Checklists, Checklists, Checklists

August 12, 2014 § 11 Comments

You can skip over this post if you’ve been paying attention to this blog for any appreciable length of time.

For you newcomers and oblivious long-timers, you need to know and appreciate that proving many kinds of cases in chancery court is a matter of proving certain factors mandated from on high by our appellate courts. I’ve referred to it as “trial by checklist.” 

If you don’t put on proof to support findings of fact by the chancellor, your case will fail, and you will have wasted your time, the court’s time, your client’s money. You will have lost your client’s case and embarrassed yourself personally, professionally, and, perhaps, financially.

I suggest you copy these checklists and have them handy at trial. Build your outline of the case around them. In your trial preparation design your discovery to make sure that you will have proof at trial to support findings on the factors applicable in your case. Subpoena the witnesses who will provide the proof you need. Present the evidence at trial that will support the judge’s findings.

If the judge fails to address the applicable factors in his or her findings of fact, file a timely R59 motion asking the judge to do that. But remember — and this is critically important — if you did not put the proof in the record at trial to support those findings, all the R59 motions in the world will not cure that defect.

Here is an updated list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Child Support.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

And here are two checklists that will help you in probate matters:

Closing an estate.

Doing an accounting in a probate matter.

Tailoring Your Proof to Fit Your Case

August 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Yesterday I visited the COA’s decision in Pelton v. Pelton, which the COA reversed because the chancellor did not make findings on the Ferguson and Armstrong factors.

All most of us know about Pelton is what we read in the opinion.

But before you dismiss this as the fault of the chancellor, consider the possibility that the record may not have included what the judge needed to adjudicate this case. I’m not saying that’s what happened here. I’m merely pointing out that sometimes the judge has to make do with what he or she has in the record. And sometimes what is in the record is not enough to cover all of the factors.

For example: in an equitable distribution case, the judge must first determine which assets are marital, and then go through the Ferguson factors to determine whether and how they should be divided. I have heard cases where there is next to no evidence as to when or how the assets were acquired. I have heard cases with scant evidence upon which to make Ferguson findings.

In a child custody case, the judge can not make Albright findings on evidence that is not in the record. So if you want the judge to consider your client as the parent with continuity of care, then you will have to put on proof to that effect. Another chancellor related his experience in a case a couple of years ago where the custodial parent defending a custody modification put on no proof as to Albright factors at all. What exactly is the chancellor to do in that situation?

MRE 614 does allow the judge to call witnesses and intrrogate them, which would seem to be a viable option where the best interest of a child is involved. But that should be a last resort in a contested case, and, in my experience, is rare in chancery court.

The bottom line is that you have to make your record. The chancellor can not rule on evidence not in the record. The appellate courts can not find that the trial judge’s ruling is supported by substantial evidence in the record when it is not there.

Inadequate Findings in a Factor Case = Remand

August 21, 2013 § 3 Comments

Most lawyers, when they are through with a case, don’t want to revisit it. That’s what makes a remand so detestable. Those do-overs are a pain.

The most sure-fire way to get a do-over is for the trial judge not to address the factors in a factor case. For those of you who have not been paying attention, certain kinds of cases require that the chancellor consider certain factors in making an adjudication. I have called it Trial by Checklist. When the chancellor does not tick off the items on the checklist, remand is practically automatic.

The latest example is the COA’s August 13, 2013, decision in Pelton v. Pelton, in which the chancellor did not: classify the assets as marital or non-marital; do an analysis of the Ferguson factors in making equitable distribution; or apply the Armstrong factors for alimony. Result is a do-over. 

If you wind up with an adjudication in which you feel that the chancellor did not address the applicable factors, or where you feel that they were not adequately addressed, here are several suggestions to remedy the situation:

  1. File a timely R59 motion asking the court to make specific findings on the applicable factors. In Pelton, the parties did file post-trial motions, but the COA decision does not spell out what the parties were asking the court to do.
  2. If you are concerned that you did not make a good enough record for the judge to make findings on the proper factors, ask the court to reopen the proof to allow you to make a record. That would be a R59 motion, which must be filed within 10 days of the judgment.
  3. You can also in a R59 motion offer to do proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

MAKING YOUR UNCONTESTED DIVORCE BULLETPROOF

January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

We’ve talked here before about whether you should make a record when you present an uncontested divorce.

