Posts Tagged ‘amendment’

One Without the Other? – Domestic Violence Divorce and Child Custody

Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

As has been discussed in this blog and often in recent Mississippi news, the state now allows divorces to be granted for the grounds of domestic violence. While this is certainly a victory for abused spouses of Mississippi, the question now arises of how this will affect child custody decisions made by courts in the wake of a divorce granted on these new grounds. While we believe we know the answer, it is important for Mississippians to know the possible avenues that a court may take.

The amendment to the grounds for divorce as approved by Governor Phil Bryant add the following language to the ground for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment:

Seventh. Habitual Cruel and inhuman treatment, including spousal domestic abuse. Spousal domestic abuse may be established through the reliable testimony of a single credible witness, who may be the injured party, and includes, but is not limited to: That the injured party’s spouse attempted to cause, or purposely, knowingly or recklessly caused bodily injury to the injured party, or that the injured party’s spouse attempted by physical menace to put the injured party in fear of imminent serious bodily harm; or That the injured party’s spouse engaged in a pattern of behavior against the injured party of threats or intimidation, emotional or verbal abuse, forced isolation, sexual extortion or sexual abuse, or stalking or aggravated stalking as defined in Section 97-3-107, if the pattern of behavior rises above the level of unkindness or rudeness or incompatibility or want of affection.”

When courts make decisions regarding child custody, they use the factors from Albright v. Albright, which laid out thirteen factors for custody decisions, the most important of which being what is in the best interest of the child. Those factors are available for your viewing elsewhere on our website. The question that the law faces with the passing of this domestic violence amendment is whether the offender in a divorce granted for domestic violence is presumed unfit to have custody of children, or if that behavior is simply another Albright factor.

One major question that could impact a court’s decision is the level of domestic violence that is required for this presumption to be created. Habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, long a ground for divorce in Mississippi, allows for a divorce to be granted for that treatment after only one instance. Kumar v. Kumar, 976 So.2d 957, 961 (Miss. Ct. App. 2008). While this may be enough to award a spouse a divorce, is it enough to rather automatically award that spouse custody as well? This may be an instance where a court would use the evidence of that treatment that granted the divorce as an additional factor in a custody matter as opposed to a mechanical application of the law.

A more recent development in this question is the language to the domestic violence amendment that allows a divorce for the use of nonphysical behavior towards a spouse such as threats, intimidation, emotional or verbal abuse, and even stalking. While these behaviors certainly affect the relationship between spouses, does that behavior go far enough to create a rebuttable presumption that the offender is unfit to care for their own children? Mississippi courts will soon have to decide.

Another question still is the proper standard of review that courts should use when making these determinations. In child custody cases, a chancellor’s findings will not be reversed unless manifestly wrong or the improper legal standard was applied. Mabus v. Mabus, 847 So.2d 815, 818. The Mississippi Code provides some guidance as to custody and domestic violence, stating that in a child custody proceeding, “there shall be a rebuttable presumption that it is detrimental to the child and not in the best interest of the child to be placed in sole custody, joint legal custody, or joint physical custody of a parent who has a history of perpetrating family violence.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-24(9)(a)(i). You will notice the statute includes the word “history” when speaking of domestic violence. Courts will have to decide whether that “history” can be established by one instance, such as in divorces for cruel and inhuman treatment.

With that language, it would seem that the rebuttable presumption would arise the same way during a custody proceeding following a divorce on domestic violence grounds. Our feeling is if a chancellor awarded custody of a child to a parent that has been implicated in a domestic violence incident, that most courts would see that decision as “manifestly wrong,” and therefore would overturn that chancellor’s decision. In addition to lowering judicial economy stemming from appeals of those errors, this would not be fair to any minor involved.

While this domestic violence amendment obviously makes huge strides in the realm of the grounds for divorce in Mississippi, it remains to be seen what effect it has on child custody decisions. In our opinion, that rebuttable presumption will still arise, and courts will take domestic violence as grounds to not award custody to the offending party in such a matter. This practice seems to be more in line with the polestar consideration of child custody matters, which is the best interest of the child. Our office will be glad to consult with you regarding matters such as these, and with any other domestic matter you may face. Please feel free to contact our office at 601-573-7429.

Kenneth B. Davis, Mississippi College School of Law J.D. Candidate 2017, Law Clerk to Attorney Matthew S. Poole.

Twelve and a Half Reasons Why

Monday, April 17th, 2017

A spokesperson for Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has stated that Bryant will sign into law the proposed amendment to the state’s divorce statute that will allow more divorces in cases of domestic violence. The passing of this bill follows the death of a similar amendment, and the media firestorm that erupted across the state, largely aimed at Representative Andy Gipson (R-Braxton).

As mentioned in our previous article, this amendment adds the language of “including spousal domestic abuse” to the seventh ground for divorce in Mississippi – habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Another change to current Mississippi divorce law is the ability for the abused spouse to serve as a witness of domestic violence. The burden of proof is high, but when corroborated by scientific or medical evidence, the burden lessens.

The standard of proof passed in this amendment shows the importance of quick action in situations of domestic violence. If you or someone you know experiences domestic violence, seek medical help right away if there are injuries that can be used as evidence. Do not wait for those signs of abuse to fade before seeking help. A bruise or a cut may be the difference between being believed about spousal abuse or being waved off as crying wolf.

This seems like a good measure taken by the Mississippi Legislature. It allows spouses who need to leave a marriage to do so easier than before, while still providing enough evidentiary standards to prevent fraudulent or spiteful divorces. This gives spouses a better way to leave a dysfunctional marriage, while protecting people’s names and reputations from false attacks and gossip.

