One of the most frequently asked questions I have received in my years of divorce practice is "how much is this divorce going to cost me?" This is a fair question, but a tough one to answer. In Mississippi, divorce is neither easy nor free. While I often find myself going to great lengths to save my client's time and money in divorce cases, the financial impact of divorce is always present. Because divorces can cause a serious financial burden for some individuals, divorce costs should be a key factor when considering whether to divorce and the attorney you use. In fact, one of the most important divorce costs in any divorce case in Mississippi will be attorney's fees. One would generally think that each party to a divorce is responsible for paying his or her respective attorney out of their own pocket. But think again, because courts are able to award one spouse or the other reasonable attorney's fees in certain cases.
From cases involving work-related injuries to those involving injuries arising from car accidents, personal injury litigation is a constant staple in our courts today. Generally, the result of these types of legal matters is either (1) an agreed-upon, financial settlement between the parties or (2) a money damages judgment awarded by a court of law. These personal injury "awards," including workers' compensation awards, are often paid out over time. So the remainder, or the outstanding amount of such monetary settlements and awards, still owed at the time of divorce can garner extra attention in divorce proceedings when it comes to property division.
As mentioned in a few of my earlier posts, Mississippi is an equitable distribution state whereby chancery courts equitably, or fairly, divide marital property--or property acquired or accumulated during the marriage or for the benefit of the marriage--upon divorce. Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So. 2d 909, 915 (Miss. 1994). The issue then arises whether a particular spouse's personal injury award, settlement money, or any remainder thereof constitutes marital property subject to equitable distribution.
The vast majority of my law practice involves divorce and family law matters in Mississippi. As a result, a lot of the work I perform goes through the Mississippi chancery courts, rather than state circuit courts. When I tell many of my clients that their case will be heard in chancery court, they often ask me what's the difference between the two types of state courts. The distinction is not always the easiest to understand. In short, the Mississippi court system is comprised of both courts of law and courts of equity. Some courts focus on what is "fair," while others focus on what is "just" under applicable law. Mississippi chancery courts--or family law courts--are courts of equity, while state circuit courts are courts of law.
Chancery courts originated in medieval England. The Chancery dynamic is one common law holdover that played a considerable role in legal jurisprudence in the early years of the United States. These courts were developed in England to help fill the inequitable voids created or fostered by the English law courts. English Kings of the time commissioned councils led by Lord Chancellors to oversee and resolve inequities in the law, or those created by a lack of governing law. And interestingly, lawyers that engaged in Chancery practice were known as "solicitors in equity."
In most divorces, there is almost always some sort of property dispute--insofar as it relates to classifying marital and separate property for the purpose of property division. Depending on the asset(s) at issue, these disputes can be very complex and taxing on both the courts and parties involved. Over the years, Mississippi courts have adopted or developed tools to help Chancellors decipher what constitutes "marital" property in divorce/property division cases. One of these tools is known as the "family-use" doctrine.
Remember, Mississippi is an equitable distribution state whereby only marital property is subject to property division. Accordingly, a spouse's ownership or title to certain property is not outcome determinative of each party's rights to that property in light of a divorce action--there is no presumption of ownership to titled spouses in Mississippi divorces. Pearson v. Pearson, 761 So. 2d 157, 163 (Miss. 2000). Thus, the first step Mississippi courts go through in property division is classifying each spouse's property to determine what is and is not "marital" property. And this is where the "family-use" doctrine kicks in.
Adultery is one of the most utilized grounds for divorce. As unfortunate as it may sound, many spouses commit adultery. There are countless psycho-social studies and surveys aimed at figuring out "why" spouses engage in adulterous activity. But, in the divorce context in Mississippi, why a spouse commits adultery is not really all that important. When considering divorce on grounds of adultery in Mississippi, a person should know (1) the definition of "adultery" and (2) how to prove it.
Most people associate "cheating" with adultery. But, "cheating" is not necessarily always "adultery," because "cheating" is subject to varying interpretations. To some, "cheating" may merely involve intimate conversation with, or thoughts about, another person, without any physical contact; while others think only physical, sexual contact with another person qualifies as "cheating." Mississippi law adopts the latter in its definition of "adultery." Mississippi law defines adultery as the "voluntary sexual intercourse on the part of either spouse with a person other than his or her own spouse." Owen v. Gerity, 422 So. 2d 284, 287 (Miss. 1982) (emphasis added). Also, it does not matter how frequent, or infrequent, a spouse commits adultery. As the Mississippi Supreme Court has explained, "a one night stand does not make  sexual misconduct any less adulterous." Davis v. Davis, 832 So. 2d 492, 496 (Miss. 2002). So, adultery involves sexual intercourse with a third-person, and one instance of such conduct is enough to be characterized as adultery in Mississippi.
