When is Temporary Relief Available in Family Law Cases?

June 18, 2014 § 5 Comments

I have heard it said that chancery courts routinely grant temporary relief in any matters pending before them. Is that so? And in what matters is temporary relief available?

Let’s look at family law.

Anyone who has done any Mississippi family law knows that temporary relief is available in divorce cases. The authority of the chancery court to grant temporary relief in a divorce proceeding is found in MCA 93-5-17(2), which provides:

The chancellor in vacation may, upon reasonable notice, hear complaints for temporary alimony, temporary custody of children and temporary child support and make all proper orders and judgments thereon.

Divorce is a creature of statute unknown in the common law; therefore, any relief obtainable in a divorce must have its source in a statute. Since this statute is part of the title dealing with divorce, and is a subsection of the statute that requires divorce hearings to be held in open court, I am confident in saying that this particular statute is not authority to grant temporary relief outside the context of a divorce.

Likewise, in cases of determination of parentage, MCA 93-11-65(10) creates a remedy:

Upon motion of a party requesting temporary child support pending a determination of parentage, temporary support shall be ordered if there is clear and convincing evidence of paternity on the basis of genetic testing or other evidence, unless the court makes written findings of fact on the record that the award of temporary support would be unjust or inappropriate in a particular case.

Notice that the latter statute does not not include custody among the relief provided. The COA has held that both natural parents have an equal right to custody of the child, regardless whether parentage has been finally determined. So, on the one hand, it would appear in a custody dispute between parents in a parentage case that the tug-of-war between them must continue unabated by temporary custody because there is no provision in the statute for temporary custody. The conundrum is exacerbated by the simple fact that support is customarily (always?) paid to the parent with custody, which is certainly logical, because we have to know where the child will be in order to know where to direct the support. If the court has no statutory authority to award custody in such a case, how can the court award child support?

It could be that the chancellor may simply order extra-statutory temporary relief in a given case based on equitable principles. In the parentage case, for example, the court could award temporary custody in order to get to the statutorily permissible temporary support award.

But would such an order stand? After all, we know that there is no appeal of right from a temporary or interlocutory order.

I think the distinction may lie in the nature of the review. If the merits of the order are attacked, then I think the appeal fails. If the power of the court to grant the temporary relief is attacked, then I think the appeal would have merit. An example of the latter is Martin v. Falcon, #2013-IA-1985-SCT (December 5, 2013), in which Justice Coleman vacated a temporary order granting grandparent visitation.

Is there even a right to a temporary hearing in a grandparent visitation case? I would argue in the negative, for two reasons: (1) the grandparent visitation statute has no provision whatsoever for temporary relief, and like divorce and parentage, it is a creature solely of statute; and (2) to grant temporary relief is to presume on the ultimate issue that the petitioner is entitled to such relief, which is not always so.

Of course, temporary relief is expressly available in injuntions, per MRCP 65, in the form of a TRO. A TRO does require the existence of an emergency or danger of irreparable harm if no relief is immediately granted. And the domestic violence statutes incorporate such relief.

Custody modification cases and third-party custody cases are somewhat more problematical. There are statutes dealing with custody, and its award and forms, but they do not specifically mention temporary relief. In this district, we do not allow temporary relief in a child-custody-modification case unless there is an emergency or it is clearly necessary to protect the best interest of a child until a final determination may be made. To do otherwise would peremptorily adjudicate the ultimate issue in the case.

When the chancellor acts in an emergency or other exigent situation to protect the child, her actions are based on Article 6, § 159 of the Mississippi Constitution, which gives chancery courts “full jurisdiction” over “All matters in equity,” and “Minor’s business.” Custody has long been recognized as being under the mantle of chancery jurisdiction, and, indeed, our cases speak in terms of the chancellor being the “superior guardian” and protector of the child’s best interest. I think as between the apparent form required by statute and the chancellor’s determination that action must be taken for the best interest of a child, the court will and should go with the best interest every time.

I would reconcile all of the foregoing by saying that I believe that, in the absence of exigent circumstances requiring immediate intervention the court should avoid temporary relief unless there is a statutory provision or rule expressly providing that relief. Your chancellor may see it differently, based on an entirely different rationale, but that is the way I view it.

This post addresses temporary relief in family law matters. Temporary relief in the many other types of cases within chancery jurisdiction is the subject of another post.

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Thanks to Attorney George S. Whitten of Greenwood for supplying some of the material for this post.

FINALITY OF JUDGMENTS AND THE OPINION

January 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Can a chancellor order alimony in an opinion to take effect before entry of the judgment?

That was the question in McCarrell v. McCarrell, 19 So.3d 168, 171 (Miss.App. 2009). In that divorce case, the chancellor had rendered a written opinion on December 20, 2007, concluding that Billy McCarrell should pay Janie McCarrell $1,800 a month in rehabilitative alimony, commencing January 5, 2008, and continuing for five years. The judgment corresponding to the court’s opinion was not filed and docketed by the clerk until January 18, 2008, thirteen days after the date of the first ordered payment. The judgment did incorporate the judge’s opinion.

Billy took the position that he was required only to comply with the final judgment, and not with the opinion. Since the final judgment was not entered until after the initial payment date was passed, he argued that the alimony obligation did not go into effect until after the date of the judgment.

On the face of it, Billy’s position makes some sense, because MRCP 58 states that “A judgment shall be effective only when entered as provided in MRCP 79(a),” and 79(a) defines entry as docketing on the General Docket showing the date of entry and a brief description, followed by filing in the court file.

What Billy overlooked, though, was the power of the chancellor to order interlocutory and temporary relief. The court said, beginning at ¶12:

… our jurisprudence recognizes that the chancellor possesses the statutory authority to order temporary alimony and make proper orders and judgments thereon. Miss.Code Ann. § 93-5-17(2) (Miss.2004). Moreover, courts are always deemed open for purposes of making and directing all interlocutory motions, orders, and rules. See also M.R.C.P. 77(a).  * * *

¶ 14. Certainly, the chancellor possesses the authority to order temporary alimony and make all proper orders and judgments thereon. Miss.Code Ann. § 93-5-17(2); M.R.C.P. 77(a); see also Langdon v. Langdon, 854 So.2d 485, 496(¶ 44) (Miss.Ct.App.2003). The duty to pay temporary support terminates upon entry of the final judgment of divorce, but the judgment does not eliminate the obligation to pay temporary alimony arrearages which accrued before the entry of the final decree. Prescott v. Prescott, 736 So.2d 409, 416(¶ 35) (Miss.Ct.App.1999) (citing Lewis v. Lewis, 586 So.2d 740, 741 (Miss.1991)). Stated differently, a temporary order is not a final order; however, arrearages accrue on unpaid temporary support payments. Id. Further, temporary support orders are enforceable through contempt actions. [McCardle v.] McCardle, 862 So.2d at 1292(¶ 9); see also Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 9.01[5][c], at 236 (2005). 

In this district, more often than not in more complicated cases I render a detailed opinion making findings of fact and conclusions of law, and I direct one of the attorneys to draft a judgment corresponding to the opinion, with instructions to present it to the court after it has been approved as to form by counsel opposite. Every now and then, a judgment will be delayed for one reason or another. McCarrell addresses what happens to the relief granted in that situation.

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