In Mississippi, the divorce laws have not changed in many years. However, on July 31, 2017, following a period of several months of debate, drafting, and public outcry, what many believed to be a long overdue and beneficial change to the state’s divorce law went into effect. Under the twelve traditional fault-based grounds for divorce allowed by Mississippi law, the Legislature decided to amend the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment to include “spousal domestic abuse.” While the addition of this language will get the most press and is the most obvious change to the statute, the evidentiary standards of this amendment are what will lead to real change to the application of Mississippi divorce law.
In the past, claims of spousal domestic abuse needed to be corroborated to be established, but there was no clear standard to be met with that corroboration. Under this new amendment, spousal abuse can be established by the reliable testimony of one credible witness, who may be the abused spouse themselves. The witness may testify that the spouse attempted to cause bodily injury to the victim, purposely, knowingly or recklessly succeeded in causing that harm to the victim, or that the spouse attempted by physical menace to put the victim in fear of imminent bodily harm. Cruel and inhuman treatment may also include behavior such as threats, emotional or verbal abuse, sexual abuse, or stalking. Evidence of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment must be established by the “preponderance of the evidence.” Mitchell v. Mitchell, 823 So.2d 568 (2002). This simply means “more likely than not,” or 51% likely to have happened.
The word “habitual” being in the statute may seem like domestic violence must happen multiple times to be pursued as a ground for divorce, however Mississippi case law shows that this is not always true. While generally it is true that habitual cruel and inhuman treatment must be shown to be “habitual,” one incident may be of such a violent nature that it may endanger the life of the victim, and may be enough to show habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. White v. White, 208 So.3d 587 (2016). Many instances of domestic violence probably rise to this level of seriousness, and therefore abused spouses should not be deterred by the word “habitual” being in the language of the law.