As a Mississippi divorce and family law attorney, I advise my clients on both legal and non-legal issues on a daily basis. Through my professional experience and my personal interactions with married individuals, I have learned that maintaining a happy and satisfying marriage can be really challenging at times. Often, spouses will want some personal space and time alone to themselves apart from their significant other. And in extreme cases, spouses may physically separate during the marriage whereby one spouse moves out of the home and lives elsewhere. This separation between spouses could produce legal effects and consequences in Mississippi--one effect being a claim by one spouse for separate maintenance.
Separate maintenance is a court-made equitable, monetary remedy awarded by Mississippi courts in the event that spouses have separated and one spouse is financially dependent on the other. Lynch v. Lynch, 616 So. 2d 294, 296 (Miss. 1993). In other words, separate maintenance is not a statutory remedy enacted by the Mississippi state legislature. Instead, it is a concept developed by the courts over time that has become a fixture in Mississippi family law. In fact, the concept of separate maintenance stems from Mississippi's public policy recognizing a husband's continued duty to financially support his wife and family even during periods of spousal separation--especially when the wife is the non-earning spouse and children are involved. Gray v. Gray, 484 So. 2d 1032, 1033 (Miss. 1986). The underlying purpose behind this duty is "to provide, as nearly as may be possible, the same sort of normal support and maintenance for the wife . . . as she would have received in the home, if the parties had continued normal cohabitation . . . ." Germany v. Germany, 123 So. 3d 423, 429 (Miss. 2013). So, courts will award separate maintenance to allow the recipient spouse to maintain a standard of living that would have existed absent the spouses' separation. In the end, Mississippi courts enforce this steadfast public policy and marital duty to support one's spouse and family during marital separation through awards of separate maintenance.
It may come as a surprise to some, but a divorcing spouse's financial or ownership interest in a business may be classified as "marital property" by a court when dividing property in a divorce. As an equitable distribution state, Mississippi courts are required to divide marital assets fairly, or "equitably," between divorcing spouses. Marital assets may include any economic or ownership interest in a business, especially such interests in a closely-held business. Closely-held businesses often include family businesses or other small businesses whereby a spouse is a sole proprietor, shareholder or stockholder, partner, or otherwise owns a financial or ownership interest in the business. Like any other property owned by a spouse in a divorce, in terms of property division, Mississippi courts first classify a spouse's business interest as marital property, separate property, or a mixed asset (part marital, part separate property).
A business interest acquired by a spouse during the marriage or purchased with marital funds may be considered marital property. MacDonald v. MacDonald, 698 So. 2d 1079, 1083-84 (Miss. 1997). For example, where a husband starts a new business, joins a partnership, or even buys stock in an already existing business during the marriage, the husband's interest in any of those situations will likely be classified as marital property, and it may be subject to equitable distribution in a divorce. On the other hand, a business interest acquired and owned by a spouse prior to the marriage will generally be classified as separate property. In addition to business interests owned prior to the marriage, any business interest acquired by gift or inheritance during the marriage may be classified as separate property. McKissack v. McKissack, 45 So. 3d 716, 718 (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). But remember, even separate property--including gifts and inheritance--may be classified, or converted into, marital property if it is commingled or designated for familial use during the marriage. Lastly, a business interest may be classified as a mixed asset--a mixture of separate and marital property. The most common example of when a business interest may be classified as mixed property is where the business interest owned prior to the marriage (otherwise classified as separate property) appreciates--or gains financial value--during the marriage. As a result, the "[a]ppreciation of the value of any non-marital asset [separate property] may be taken into account to arrive at a fair division to the extent the non-titled spouse had made a contribution toward the appreciation of value" or where the owning-spouse's efforts during the marriage caused or contributed to the business interest's appreciated value. Carrow v. Carrow, 642 So.2d 901, 907 (Miss. 1994). In such a case, the appreciated value of a business interest can be calculated by subtracting the value of the business interest at the time of the marriage from its current value.
In the wake of a divorce, it is not uncommon for spouses to start claiming what is "their" individual property. However, simply "claiming" property as your own does not make it so. Property that a divorcing spouse thinks he or she independently owns--even pre-marital property--may very well be "marital" property subject to property division in Mississippi. In Mississippi divorce cases, one of the key determinations to be made is whether the property owned by the parties is "separate" property or "marital" property.
At common law, states treated property in a divorce as either "titled property" or "community property." "Titled property" (or "separate property") states maintained that property titled to, or legally owned by, an individual spouse, separate and apart from the marriage, was exempt from property division in a divorce. As a result, the titled spouse was able to wholly retain the property after the divorce. On the other hand, "community property" states treated all property owned by both spouses as part of the "community" or marriage. Consequently, regardless of which spouse held title to the property, the property owned by both spouses in community property states was generally subject to equal (50/50) division in a divorce. These two property division concepts are still prevalent in many states today. But, Mississippi is neither a true "titled property" state nor a true "community property" state. Instead, as mentioned in one of my early posts, Mississippi is known as an "equitable distribution" state, which could be seen as a mixture of the two property division doctrines.
