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Sanford v. Sanford

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

October 31, 2013

Samantha Louise SANFORD
v.
Leslie SANFORD.

Page 648

S. Christopher Farris, attorney for appellant.

David Alan Pumford, Erik M. Lowrey, Hattiesburg, attorneys for appellee.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

PIERCE, Justice.

¶ 1. It is often said that bad facts make bad law— but inattention to detail also can make bad law. There are two distinct paths to an irreconcilable-differences divorce under Mississippi law. One option is for the couple to provide a written agreement settling the custody and maintenance of any children of the marriage and property rights; if the chancellor deems the terms adequate and sufficient, he or she may incorporate the agreement in the judgment and grant a divorce. Miss.Code Ann. § 93-5-2(2) (Rev.2013). A second option is for the couple to consent to allow a chancellor to decide certain disputed issues. Miss.Code Ann. § 93-5-2(3) (Rev.2013). The consent must: (1) be in a writing signed by both parties; (2) state that the couple voluntarily agrees to permit the chancellor to decide the issues designated in their written consent; and (3) state that the parties understand that the chancellor's decision will be binding and lawful. Id. All matters involving the custody and maintenance of any children of the marriage and property rights must then be either adjudicated by the chancellor or agreed upon by the parties and deemed adequate and sufficient before a divorce can be granted. Id.

¶ 2. Every divorce based on irreconcilable differences must proceed under either Section 93-5-2(2) or Section 93-5-2(3), but not both. In this case, the two distinct subsections were conflated and confused. The parties attempted to " switch horses" in the middle of a volatile stream not once, but multiple times. Ultimately, they failed to saddle either horse successfully; hence, they are being swept back into chancery court.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 3. The facts below were drawn heavily from the Court of Appeals' decision.

Page 649

Sanford v. Sanford, 124 So.3d 664 (Miss.Ct.App.2012).

¶ 4. On January 28, 2008, Samantha Sanford filed a complaint for divorce and temporary relief against Leslie Sanford in the Chancery Court of Lamar County. Samantha asserted that her and Leslie's marriage was " irretrievably destroyed." As fault grounds, she cited Leslie's habitual cruel and inhuman treatment of her, his habitual and excessive drug use, and his habitual drunkenness. Alternatively, she alleged irreconcilable differences. And in her request for relief, she sought custody of their minor child.

¶ 5. On June 19, 2008, the chancellor entered a temporary order granting Samantha temporary physical custody of the minor child, temporary child support, and temporary alimony. Leslie was granted temporary visitation. Trial eventually was set for September 10, 2009.

¶ 6. Several events occurred on the day of trial. First, as permitted under Section 93-5-2(3), Samantha and Leslie executed a joint motion to withdraw fault grounds and a consent to divorce. Consequently, the chancellor signed an order dismissing fault grounds so the Sanfords could proceed with a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences. In their consent to divorce, they agreed to permit the chancellor to decide several designated issues. But before filing their consent, they struck through those designated issues; underneath, either Leslie or Samantha or one of their attorneys wrote that " [a]ll issues are settled and will be dictated into the record." At that point, the Sanfords sought to travel under Section 93-5-2(2), not (3).

¶ 7. Later, after court was called to order, Leslie stated that the parties had settled. Still, he noted that the chancellor might have to decide the division of household goods, which is impermissible under Section 93-5-2(2). As the proceedings continued, it is clear from the record that the Sanfords once again began invoking the provisions of Section 93-5-2(3). Disagreements arose about tax-related issues and whether Leslie would have to pay child support during the summers. Their back-and-forth finally prompted the chancellor to ask, " Well, have y'all got an agreement or not?" In response, Samantha said that she would submit the issue of summer child support to the chancellor for his consideration. At that point, understandably frustrated, the chancellor recessed for lunch: " I'm going to lunch. I'll be back at 2:00. Get ready to go to trial. We'll hear everything you want to hear."

¶ 8. Following the noon recess, the Sanfords announced a settlement. The chancellor and the Sanfords' attorneys read the settlement agreement into the record, and Samantha and Leslie agreed to be bound by it:

THE COURT: All right. Mr. Sanford you stood there and heard what was dictated by your attorney and concurred in by Mrs. Sanford's attorney as a proposed agreement between you and her for the settlement of all issues. Did you hear all of it?
MR SANFORD: Yes, sir, I did.
THE COURT: Did you understand all of that?
MR. SANFORD: Yes, sir, I did.
THE COURT: Is that a correct statement of your agreement?
MR. SANFORD: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: It will be reduced to writing. Do you commit to the Court that when it is reduced to writing you will sign it—
MR. SANFORD: Yes, sir.
THE COURT:— as an agreement?
MR. SANFORD: Yes, sir.

Page 650

THE COURT: Do you understand that having made that commitment that you are not ...

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