Commingling and Family Use

April 29, 2020 § 1 Comment

Allison Gaskin inherited two parcels of property during her marriage to her husband, Tony.

When it came time for a divorce, Tony took the position that the two parcels were marital, subject to division. Allison disagreed. After trial, the chancellor found the property to be part of Allison’s separate estate. Tony appealed.

In Gaskin v. Gaskin, handed down April 14, 2020, the COA affirmed. Judge Cory Wilson wrote the unanimous opinion:

¶18. During the course of the marriage, Allison inherited interests in two parcels of land: the first was a fourteen-acre tract of land referred to by the parties as the “White House property,” and the second was a sixty-five-acre tract located at 3506 Highway 18 in Rankin County. The chancellor determined that the White House property had been commingled and converted to marital property because Tony had purchased Allison’s brother’s one-half interest in the property and had “made significant contributions in maintaining the property.” The chancellor further found that the property “ha[d] been used by Tony and the boys for hunting and fishing.” The White House property was valued at $160,000, and the chancellor awarded the property to Allison as part of the division of marital assets.

¶19. Regarding the sixty-five-acre tract of land located at 3506 Highway 18, Tony testified that he occasionally bush-hogged the property and stored some Gaskin Plumbing equipment on the property. The parties stipulated that the total value of this parcel was $607,000. In contrast to the White House property, the chancellor found that the sixty-five-acre parcel Allison inherited had not been “commingled to the extent necessary to classify it as marital
property for the purpose of division between the parties.”

¶20. On appeal, Tony asserts that the chancellor erred in finding that the sixty-five-acre tract of land constituted nonmarital property. He contends that the evidence was clear that he spent substantially more time and effort maintaining the sixty-five-acre property than he did maintaining the White House property. Tony also asserts that he would hunt, fish, and play sports on the sixty-five-acre tract with the boys. He contends that these activities effectively commingled the property and converted it to marital property, not Allison’s separate nonmarital property.

¶21. “When dividing marital assets, the chancery court must first classify the property as marital property or nonmarital property.” McDonald v. McDonald, 115 So. 3d 881, 885 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citing Stewart v. Stewart, 864 So. 2d 934, 937 (¶12) (Miss. 2003)). “Marital property is defined as ‘any and all property acquired or accumulated during the marriage. Assets so acquired or accumulated during the course of the marriage are marital assets and are subject to an equitable distribution by the chancellor.’” Id. By contrast, “[i]nter vivos gifts and inheritances are considered nonmarital property unless they have been commingled.” Id. at 886 (¶12) (citing Everett v. Everett, 919 So. 2d 242, 247 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)). “Assets which are classified as nonmarital, such as inheritances, may be converted into marital assets if they are commingled with marital property or utilized for domestic purposes, absent an agreement to the contrary.” Stewart, 864 So. 2d at 937 (¶12) (quoting Boutwell v. Boutwell, 829 So. 2d 1216, 1221 (¶20) (Miss. 2002)).

¶22. Importantly, “we will not substitute our own judgment for that of the chancellor.” McDonald, 115 So. 3d at 886 (¶16). Here, we cannot say that the chancellor erred in finding that the sixty-five-acre property inherited by Allison and her brother remained nonmarital property despite Tony’s assertions that he spent substantial time maintaining the parcel and that he spent time on the property with the couple’s boys. The chancellor found that Tony’s
occasional bush-hogging, equipment storage, and recreational activities with the family were not sufficient to commingle the property with the parties’ marital assets, such that the land should be classified as marital property for the purpose of equitable division. We find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in treating the sixty-five acres as nonmarital property, and this issue is without merit. [Fn omitted]

I think the law of so-called “family use” which is the same as the commingling argument here, could use some attention from the MSSC. We have this case at one end, where hunting, fishing, bush hogging, and storing business equipment is inadequate to bring it into the marital estate. And on the other end we have a case such as Rhodes v. Rhodes, in which use of a separate beach condo once a year by the family and the wife’s selection of drapes for it converted it into a marital asset. I whined about Rhodes in this old post.


Jointly-titled Separate Property

April 13, 2020 § 3 Comments

Carrie Anderson’s grandmother decided to give her a 59-acre parcel of land in 2013. When she went to the family lawyer’s office to pick up the deed, she found that he had added the name of her husband, T.J., to it as joint tenant. She later said that she was afraid to insist that it be titled in her sole name because of T.J.’s temper.

In 2015 the parties consented to an ID divorce and the chancellor found the property to be part of Carrie’s separate estate. T.J. appealed.

In Anderson v. Anderson, the COA affirmed. Judge Tindell wrote for the unanimous court:

¶18. The chancery court found that the fifty-nine acres from Carrie’s grandmother jointly titled in Carrie’s and T.J.’s names was Carrie’s separate, non-marital property, as follows:

While some coercion may have been placed on Carrie to have T.J.’s name place on the deed [to the fifty-nine acres], even if there had been no coercion, the Court would still find the 59 acres to be Carrie’s separate, non-marital property. The property came from Carrie’s grandmother debt free. The parties never improved the property or put any money into the property.

