WHEN FINANCIAL PROOF IS JUDGE ABUSE

May 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

The MSSC case of Collins v. Collins, decided May 9, 2013, includes a discussion of one of the most frustrating aspects of divorce trials from the viewpoint of the judge: the party who provides incomplete, incredible, and misleading financial information upon which the court is required to base a financial adjudication.

Perry Collins and his unhappy wife, Iretha, were locked in a divorce battle for more than four years. Perry, who changed lawyers almost as frequently as the wind changed, operated a sole proprietorship heating and air conditioning company. He admitted at trial that his 8.05 financial statement was “incorrect and contained omissions.” For example, he claimed that his business overhead was $300,000, which exceeded his receipts by more than $110,000. He also did not provide income tax returns because he had not filed any in the two years before trial. The opinion is silent as to why he could not provide copies of returns he had filed.

No doubt the chancellor was somewhat put out with Perry’s cavalier attitude toward the financial proof. She simply totaled his receipts, allocated half to overhead, and declared that one-half, or $94,459.57, was Perry’s adjusted gross income. She then socked him for $1,300 in child support.

In reversing on the point, the court said this about Perry’s less-than-adequate 8.05:

¶17. The chancellor’s concern with the document is justified. In fact, we have stated that failure to comply with Rule 8.05 constitutes a fraud on the court. See Trim v. Trim, 33 So. 3d 471 (Miss. 2010). However, if the chancellor makes such a finding, the appropriate remedy for such behavior is to hold Perry in contempt and enter appropriate sanctions – not to punish him by disregarding any other credible evidence provided by him to the court. See Uniform Chancery Court Rule 8.05 (“The failure to observe this rule, without just cause, shall constitute contempt of Court for which the Court shall impose appropriate sanctions and penalties”). Rule 8.05 allows evidentiary discovery in addition to the disclosure. Id. In short, errors or omissions in the form do not preclude consideration of other evidence presented to the chancellor. We therefore find that the chancellor was manifestly wrong when she arbitrarily determined Perry’s monthly income to the exclusion of the undisputed evidence he provided.

The “undisputed evidence” that Perry provided consisted of his 2009 “business bank records,” which the MSSC found had enough information for the judge to deduce that his overhead expenses were considerably more than the one-half that the judge found, so that his actual income was considerably less than what she concluded.

I am shooting from the hip here, but I believe I would have stopped the trial and told counsel to get busy and present the court with a truthful, accurate 8.05, using the business records, and I would not have let them go forward until they did so. In the alternative, I would have offered to appoint a CPA expert at Perry’s expense to do the job.

Dumping a pile of “business bank records” and an incomplete, discrepancy-riddled, incredible 8.05 on the court is judge abuse. It’s also malpractice, but that’s another story. I wish that the supreme court had said that, if you dump on the trial court like that, you get whatever you deserve. Instead, the court’s message is that the burden is on the judge. Knowing that, I don’t imagine chancellors will be so accommodating in the future as the chancellor was in this case. Pity.

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