A Way Out: Habitual Cruel and Inhuman Treatment as Grounds for Divorce in Mississippi

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).

In Mississippi, however, habitual and cruel inhuman treatment can be tough to prove. Because each case typically has its own unique set of facts and circumstances, it is often hard to define “cruel and inhuman treatment.” Nevertheless, when faced with a divorce case where a spouse pleads cruel and inhuman treatment as the ground for divorce, Mississippi courts generally look at two things, “the [1] conduct of the offending spouse and [2] the impact of that conduct on the offended [innocent] spouse.” Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1263 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Bodne v. King, 835 So.2d 52, 59 (Miss.2003)). And [e]valuating the impact on the offended spouse is a subjective inquiry.” Id. As a result, in these cases, the plaintiff-spouse is often required to (1) show conduct by the defendant-spouse that meets the stringent test for cruelty, (2) prove a causal connection between the conduct and the plaintiff’s physical or mental health, and (3) provide independent corroborating evidence of the conduct. DEBORAH BELL, BELL ON MISSISSIPPI FAMILY LAW ยง 4.02[8] (2d ed. 2011).

Further, under Mississippi case law, the mere presence of unkindness, rudeness, or incompatibility is not enough to prove habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So.2d 850, 859 (Miss.1994) (quoting Kergosien v. Kergosien, 471 So.2d 1206, 1210 (Miss.1985)). And a single act of cruel conduct will generally not suffice because it is a “continuous” course of conduct–rather than a single act–that constitutes “habitual” cruel and inhuman treatment. Rawson v. Buta, 609 So. 2d 426, 431 (Miss. 1992) (citing Robinson v. Robinson, 554 So.2d 300, 303 (Miss.1989). However, in extreme cases, a single act may be sufficient to warrant divorce. Id. (citing Ellzey v. Ellzey, 253 So. 2d 249, 250 (Miss. 1971)). Additionally, an offending spouse’s unsubstantiated accusations (usually of adultery), threats, malicious sarcasm, insults, and verbal abuse toward the innocent spouse could constitute habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, especially when such conduct causes the innocent spouse’s severe personal anguish, mental suffering, or in any other way endangers his or her the physical or mental health.

Lastly, the resulting injury (albeit physical or emotional) from a spouse’s habitual cruel and inhuman treatment must be real, and not merely imaginary. In other words, the effect of the offending spouse’s conduct on the innocent spouse must be actual and apparent to the court–not manufactured for improper means or merely a perception of cruel conduct. And remember, if cruel and inhuman treatment is reciprocal–where both spouses engage in such conduct toward one another–the Chancellor may find that neither spouse is an “innocent” spouse and deny a divorce. Thus, to obtain a divorce on grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, a spouse claiming such grounds generally cannot have participated, or reciprocated, such conduct toward the other spouse.

In any event, whether a spouse is verbally, emotionally, or even physically abusive, Mississippi law may provide an innocent spouse a means of escaping such conduct through divorce. Marriage often involves many challenges, but abusive or cruel and inhuman treatment is not, and should not, be one of those challenges. If you are continuously subjected to your spouse’s habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and wish to obtain a divorce, you should consult an experienced divorce and family law attorney to help you better understand your rights. Should you or a friend should need professional assistance in a divorce or any other family law, please contact the Law Office of M. Devin Whitt for a free consultation at (601) 607-5055.