As I explained in an earlier post, alimony is still alive in Mississippi, and it is definitely something a person should consider when contemplating a divorce. Again, when people hear the word "alimony" they typically think of permanent alimony. But, what many people do not know is that Mississippi recognizes temporary spousal support as well, such as rehabilitative alimony.
Mississippi courts have recognized rehabilitative alimony, also known as "transitional" or "time-limited" alimony, since 1995. As the Mississippi Supreme Court recently noted, rehabilitative alimony "is an equitable mechanism which allows a party needing assistance to become self-supporting without becoming destitute in the interim." Pierce v. Pierce, 132 So. 3d 553, 565 (Miss. 2014) (quoting Hubbard v. Hubbard, 656 So. 2d 124, 130 (Miss.1995)). In other words, rehabilitative alimony is temporary, transitional monetary support awarded to a needy spouse while he or she attempts to re-enter the workforce and obtain a viable income to support himself or herself following the divorce. As a result, in many instances, rehabilitative alimony is available to a spouse who put his or her career on hold while taking care of the marital home; for example, the stay-at-home spouse. Lauro v. Lauro, 847 So. 2d 843, 849 (Miss. 2003). However, in some cases, rehabilitative alimony has been awarded to a divorced spouse who maintained a full-time job during and after the marriage. See Brady v. Brady, 14 So. 3d 823, 826 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009).
When I talk with clients about divorce, I have heard many say "I understand there is no alimony in Mississippi." Many of these people show up in my office seeking help with a divorce, and unfortunately, they are mistaken because alimony is still alive and well in Mississippi. In this regards, one of the most stressful issues that many of my clients face is the potential of having to pay alimony to their spouse in the event of a divorce. Many clients simply do not understand why they have to pay money to support a person to which they are no longer married. As a result, alimony is often both a confusing and frustrating issue in many divorce cases.
I routinely deal with cases involving a spouse who wants a divorce because he or she learned that the other spouse cheated or committed some other type of marital misconduct. Often times, when a client hires me to help with a fault-based divorce, especially where the ground for divorce is adultery, one of the first questions I ask my client is: Did you forgive your spouse? A "yes" to this question can certainly complicate an otherwise clear-cut divorce. In Mississippi, forgiving--or condoning--a spouse's past marital transgressions may legally bar a complaining-spouse's right to a divorce. As a result, condonation is one of most often used defenses to fault-based divorce in Mississippi.
Condonation occurs when a spouse voluntarily forgives the other spouse for committing some sort of marital misconduct. Where a spouse forgives the other's misconduct, there is an unspoken promise that such misconduct will not recur. So even if the complaining-spouse condones or grants forgiveness for the other spouse's misconduct, such forgiveness is conditioned on the offending-spouse's continued good behavior. For example, if a spouse forgives the other for committing adultery, then the other spouse either continues the extramarital affair or commits adultery again, then the prior condonation or forgiveness for the first instance of adultery would likely be invalid. More so, it is important to note that condonation is most often used as a defense against divorce based on grounds of adultery whereby the offending-spouse claims that the complaining-spouse forgave him or her for an extramarital affair. However, the condonation defense is not limited to just adultery. For example, the Mississippi Court of Appeals in Smith held that the defendant's wife did not condone his excessive gambling habit simply by accompanying him to the casino where he regularly gambled. Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1266 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011).
In terms of divorce defenses under Mississippi law, "antenuptial knowledge" may simply be defined as a complaining-spouse's (the spouse filing for divorce) pre-marital knowledge of the defendant-spouse's pre-existing bad habits, condition, or other marital impediment that now is alleged to present a cause for divorce. For a defendant-spouse to rely on the defense of antenuptial knowledge, there must be evidence that the complaining-spouse was fully aware of the defendant's alleged pre-marital conduct before entering into the marriage, or evidence showing that the complaining-spouse had such reliable information that a reasonable person would have known about the defendant's particular pre-marital conduct, which is the alleged ground for divorce. See N. SHELTON HAND, MISSISSIPPI DIVORCE, ALIMONY, AND CHILD CUSTODY § 5:13 (2014). Thus, actual or constructive antenuptial knowledge of a defendant-spouse's impediment giving rise to the divorce is sufficient to establish a valid defense against the divorce in Mississippi.