The chancery court recognized that “[i]nter vivos gifts and inheritances are considered non-marital property unless they have been commingled.” McDonald v. McDonald, 115 So. 3d 881, 885-86 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). The chancery court found that “[t]he fact that the 59 acres was jointly titled [in this case] did not make it a marital asset.” Id. at 886 (¶¶12-14) (finding property purchased with funds inherited by a husband was the husband’s
separate property despite the property being jointly titled in both the husband and the wife); see also Marter v. Marter, 95 So. 3d 733,737-38 (¶¶11-16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (finding that property inherited by a wife prior to marriage and later jointly titled remained the wife’s separate property); Delk v. Delk, 41 So. 3d 738, 741-42 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (recognizing that condominium property separately owned by a wife prior to marriage but
later jointly titled did not become marital property until the couple began using the property as their marital home, and thus the husband was not entitled to a full half of the proceeds from the condominium). The chancery court expressly noted that “[t]he parties never lived on or improved the property. There was absolutely no commingling with marital property nor was the property utilized for domestic purposes.” Continuing, the chancery court found that the fifty-nine acres did “not los[e] its status as nonmarital property,” and ordered that T.J. deed his interest in the tract of land to Carrie.

¶19. T.J. asserts that the chancery court committed manifest error in this determination because the property at issue in this case was never Carrie’s separate property in the first place, and thus the cases the chancery court relied upon in making its determination, McDonald, Marter, and Delk, are distinguishable. T.J. argues that in contrast to the circumstances in these cases, Carrie did not inherit the property, it was not purchased with inherited money, and was it not property Carrie owned prior to the marriage and later jointly titled. Rather, the property was acquired during the marriage and titled directly from Mrs. Hansberger to both T.J. and Carrie as an inter vivos gift; therefore, according to T.J., it is marital property, and he is entitled to an equitable division of that property.

¶20. Carrie, on the other hand, asserts that the evidence supports the chancery court’s determination that the fifty-nine acres from her grandmother is her separate property and that under the cases relied upon by the chancery court, the mere fact that the property is jointly titled in both her and T.J.’s names does not, standing alone, convert the property to marital property subject to equitable distribution.

¶21. In addressing this issue, we acknowledge that “[a]ssets acquired or accumulated during the course of a marriage are subject to equitable division unless it can be shown by proof that such assets are attributable to one of the parties’ separate estates prior to the marriage or outside the marriage.” Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So. 2d 909, 914 (Miss. 1994); see generally Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 6.03[1][a], at 139 (2d ed. 2011) (“Because of the presumption in favor of marital property, a spouse seeking separate classification bears the burden of proof.”). Although, as T.J. asserts, the record does contain the 2013 warranty deed from Mrs. Hansberger to both T.J. and Carrie obtained by them during their marriage, we find that the record also contains substantial, credible evidence supporting the chancery court’s determination that this property is attributable to Carrie’s separate estate.

¶22. In particular, although neither Mrs. Hansberger nor the attorney who prepared the deed testified at trial, Carrie testified that it was her grandmother’s intent that she (Carrie) have the property. [Fn omitted] Moreover, there was ample evidence presented at trial that Carrie legitimately feared for her safety and welfare if she did not have the land jointly titled, and thus she was essentially coerced into doing so. [Fn 9] Cf. Estate of Langston v. Williams, 57 So. 3d 618, 620-21 (¶10) (Miss. 2011) (describing the analogous concept of undue influence in the will context as using “undue methods for the purpose of overcoming the free and unrestrained will of the testator so as to control his acts and to prevent him from being a free agent”); Bailey v. Estate of Kemp, 955 So. 2d 777, 783 (¶23) (Miss. 2007) (discussing the analogous concept of duress as requiring “(1) that the dominant party threatened to do something which he had no legal right to do; and (2) that the wrongful threat overrode the volition of the victim and caused him to enter an agreement against his free will”).

[Fn 9] As detailed in the statement of facts, Carrie testified that she was too afraid of T.J. to have title placed in her name alone. Regarding this fear, the record reflects that T.J. had attacked Carrie, punched numerous holes in the walls and doors in both their Tupelo and Senatobia homes, killed several of their dogs, and frequently threatened and verbally abused Carrie. As noted, the chancery court granted Carrie a divorce on the statutory ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.

¶23. In short, there is substantial, credible evidence that the property was intended to be Carrie’s property and that her fear of T.J. prevented her from having it titled in her name. The chancery court therefore was correct in relying on McDonald, 115 So. 3d at 885-86 (¶¶12-14), in determining that “[t]he fact that the 59 acres was jointly titled [in this case] did not make it a marital asset.” See also Marter, 95 So. 3d at 737-38 (¶¶11-16); Delk, 41 So. 3d at 741-42 (¶17). The record reflects that the property was debt-free, the parties made no financial contribution toward the property or its maintenance during the marriage, and the parties did not use it. We find no manifest error in the chancery court’s determination on this issue, and we therefore find that T.J.’s first assignment of error is without merit.


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