Just as important as knowing what this bill changes is what it has no effect on. The behavior behind a habitual cruel and inhuman treatment claim must still rise above mere unkindness, rudeness, or want of affection. Two spouses simply not getting along is still not grounds for a divorce in Mississippi unless brought through the completely agreed upon route of irreconcilable differences. While this amendment does make divorces easier to obtain through habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, the other grounds are not affected, and divorces can still be difficult to obtain in Mississippi.

We tell our clients this because our firm believes in giving clients realistic expectations about the reality of their case. Mississippians, and legal clients in every state, deserve to be told the truth, and deserve the hardest work that can be provided to them. Our office understands that divorce can be a scary thing. We are here to serve you through that dark hour. If you or someone you know experiences domestic violence or any other recognized ground for divorce in Mississippi, we encourage you to seek legal help, and our office will be happy to serve you in any way possible.

And Now We Wait – Domestic Amendment Passes Mississippi House

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Last week, the Mississippi House passed a bill addressing domestic violence as a ground for divorce in the state, just one month removed from killing such a bill. The bill that would modify the grounds for divorce to include domestic violence passed in the Senate, but was not even voted on in the House. Representative Andy Gipson took the brunt of the criticism, largely because of his remarks that if domestic violence is occurring, the perpetrator needs “to have a change of heart” rather than be divorced from.

The specific language of the bill that was killed by the House added the words “including spousal domestic abuse” to the current Mississippi divorce ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Gipson cited the “floodgates” of divorce that would be opened with the bill’s passage as his reason for opposing the amendment. Strangely, the language of the new amendment that Gipson approved seems to extend beyond that of the bill he opposed.

The new amendment allows for a divorce to be granted when both abusive physical and non-physical conduct is taking place in a marriage. The “abusive physical conduct” section provides for a divorce for the cause of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment to be granted to the injured party when that party’s spouse has attempted to cause or has purposely, knowingly or recklessly caused bodily injury to that party. That proposed section also includes putting the injured party in fear of imminent serious bodily harm.

The “abusive non-physical conduct” section is where the new proposed amendment goes further than previous legislation. This section allows a divorce for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment to be granted where a pattern of abusive non-physical conduct such as threats, emotional or verbal abuse, forced isolation, sexual extortion, stalking, and economic financial abuse.

Several parts of this new amendment really stick out and will most likely be the catalysts for this amendment to affect change in Mississippi divorce law. For abusive physical conduct to be grounds for a divorce, the conduct must be established through the reliable testimony of one or more credible witnesses, and any of those witnesses may be the injured party. This is a huge sentence of this amendment, as the majority of domestic violence happens behind closed doors with only the two spouses present. This gives the abused spouse more ammunition than previously available to pursue a divorce.

The standards of proof also play a large part in the new changes. When reliable testimony comes from only one credible witness (who can be the injured party), the standard is clear and convincing evidence, which is the highest burden of proof used in civil courts. When that single credible witness’s testimony is corroborated by other credible physical or forensic evidence, the burden of proof lowers to preponderance of the evidence, or “more likely than not.”

Our previous article talks about some of the behavior that divorces have been granted under habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Mississippi courts have held that this may include only one instance, and that emotional abuse can be considered enough to grant a divorce on this ground. The Mississippi case of Harmon v. Harmon involves a divorce granted for grounds similar to those described in the “abusive non-physical conduct” section of the proposed amendment. In that case, the husband exhibited stalking behavior, often appearing at the wife’s workplace and following her on lunchbreak. He also often used disparaging language toward her. The wife was granted a divorce, showing that Mississippi courts are willing to grant divorces for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment for non-physical abuse.

While the substance of the amendment will not alone provide a large change in the operation of Mississippi law when dealing with divorce, there are two huge parts that we believe will have the highest impact. The first is the provision that allows evidence of domestic violence to be offered by a single credible witness which may be the injured spouse. As mentioned before, much of domestic violence happens without witnesses other than the spouses, and allowing this evidence to come from the injured party helps abused spouses immensely.

The second and not-so-obvious benefit from this amendment is the ability it gives normal, everyday Mississippians for exploring their options. Many instances of domestic violence go unreported for any number of reasons. Often, abused spouses may not even consider speaking with an attorney out of fear that their spouse may find out, possibly leading to physical or economic abuse. Someone being abused may have had a bad experience with the legal system or just attorneys in general. There are numerous reasons people will not speak with lawyers. Not every Mississippian has access to the legal resources that attorneys do, or even the ability to read and fully understand the state’s divorce statute. If an abused spouse believes that speaking with an attorney too risky for whatever reason, explicitly including provisions regarding physical and non-physical abuse allows that person to read the statute themselves and have a better understanding of their rights.

The proposed amendment has passed in the Mississippi House, including the vote of Representative Gipson. Whether his agreement to this amendment is the result of his recent public crucifixion or a genuine belief that this amendment is more satisfactory than the one he killed is of no consequence. If this proposed amendment is voted for by the Mississippi Senate, it will become part of the divorce grounds in the state. This amendment is good for the people of Mississippi, as it provides more understanding into what our divorce law provides as well as more options to those experiencing domestic abuse.

As mentioned in our past articles, if you or anyone you know is experiencing abuse in a marriage, we encourage you to immediately seek help. Our office will be happy to help in any way we can. For help in combating abuse or any other family law problem, please call the Law Office of Matthew S. Poole at (601) 573-7429.

By Kenneth Davis, J.D. Candidate 2017.  Law Clerk to Matthew Poole.