Articles Posted in Divorce

Do not “sit” on your right to enforce or collect on a divorce judgment. Let me repeat that: DO NOT wait too long to enforce a divorce judgment or any incorporated alimony, property settlement, or child support judgment. I give this counsel to all prospective clients that contact me asking whether they should bring their ex-spouse back to court to enforce alimony, property settlement, and/or child support agreements/provisions associated with a divorce judgment (collectively “divorce judgment”). If a person does not timely seek to enforce a divorce judgment, the law can and will bar enforcement of that judgment by way of the statute of limitations.

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In assessing any case, one of the very first things an attorney does is determines whether the statute of limitations has ran on a client’s claim. The statute of limitations sets a particular time period for claims and causes of action to be filed so as to ensure that such claims are “ripe” for judicial determination. If a person files a claim or seeks to enforce a judgment outside the statute of limitations–after the legally prescribed time to bring the claim has ran or expired–then the person’s otherwise viable claim will be barred by the statute of limitations because it is considered untimely, or “stale.” Despite very few narrow exceptions where the doctrine of laches or equitable estoppel applies, if the statute of limitations has expired on a given claim or right to enforce, then recovery or relief cannot be had on such a claim. See e.g., Nicholas v. Nicholas, 841 So. 2d 1208, 1212-13 (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). This concept equally applies to divorce judgments, including alimony, property settlement, and child support provisions/judgments included in, or attached to, a final judgment of divorce.
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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.
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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.

Defining Adultery

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.
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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.

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Alimony, also known as spousal support, has been a concept embraced by Mississippi law since 1848. DEBORAH BELL, BELL ON MISSISSIPPI FAMILY LAW § 9.01[5] (2d ed. 2011). The purpose of alimony is to provide support for a financially-dependent spouse, albeit the divorcing wife or husband. Mississippi law maintains a strong public policy in favor of providing financial support to divorcing spouses who would otherwise be at risk of becoming destitute–or those who are seriously at risk of not having the financial means to provide for basic living necessities. So, to be clear, the purpose of alimony is not to provide financial support to a divorcing spouse so that the spouse may maintain a comparable standard of living that existed during the marriage, but to provide monetary support to avoid placing persons in poverty following a divorce. That being said, there are four types of alimony recognized in Mississippi: (1) permanent alimony, (2) lump sum or “settlement” alimony, (3) rehabilitative alimony, and (4) reimbursement alimony. See BELL ON MISSISSIPPI FAMILY LAW § 9.02. The most prominent form of alimony is permanent alimony.
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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. images (1).jpg

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).
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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[1] (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.
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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).
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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.
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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.
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Over the past decade, I have assisted hundreds of people with divorce and divorce-related issues in Mississippi. As we have briefly discussed in previous posts, there are two ways to obtain a divorce in the State of Mississippi: (1) an Irreconcilable Differences Divorce (“ID Divorce”) and (2) a contested or “Fault Based” divorce. While divorce is never without stress and, honestly, there really is no “easy” way to obtain a divorce in Mississippi, an ID Divorce, also known as “agreed” or no-fault divorce, may be considered the “easier” way to obtain a divorce here in this State.

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Contested Divorce in Mississippi

A contested divorce is what most people think of when they hear the term “divorce.” In this type of divorce, one or both of the parties allege that the other spouse committed some type of marital “misconduct” during the marriage that rises to the level of a “fault” ground for divorce. Since 1932, there have been twelve (12) grounds for divorce in Mississippi, with the most commonly used ones including Adultery, Habitual Cruel and Inhuman Treatment, Habitual Drunkenness, Habitual Drug Use, and Desertion. When a party proves his or her ground for divorce, the party may be granted a divorce by the court even if there is no agreement between spouses to be divorced. However, a contested divorce in Mississippi still maintains strict requirements of proof, corroboration, and defenses.
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