In Luse v. Luse, 992 So.2d 659, 661 (Miss. App. 2008), the COA held that an appellant who had failed to answer, defend or otherwise appear in the case could not raise for the first time on appeal issues about the sufficiency of the chancellor’s findings.

So what happens when the defaulted party does appear via a timely motion under MRCP 59, say, and asks the chancellor to set aside the judgment because she failed to make the required findings of fact under Ferguson, or Armstrong, or any of the other required checklists of factors? That’s what happened in the case of Lee v. Lee in the chancery court of Desoto County. Corey Lee showed up late for his divorce trial, popping in just as the chancellor was in the middle of his opinion dividing the marital estate, awarding custody, and assessing child support. Corey enlisted a lawyer who filed a timely MRCP 59 motion.

In his motion, Corey challenged the judge’s ruling on the basis that it did not address the Ferguson factors for equitable distribution. The judgment did state that it was based on consideration of the Ferguson factors, but did not spell out the evidence relied on as to each applicable factor as required under Sandlin v. Sandlin, 699 So.2d 1198, 1204 (Miss. 1997).

On appeal the COA affirmed, citing Luse.

The Supreme Court granted cert, and in an opinion rendered January 26, 2012, in Lee v. Lee, Justice Dickinson said for the court:

¶7. A divorce judgment entered when a party fails to appear is “a special kind of default judgment.” [Mayoza v. Mayoza, 526 So.2d 547, 548 (Miss. 1988)]. And to obtain relief from such judgments, absent parties are required to raise the issues in post-trial motions under Rules 52, 59, or 60 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. [Mayoza, 548-49.] Although Corey filed a Rule 59 motion, the Court of Appeals held that the motion did not address the equitable-distribution issue; and, therefore, the issue was procedurally barred.

¶8. In its holding, the Court of Appeals relied on Luse v. Luse, in which, John Luse neither answered his wife’s complaint for divorce nor appeared at the divorce hearing. The chancellor granted John’s wife a divorce and awarded her ownership of marital property. John never filed a timely post-trial motion challenging the property division, so he first raised the issue on appeal, and the Court of Appeals properly held that John’s claim was procedurally barred.

¶9. But unlike John Luse, Corey Lee raised the issue before the chancellor. In his Rule 59 motion, Corey argued that the division of martial property was inequitable. At the hearing on the motion, Corey’s attorney specifically argued that the chancellor had failed to make findings of fact and conclusions of law, as required by Ferguson. Therefore, Corey is not procedurally barred from raising this issue on appeal.

* * *

¶13. By failing to appear at the hearing, Corey forfeited his right to present evidence and prosecute his divorce complaint. But he did not forfeit the right to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence or the judgment. And whether absent or present at the trial, the appropriate time to challenge a judgment is after it has been entered. Corey did so in his Rule 59 motion and at the hearing following it. The fact that Corey failed to attend the divorce trial does not relieve the chancellor of his duty to base his decision on the evidence, regardless of by whom presented, nor did it nullify this Court’s mandate in Ferguson.

The decision reversed the COA and the chancellor, setting aside the divorce.

So how do you avoid the same trap the next time you present an uncontested divorce? My suggestion is that you make a point of putting on proof of each factor, and prepare proposed findings of fact and conclusions of fact, incorporating them in the judgment you hand to the chancellor at the conclusion of the hearing. Make specific findings as to each checklist factor that applies in your case. If you are asking for equitable distribution, address the Ferguson factors. For custody, address the Albright factors. For alimony, address Armstrong. And so on through as many as apply in your case. You know in advance (or you should know) what your client’s testimony will be on each point, so simply wrap it up into a neat package for the judge. In the alternative, you lazy lawyers can appear and just put on the proof and ask the chancellor to do it. If the chancellor is in a benevolent mood, he or she might do it for you. Or you may be dispatched to do it yourself and come back another time.

