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Billingsley v. Billingsley

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

May 9, 2017

RALPH MARTIN BILLINGSLEY APPELLANT
v.
AMY DIANE BILLINGSLEY APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/13/2015

         LOWNDES COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. KENNETH M. BURNS TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: CARRIE A. JOURDAN.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: MARK G. WILLIAMSON.

         EN BANC.

          IRVING, P.J.

         ¶1. Ralph Billingsley appeals the judgment of the Lowndes County Chancery Court dissolving the marriage between him and Amy Billingsley. He alleges that the chancery court committed numerous errors in the classification and division of the marital estate as well as in matters involving the payment of expenses for the parties' minor children and the establishment of the visitation schedule.

         ¶2. Finding error, we reverse in part, affirm in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         FACTS

         ¶3. The parties were married on August 18, 1995, and separated on January 12, 2013; two children were born to the marriage. At the time of trial, Amy was forty-nine years old, and Ralph was sixty years old. Ralph was the primary breadwinner for the family. He had been a corporate executive, and at the time of trial was serving as county administrator for Lowndes County, Mississippi. Amy was a part-time massage therapist and a part-time adjunct faculty member at the Mississippi University for Women (MUW). Amy earned approximately $30, 000 per year, and Ralph earned approximately $132, 000 per year. In 1995, when the parties married, Amy was working full-time at Sanderson Plumbing Products (Sanderson) as an inside salesperson, and Ralph was also working there as a financial officer. Amy continued to work at Sanderson for one more year after the parties married, leaving in 1996, after having worked there for eight years. She took a job and a pay cut as a research analyst at MUW. During the marriage, Amy performed many household chores and provided for the children while at times working in a part-time capacity. Ralph remained in his same position at Sanderson Plumbing Products during the duration of the marriage.

         ¶4. In September 2012, Amy told Ralph that she had been involved in an extramarital affair. The couple did not separate until approximately January 12, 2013. Amy initially filed a complaint for divorce against Ralph on September 13, 2013, alleging grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and habitual drunkenness, or, in the alternative, irreconcilable differences. As part of her complaint, Amy requested that the chancellor grant her temporary relief, which the chancellor granted on February 27, 2014. Ralph answered the complaint, and, on September 4, 2014, filed a counter-complaint for divorce, alleging adultery, desertion, and habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, or, in the alternative, irreconcilable differences.

         ¶5. The trial was conducted on December 8-9, 2014. The court rendered its opinion on March 13, 2015, granting Ralph a divorce on the grounds of adultery, while denying Amy's petition for divorce. Per the parties' agreement, they were given joint legal custody of the children, and Amy was given physical custody, with visitation to Ralph. The rest of the judgment primarily addressed the division of the Billingsleys' property.[1] Ralph then filed a motion with the court to reconsider and to clarify its decision with regard to the distribution of assets and certain provisions of visitation. The court denied Ralph's motion, leading to this appeal.

         ¶6. Additional facts, as necessary, will be related during our discussion of the issues.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶7. "[W]e will not disturb a chancellor's findings when supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor's judgment was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous or an erroneous legal standard was applied." Carambat v. Carambat, 72 So.3d 505, 510-11 (¶24) (Miss. 2011). "But when reviewing a chancellor's interpretation and application of the law, our standard of review is de novo." Bond v. Bond, 69 So.3d 771, 772 (¶3) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). "To equitably divide property, the chancellor must: (1) classify the parties' assets as marital or separate, (2) value those assets, and (3) equitably divide the marital assets." Randolph v. Randolph, 199 So.3d 1282, 1285 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quoting Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So.2d 909, 914 (Miss.1994)).

         I. Ferguson Factors

         ¶8. Ralph argues that the chancellor misapplied several of the Ferguson[2] factors and incorrectly designated the amount of weight given to each factor, resulting in a disproportionate distribution of the marital estate. His main argument focuses on the fact that Amy had an extramarital affair; therefore, he concludes that the total distribution should not have been in her favor. In response, Amy asserts that the chancellor used his discretion in dividing the couple's assets, and his decisions were supported by substantial evidence and therefore proper. She also notes that any errors made on the part of the chancellor were not material and do not require reversal, as they had no bearing on the outcome of the case.

         ¶9. Although Amy admitted to adultery, and the chancellor granted a divorce to Ralph on that ground, her misconduct was only one of several factors to be analyzed under Ferguson to determine the appropriate distribution of the marital assets. Ralph's assertion that Amy's adulterous misconduct should have predominated over all other factors is incorrect as this Court has previously stated that "chancellors should not view equitable distribution as a means to punish the offending spouse for marital misconduct. Rather, marital misconduct is a viable factor entitled to be given weight by the chancellor when the misconduct places a burden on the stability and harmony of the marital and family relationship." Bond, 69 So.3d at 773 (¶6). Amy's misconduct is one of many factors the chancellor used to determine the correct distribution of assets and, based on the chancellor's order, it appears that he did not take Amy's misconduct lightly, as he noted: "Mrs. Billingsley's infidelity caused the total collapse of the marriage." Accordingly, the chancellor gave appropriate consideration to Amy's adultery in ordering equitable distribution of the marital property.

         ¶10. With respect to the division of marital property, the Mississippi Supreme Court in Ferguson provided a nonexclusive list of factors for our chancery courts to consider in determining the proper division of the marital estate:

1. Substantial contribution to the accumulation of the property. Factors to be considered in determining contribution are as follows:
a. Direct or indirect economic contribution to the acquisition of the property;
b. Contribution to the stability and harmony of the marital and family relationships as measured by quality, quantity of time spent on family duties and duration of the marriage; and
c. Contribution to the education, training or other accomplishment bearing on the earning power of the spouse accumulating the assets.
2. The degree to which each spouse has expended, withdrawn or otherwise disposed of marital assets and any prior distribution of such assets by agreement, decree or otherwise[;]
3. The market value and the emotional value of the assets subject to distribution[;]
4. The value of assets not ordinarily, absent equitable factors to the contrary, subject to such distribution, such as property brought to the marriage by the parties and property acquired by inheritance or inter vivos gift by or to an individual spouse;
5. Tax and other economic consequences, and contractual or legal consequences to third parties, of the ...

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