Since 1959, there seems to be no significant case addressing the antenuptial knowledge defense by the Mississippi Supreme Court or Court of Appeals. The most notable case where the Mississippi Supreme Court directly and substantively addressed the antenuptial knowledge defense to divorce was in Kincaid v. Kincaid. In that case, the wife filed for divorce asserting that her husband was a habitual drunkard. Kincaid v. Kincaid, 42 So. 2d 108, 109 (Miss. 1949); see MS § 93-5-1 (5) (2014). Seeking to prevent the divorce, the husband in the case claimed that the wife knew or should have known of his habitual drunkenness before the marriage and therefore should not be able to complain about it now. Accordingly, the Mississippi Supreme Court explained that the crucial issue in the case was whether the husband sufficiently established that the wife knew or had good reason to know of the husband's habitual drunkenness at the time of, or before, the marriage. Id. In assessing Mississippi law, as one commentator has stated, the Kincaid court "suggested that premarital knowledge of  conditions such as habitual drunkenness, drug use, imprisonment or impotency may bar divorce." DEBORAH BELL, BELL ON MISSISSIPPI FAMILY LAW § 4.03 (2d. ed. 2011). Ultimately, the Kincaid court held that there was not sufficient evidence to establish the wife's antenuptial knowledge of the husband's habitual drunkenness in order to bar a divorce because "[a]t the most, she knew only that he was an occasional and moderate social drinker [, not] an habitual drunkard before marriage . . . ." Id. at 109-110.
When a client seeks my counsel about divorce in Mississippi and I ask them why he or she wants a divorce, in several cases, the response is surprisingly consistent: "We argue all the time" or "He or she is mean and rude to me." During the first conversation I have with these clients I typically explain that habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is a ground for a divorce in Mississippi. Undoubtedly, a spouse's cruel, demeaning conduct can place a significant strain on a marriage. Marriage does not require a spouse to endure the physical or emotional torture resulting from a spouse's habitual cruel and inhuman conduct. Like I tell many of my clients, Mississippi law may provide an innocent spouse a way out.
As mentioned in an earlier post, habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is a ground for contested, fault-based divorce in Mississippi. Like all other fault-based divorce grounds, habitual cruel and inhuman treatment must be alleged with specificity, corroborated by sufficient evidence, and proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Shavers v. Shavers, 982 So. 2d 397, 403 (Miss. 2008); Daigle v. Daigle, 626 So. 2d 140, 144 (Miss. 1993). The Mississippi Supreme Court has explained that habitual cruel and inhuman treatment exists only where there is a
continuous course of conduct on the part of the offending spouse which was so unkind, unfeeling or brutal as to endanger, or put one in reasonable apprehension of danger to life, limb or health, and further, such conduct must be habitual, that is, done often enough or so continuously that it may reasonably be said to be a permanent condition.Holladay v. Holladay, 776 So. 2d 662, 676 (Miss. 2000) (citing Robison v. Robison, 722 So. 2d 601, 603 (Miss. 1998)). And to be clear, evidence of physical violence or threat of physical violence is not necessary, but is sufficient, to prove habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Bodne v. King, 835 So. 2d 52, 58 (Miss. 2003).
One of the things that I have learned from my experience as a divorce attorney in Mississippi is that divorce is defendable. Some clients that retain my services are still in love with their spouse and genuinely want their marriage to work out and do not want a divorce, and they are willing to "fight" for their marriage or defend against a divorce. When addressing the concerns of the clients that don't want a divorce, I generally inform them that there are several ways to legally defend against divorce because, in essence, divorce is nothing more than a lawsuit. And like any lawsuit, there are defenses available to the defendant-spouse in a divorce action in Mississippi.
It is important to remember that the spouse seeking a divorce bears the burden alleging certain marital misconduct committed by the defendant-spouse and proving any alleged grounds for divorce with sufficient evidence. Lindsey v. Lindsey, 818 So. 2d 1191, 1194 (Miss. 2002). But, the defendant-spouse must specifically raise any and all affirmative defenses available in answering the divorce complaint. One of the most commonly raised defenses to fault-based divorce in Mississippi is recrimination.
Along with custody disputes, the division of marital property is often a source of contention for many couples seeking divorce. Depending on the duration of the marriage, the amount of property acquired will fluctuate. But generally, the longer the marriage, the more property or "stuff" is acquired. One of the most common questions I get when a client comes to me seeking a divorce is: "What's going to happen with all my stuff?" The simple answer is whatever is classified as marital property will be "equitably" divided, while non-marital property is treated as separate property belonging to the titled spouse.
Since 1994, in divorce cases, Mississippi chancery courts have applied the doctrine of equitable distribution when dividing marital property. See Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921 (Miss. 1994). Thus, when it comes to property division, Mississippi is not a "community-property" state whereby all of the divorcing spouses' assets, regardless of whether they were acquired during the marriage or not, are divided equally (50/50) upon divorce. Carter v. Carter, 98 So. 3d 1109, 1113 (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). Instead, Mississippi is what is called an "equitable distribution" state.