TRIAL BY CHECKLIST: ATTORNEY’S FEES IN AN ESTATE

March 16, 2011 § 15 Comments

A practice tip about trial factors is here.

I previously posted here about what it takes to comply with the UCCR to document your claim for attorney’s fees in an estate.

Ordinarily, attorney’s fees claims are governed by the factors in McKee v. McKee, but in an estate, the factors are slightly, but significantly, different.

In estate matters, the proper factors to consider in determining reasonable attorney’s fees are:

  1. The time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly;
  2. The likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer;
  3. The fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services;
  4. The amount involved and the results obtained;
  5. The time limitation imposed by the client or by the circumstances;
  6. The nature and length of the professional relationship with the client;
  7. The experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services; and
  8. Whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

In re Estate of Johnson v. Moore, 735 So. 2d 231, 237 (¶27) (Miss. 1999) (quoting Moreland v. Riley, 716 So. 2d 1057, 1062 (¶16) (Miss. 1998)).

 In the case of Catchings v. Estate of McCullough, decided March 15, 2011, the COA reviewed a chancellor’s decision that reduced attorney’s fees in an estate.  The attorney claimed $88,000 in fees in connection with a $300,000 estate, but the chancellor found that the amount of work done did not warrant that amount of fees and reduced the fee award to $36,000, based on application of the Johnson factors stated above. The COA found no abuse of discretion and upheld the chancellor’s determination. 

If you have an exceptionally large claim for attorney’s fees in an estate, it would be a good idea to attach your and a fiduciary’s affidavit itemizing the time spent and addressin each of the Johnson factors.

A CHECKLIST OF CHECKLISTS

December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Proving your case by proving certain factors is a fact of legal life in Mississippi.  I’ve referred to it as trial by checklist.

Here are the checklists I’ve posted (you can click on the links to get to them):

Attorney’s fees.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Those are all of the checklists of which I am aware.  If you know of others, please let me know and I will add them to the list.

I also posted a checklist for closing an estate, but it’s a procedural cheklist rather than a substantive checklist.

ONCE AGAIN ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CHECKLIST PROOF

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve talked before here about how important it is to develop your proof at trial based on the various lists of factors — I call them “checklists” — that have been handed down by the appellate courts. 

The Court of Appeals on November 2, 2010, reversed a Chancellor’s decision granting grandparent visitation for failure to address the Martin v. Coop factors.  In the case of Conerly v. Davis, the court stated that ” … the grandparent-visitation statutes simply give a grandparent … standing to file a request seeking visitation rights. It is then within the chancellor’s discretion to award or deny visitation after reviewing the Martin factors and considering the best interest of the child. Therefore, we vacate the chancellor’s judgment and remand this case for an on-the-record consideration of the Martin factors and the entry of an appropriate judgment based on those factors.”

The Martin v. Coop factors are here.

A guide to the intricacies of grandparent visitation is here.

The retrial in this case may be due to a simple oversight on the judge’s part.  Or, it may be that neither party at trial developed any evidence that would have supported findings under the appropriate factors.

When representing a client in any case where proof of trial factors is required to support the chancellor’s decision, be sure you present evidence to establish each and every one.  If you do not have proof on every factor, develop as many as you can.  If the judge renders an opinion at the conclusion of the case and does not address the applicable factors, ask her to adress them or to render a supplemental opinion doing so.  If the judge renders a written opinion and/or judgment, file an MRCP Rule 59 motion immediately, but not more than ten days after the judgment is entered, asking the court to address the factors based on the proof in the record.

You are setting the stage for a remand and a second, costly trip to court for your client if you don’t.

TRIAL BY CHECKLIST: INCOME TAX DEPENDENCY EXEMPTION

October 11, 2010 § 9 Comments

A practice tip about trial factors is here.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in Nichols v. Tedder, 547 So.2d 766, 775 (Miss. 1989), that the Chancellor may award the dependency exemption for income tax purposes to either parent as part of its determination of child support. 

