 (¶ 22). When including the fund in the marital assets, “the chancellor stated only that ‘[t]he law says that until they are divorced, everything is on the table.’” Id. Applying the well-settled manifest error standard of review, id. at 551 (¶ 12), the Selman Court reversed the chancellor’s ruling and wrote, “while the marriage had not legally terminated, the relationship out of which equitable distribution arises had ended some months earlier.” Id. at 553 (¶ 25).
¶11. A temporary order may [emphasis in original] be considered by the chancellor to be a line of demarcation between marital and separate property, Cuccia v. Cuccia, 90 So. 3d 1228, 1233 (¶ 8) (Miss. 2012); see also Wheat v. Wheat, 37 So. 3d 632, 637-38 (¶¶ 16-18) (Miss. 2010) (recognizing, in dicta, that a temporary support order can indicate the demarcation point), but we have never held that it must. However, in Pittman v. Pittman, 791 So. 2d 857 (Miss. Ct. App. 2001), the Mississippi Court of Appeals held, “[T]he temporary support order serves the same purposes as a separate maintenance order and that property accumulated thereafter is separate property.” Id. at 864 (¶ 19). In so writing, the Pittman Court created the impression that Mississippi now has established a rule that temporary orders always and in every case provide the mark of demarcation. Temporary support orders vary. They may include issues such as which spouse controls the marital home, automobiles, and bank accounts, or they may simply, as in the case sub judice, provide only for temporary custody and support of a minor child. Because of the degree of variance in temporary orders and the particularities of every marital dissolution, we reaffirm our holding in Lowrey and hold that it is necessary that a chancellor maintain discretion to decide in each instance whether a temporary order is the proper line of demarcation. To the extent that the Pittman opinion can be read to create a rule that a temporary support order necessarily and always indicates the point of demarcation, we overrule it.
¶12. In the case sub judice, the chancellor did not explicitly state what date she chose as the date of demarcation, but from the substance of the opinion, it is clear she chose the date of the divorce. In their briefs, the parties accept that the chancellor used the date of the divorce as the point of demarcation. The temporary support order in the instant case dealt only with child custody and temporary child support. It did not go so far toward separating the parties’ several jointly-held assets that we would hold the chancellor abused her discretion in not finding it to be the point of demarcation.
¶13. However, the Cuccia Court noted that the chancellor must set out the specific date used as the line of demarcation and remanded the case partly for the chancellor’s failure to do so. Cuccia, 90 So. 3d at 1233 (¶ 11). The chancellor did not do so here, but, as noted above, the parties do not dispute the issue. We take the instant opportunity to write that had the issue been disputed, or had the chancellor’s order been ambiguous as to the demarcation date used, we would have remanded the case as did the Cuccio [sic] Court. We reiterate here that chancellors should indicate in the record what date they choose for the point of demarcation and why they choose it.
That should settle the debate once and for all that the demarcation date is at the discretion of the chancellor, who must always identify the date chosen and explain why that particular date was selected.
The downside to this is that when your client asks you about whether it would be wise to acquire any new assets between separation and the date of the divorce, your answer now will be an unqualified, “I don’t have any idea.”
As a trial practice matter, I seldom hear any evidence or argument as to what the valuation date should be. If you have a case where one valuation date is advantageous to your client as opposed to another, you should be zealous about informing the judge what date should be selected, and why it should be selected. For instance, if your client acquired a home after the separation, and has accumulated wealth after the separation, you want a valuation date near that separation date, not at the date of the divorce. If you don’t make that clear in the record, the judge might choose a date that’s not so nifty for your client, and you’ll have to ask the COA to fix it.
A COMPASS HEADING FOR DIVISION OF THE MARITAL ESTATE
January 23, 2013 § 4 Comments
In an equitable distribution case where there was a temporary order that provided for no support, is the date of that temporary order the demarcation line for purposes of classifying and valuing marital property?
Before we talk about how to answer the question, let me remind you that the the so-called demarcation line is important to delineate in an equitable distribution case. Depending on where the line is drawn, assets can increase or decrease by tens of thousands of dollars, or even lose value altogether, and your client who purchased a new pickup after the separation may be terribly chagrined to learn that his philandering estranged wife owns a part of it.
The line of demarcation is something we’ve talked about before here and here.
The general rule, in essence, is that marriage is deemed over for the purpose of classifying or valuing assets on entry of the final judgment, and any property or value acquired before that date is marital, unless there was a temporary order, in which event the date of the temporary order becomes the demarcation line. There are some exceptions in case law, but this is the general rule.
