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Black v. Black

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

November 7, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 12/31/2014




         EN BANC.

          BARNES, J.

         ¶1. Arthur and Alicia Black were divorced in December 2014. The Jackson County Chancery Court found the prenuptial agreement signed by the parties valid and enforceable, resulting in the marital estate being equitably distributed according to its terms. The parties moved to have the final judgment set aside, altered, or amended, raising a variety of issues in the process. Displeased with the chancery court's findings in its posttrial order, Arthur seeks relief from this Court regarding many of the same issues, including sanctions and attorney's fees, the chancellor's allocation of certain marital assets and debts, child-support and tuition payments, and visitation privileges. Upon review, the judgment is affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part for further findings consistent with this opinion.


         ¶2. Arthur and Alicia were married on September 13, 2003. Three days prior, on September 10, 2003, the parties executed a prenuptial agreement.[1] Alicia left her career as an engineer in Atlanta, Georgia, to assist Arthur, an orthopedic surgeon, in building a medical practice in Mississippi, serving as the business's office manager. The couple had two children, M.K.B., a female child, and A.D.B. II, a male child.[2] Alicia was the primary caretaker of the children for the duration of the parties' marriage. For the last two years of the parties' marriage, Alicia and the children resided in Mobile, Alabama, where the children attended private school. The parties separated in May 2013, and Alicia and the children moved to Atlanta following the May 2014 school year, which is where they currently reside.

         ¶3. On March 7, 2014, Alicia filed a pro se complaint for divorce alleging, among other things, uncondoned adultery. Several days later, she filed an amended complaint with the assistance of counsel, acknowledging that the parties had entered into a prenuptial agreement, but asserting that the agreement was invalid because its terms were "unconscionable under the specific facts and circumstances of this case." Were the agreement found to be invalid, she sought an equitable division of all marital assets, as well as alimony and attorney's fees. Arthur filed his answer, a motion for declaratory judgment as to the validity of the prenuptial agreement, and a counterclaim for divorce and breach of contract.

         ¶4. On June 17, 2014, the chancery court granted Alicia temporary physical custody of the children, and Arthur was ordered to pay temporary child support of $5,200 per month. He was also ordered to maintain the children's health insurance, pay the children's noncovered medical expenses, pay $30,000 toward the children's private-school tuition, and pay all financial obligations on all real properties owned by the parties. The chancery court set a demarcation date of May 2013 (the relevant date of the parties' separation), and set a hearing for August 2014 on the validity of the prenuptial agreement. A trial date of December 11, 2014, was also set by the court, after which the issue of Alicia's request for attorney's fees would be resolved.

         ¶5. Alicia filed a motion for declaratory relief in July 2014, reasserting the invalidity of the parties' prenuptial agreement. She acknowledged, however, that the parties had executed the prenuptial agreement, including a ratification thereof, and that both parties had been represented by legal counsel in the drafting, assessment, evaluation, and execution of the agreement. Arthur requested sanctions and attorney's fees in light of Alicia's alleged frivolousness in attacking the agreement.

         ¶6. On the day of the hearing on the validity of the agreement, Alicia filed a supplemental motion, vaguely attacking the agreement on grounds of invalidity and unconscionability, and requesting that the chancery court order Arthur to produce the original agreement. At the conclusion of the hearing, the chancellor determined that the parties voluntarily executed the agreement at a time when both parties were provided full disclosure of all assets prior to execution of the agreement and that both were represented by very competent legal counsel. Accordingly, there was fairness in the execution of the agreement and the terms of the agreement were not unconscionable. The chancellor upheld the validity of the agreement, but denied Arthur's request for sanctions and attorney's fees. Aggrieved, Alicia filed a motion for reconsideration as to the validity of the agreement, and Arthur moved for reconsideration as to the denial of his request for sanctions and attorney's fees. Each party's request was denied by the court.

         ¶7. After trial, the chancellor issued a final judgment on December 31, 2014, granting Alicia a divorce on the ground of Arthur's admitted adultery.[3] The parties were granted joint legal custody of the children, Alicia received physical custody and Arthur was awarded visitation privileges. The court ordered Arthur to pay child support of $6,500 per month, $36,000 annually towards the children's private-school tuition, as well as various other health-related expenses for the children. The chancellor determined that the marital estate possessed a total equity value of $2,211,050.75, and he divided the marital estate in accordance with the terms of the prenuptial agreement. Thus, Alicia was awarded $668,183.52, with the remainder of the estate to be awarded to Arthur. The chancellor also awarded Alicia $40,000 in attorney's fees in light of her inability to pay.