If your client wants the court to award her the tax dependency exemption, it will take more than just asking her what she wants the court to do.  In Louk v. Louk, 761 So.2d 878, 884 (Miss. 2000), the Mississippi Supreme Court laid out the factors that the Chancellor is required to consider before making the award.  They are:

  1. The value of the exemption at the marginal rate of each parent;
  2. The income of each parent;
  3. The age of the children and how long the exemption will be available;
  4. The percentage of the cost of supporting the children borne by each parent; and
  5. The financial burden assumed by each parent under the property settlement agreement in the case.

In Laird v. Blackburn, 788 So.2d 844, 852 (Miss. App. 2001), the Court of Appeals added a sixth:  the value of the non-economic but valuable contributions made by the custodial parent.

Although I have often heard parties testify that they wanted the court to award them the exemption, I have never heard any testimony on factor 1. 

It seems to me that if you fail to put on the requisite proof, you run the risk that the judge will simply say that the proof did not support such an award, or, if the trial judge does award it, that the Court of Appeals will take it away or put your client to the considerable expense of having to retry the issue so that the trial judge will have the evidence necessary to adjudicate it.

TRIAL BY CHECKLIST: SEPARATE MAINTENANCE

September 20, 2010 § 8 Comments

A practice tip about trial factors is here.

In the case of Shorter v. Shorter, 740 So.2d 352, 357 (Miss. 1999), the Mississippi Supreme Court stated that six criteria must be considered in setting awards of separate maintenance: 

  1. The health of the husband and the wife;
  2. Their combined earning capacity;
  3. The reasonable needs of the wife and children;
  4. The necessary living expenses of the husband;
  5. The fact that the wife has free use of the home and furnishings; and
  6. Other such facts and circumstances.

Also seeHonts v Honts, 690 So.2d 1151, 1153 (Miss. 1997).

While an award of separate maintenance should provide for the wife as if the couple were still cohabiting, the allowance should not “unduly deplete the husband’s estate.” Kennedy v. Kennedy, 662 So. 2d 179, 181 (Miss. 1995) (quoting Thompson v. Thompson, 527 So. 2d 617, 622 (Miss. 1988)).

TRIAL BY CHECKLIST: PERIODIC AND REHABILITATIVE ALIMONY

August 27, 2010 § 19 Comments

A practice tip about trial factors is here.

Armstrong vs. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278, 1280 (Miss. 1993), sets out the factors that the trial court must consider and address in making a determination about whether to award periodic and/or rehabilitative alimony.  They are: 

  1. The income and expenses of the parties.
  2. The health and earning capacities of the parties.
  3. The needs of each party.
  4. The obligations and assets of each party.
  5. The length of the marriage.
  6. The presence or absence of minor children in the home, which may require that one or both parties either pay, or personally provide, child care.
  7. The age of the parties.
  8. The standard of living of the parties, both during the marriage and at the time of the support determination.
  9. The tax consequences of the spousal support order.
  10. Fault or misconduct.
  11. Wasteful dissipation of assets by either party.
  12. Any other factor deemed by the Court to be “just and equitable” in connection with the setting of spousal support.

Before the court can reach the issue of alimony, the court must first adjudicate equitable distribution and determine whether any need for alimony can be alleviated by a greater share of equitable distribution.  This means that the factors for equitable distribution (Ferguson factors) must be presented in alimony cases.  If, after equitable distribution, the court finds that the needs of both parties are met and there is no disparity, the court does not consider alimony.

Professor Deborah Bell in her MISSISSIPPI FAMILY LAW treatise and her annual seminars has done some important research into how length of marriage and relative income affect awards of periodic, rehabilitative and lump-sum alimony.  You should become very familiar with her work if you are going to take on an alimony case.

Caveat:  This is an area of the law in flux, and the cases are significantly fact-driven.  You should do some research for authority supporting your position pro or con before going to trial.  There is plenty of case law on both sides of the issue.

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