So, to get back to the original question, the COA confronted this very issue in the case of Mauldin v. Mauldin, decided January 15, 2013. In this case, Jim and Donna Mauldin found themselves in equitable distribution. Jim had bought some assets after a temporary order was entered, and the judge nonetheless included them among the marital assets subject to division. The COA opinion, by Judge Irving, stated:
¶13. Although the divorce decree did not specifically state the date that the marriage ended for purposes of classifying marital and separate property, it is clear that the chancery court used the date of divorce rather than the date of the temporary order. As previously stated, absent the entry of a separate-maintenance or temporary-support order, marital property continues to accumulate until the date of divorce. Although the chancery court entered a temporary order in this case, the order did not provide for temporary support. Therefore, Jim and Donna’s marital assets continued to accumulate until the date of their divorce. Accordingly, even though Jim purchased his motorcycle and his truck after his separation from Donna, the chancery court properly classified these assets as marital property. Additionally, the increase in Jim’s retirement account since his separation from Donna is marital property because the increase occurred during the marriage. This issue is without merit. [Emphasis added]
This case underscores what I have pointed out before, that it can be a two-edged sword when you don’t get a temporary support order entered. Yes, your client gets to dodge the bullet of any temporary support, but the asset values, as well as the inventory of marital assets, continue to change, often not in your client’s favor.
Put some thought in the strategy and tactics you should best employ for the benefit of your client in these cases. What is best for one client will not be the same for another. Knowing the rule, you will be in a position to plot the best course.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
July 10, 2012 § 3 Comments
We all know the familiar Ferguson approach to equitable distribution: First classify the assets as marital or non-marital; then value them; then divide them equitably (not necessarily equally).
An often-ignored aspect of Ferguson analysis is the demarcation date that the court should use in classifying property as marital or non-marital. It’s important, because the date selected may decide the category where the item is placed. And I say it is often ignored because you seldom hear either side say anything about it in the presentation of the trial.
In Goodwin v. Goodwin, 758 So.2d 384, 386 (Miss. 1999), the MSSC laid down the rule that entry of a separate maintenance order stops accumulation of marital interests in property, and creates a “point of demarcation” to be used by the courts in determining marital vs. separate interests when division ultimately comes before the court. In Goodwin, that portion of the husband’s retirement account accumulated after entry of the separate maintenance order was his separate property, not subject to equitable division.
The line of demarcation rule was extended to temporary orders in the case of Pittman v. Pittman, 791 So.2d 857, 863-64 (Miss.App. 2001). In that case, the court noted that temporary orders, like separate maintenance orders, are simply recognition that the parties have ceased living together as husband and wife; in other words, they have reached the point of no return (at least until reconciliation in good faith in the case of separate maintenance). So interests that accrue after its entry are separate interests.
Both Goodwin and Pittman set out a bright line for the trial courts. But that bright line is there in cases where there has been a separate maintenance or temporary order in the case. What about cases where there is neither?
Professor Bell identifies five other points of demarcation that have been employed in other jurisdictions: (1) the date of separation; (2) the date of filing for divorce; (3) the date of a divorce hearing; (4) the date of the divorce judgment; and (5) a date fixed by the court in its discretion. Bell on Mississippy Family Law, 2nd Ed., § 6.02[b], p. 135.
In Doyle v. Doyle, 55 So.3d 1097, 1107 (Miss.App. 2010), the COA held that marital equities continue to accumulate where there was no separate maintenance or temporary order. In Aron v. Aron, 832 So.2d 1257, 1258-59 (Miss.App. 2002), however, the COA held that it was in the chancellor’s discretion to classify the property as marital or non-marital where there was no separate maintenance or temporary order. In either case, the chancellor should consider the parties’ relative contributions in making the division of the post-separation-acquired property. Striebeck v. Striebeck, 5 So.3d 450, 452 (Miss. 2008).
The most recent case on point is Cuccia v. Cuccia, decided by the MSSC on June 28, 2012. The case was before the court on certiorari from the COA, which had reversed the chancellor. The Supreme Court’s opinion stated:
“¶9. In the case before us, a separate maintenance order was not entered, but a temporary support order was issued on May 6, 2008, and filed on May 9, 2008. In reviewing the chancery court’s [divorce judgment], we do not find that he set out the specific date as the line of demarcation in classifying marital verus nonmarital property. He must do so. After determining the line of demarcation, the chancery court must then determine which assets and liabilities are marital and nonmarital in accordance with Ferguson and Hemsley. Then, he must divide the marital estate equitably.” [Footnotes omitted]
So the direction is clear: if the chancellor does not make the demarcation line clear, there is reversible error in the record. You can influence the judge to pick that date, or you can do it via MRCP 59 motion; either way, if you let the record be finalized without a demarcation line, be sure to keep your trial notes, because you’ll need them for the remand trial.
The court gave no direction for how the chancellor should draw the magic line. If the case makes its way back for a third appellate decision we may find out. If not, then we will have to await a more definitive decision.
Until then, give some th0ught to how you want the marital estate divided and why. Give the judge some proof in the record to support a line of demarcation that is in your client’s favor. It might just put some money in your client’s pocket.