         ¶8. In January 2015, both parties filed motions under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 59 to have the judgment set aside, altered, or amended. Alicia sought, among other things, to have the visitation-exchange times clarified and for the court to order Arthur to pay all sums originating from the December 2014 final judgment. Arthur requested to have a particular marital debt included in the equitable distribution of the parties' estate, as well as review of other matters, including child support and tuition costs, 2013 income-tax refunds, allocated assets, and attorney's fees. A June 2015 hearing was held, wherein the parties orally agreed to alteration of visitation privileges and reopened the record as to the income-tax returns. On December 17, 2015, the chancellor issued his posttrial order, and Arthur now appeals the order, citing several issues.


         ¶9. Appellate courts are bound by a limited standard of review in domestic-relations matters. Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 930 (Miss. 1994). In matters concerning "divorce, custody, and child support, we will 'respect a chancellor's findings of fact which are supported by credible evidence and not manifestly wrong.'" Dorsey v. Dorsey, 972 So. 2d 48, 51 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting R.K. v. J.K., 946 So. 2d 764, 772 (¶17) (Miss. 2007)). Thus, a chancellor's findings will not be disturbed on appeal "unless the chancellor was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous or a clearly erroneous standard was applied." Id. (quoting Yelverton v. Yelverton, 961 So. 2d 19, 24 (¶6) (Miss. 2007)). "[W]hen looking at a chancellor's division of property and assets, a 'chancellor's division and distribution will be upheld if it is supported by substantial credible evidence.'" Id. (quoting Owen v. Owen, 928 So. 2d 156, 160 (¶10) (Miss. 2006)). "For questions of law, our standard of review is de novo." Shoffner v. Shoffner, 909 So. 2d 1245, 1249 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005).


         I. Scope and Terms of the Prenuptial Agreement

         ¶10. "The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that prenuptial agreements must be fair in the execution, and a duty of disclosure shall be imposed." McLeod v. McLeod, 145 So. 3d 1246, 1249 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). "Prenuptial agreements are enforced like contracts: the first rule of interpretation of contracts is to follow the intent of the parties." Id. (citing Long v. Long, 928 So. 2d 1001, 1003 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006)).

         ¶11. The stated purpose of Arthur and Alicia's prenuptial agreement was to "fix and determine the rights accruing to each of them by reason of their marriage with respect to the property and estate of the other and with respect to the right of support of maintenance from the other." The agreement acknowledged that each party had consulted with his or her respective attorney regarding the effect of the agreement. Additionally, certain provisions of the agreement stated that each party was to "retain all rights in his or her own separate property," which encompassed real and personal property. The agreement further stated:

The interest of each in any property which they may together or separately acquire during the marriage shall be marital property, with [Arthur] to own seventy percent (70%) of all marital property of whatsoever kind or character and [Alicia] to own thirty percent (30%) of all said marital property, specifically excepting [Arthur's] medical practice or business.
Except as otherwise expressly provided in this premarital agreement, each of the parties hereby waives and releases any and all rights in the real or personal property of the other . . . which may be assertable against the other at law or in equity, which he or she shall acquire by reason of marriage to the other, or which he or she shall have as a spouse of the other . . . [including] [a]ny right to receive support, temporary support, maintenance, separate maintenance, or alimony from the other during the marriage or following the termination of the marriage.

         The agreement also provided specific amounts of alimony based upon the duration of the parties' marriage, to be inclusive of "all types of temporary and permanent support." The chancery court found the agreement valid and enforceable in its entirety.

         ¶12. With these provisions in mind, Arthur asserts that the chancellor: (1) erred in denying his request for sanctions and attorney's fees; (2) failed to adhere to terms of the parties' prenuptial agreement regarding the equitable division of certain marital assets and debts and the award of attorney's fees to Alicia; (3) abused his discretion in his awards for monthly child support and tuition costs; and (4) erred in failing to memorialize specifically agreed upon visitation provisions in the posttrial order.

         II. Denial of Arthur's Request for Sanctions and Attorney's Fees

         ¶13. Arthur alleges that the chancellor erred in failing to award him sanctions and attorney's fees for defending Alicia's attacks on the validity of the prenuptial agreement. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b) states:

If any party files a motion or pleading which, in the opinion of the court, is frivolous or is filed for the purpose of harassment or delay, the court may order such a party, or his attorney, or both, to pay to the opposing party or parties the reasonable expenses incurred by such other ...

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