Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Topic /161
Ferguson v. Ferguson

Citation. Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 1994 Miss. LEXIS 352 (Miss. July 7, 1994)

Brief Fact Summary. Wife procured a divorce from husband, and was awarded various property and alimony. Husband challenged the ruling on the chancery court in that it did not abide by the separate property system.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Under equitable distribution, the court considers both financial and non-financial contributions from both parties to a divorce, with the focus being on fairness.

Facts. Linda and Billy Ferguson were married in 1967 and separated in 1991. They had two children, and during the marriage Linda worked as both a homemaker and a cosmetologist/beautician. Billy worked as a cable repair technician for South Central Bell. The chancellor awarded Linda a divorce on the basis of Billy’s adultery. The chancellor awarded her custody of the 14-year-old son, $300 a month in child support, the marital home and its contents, four acres of land comprising the homestead with title to the marital home to be divested from Billy and vested in Linda, debt free; one-half interest in Billy’s pension plan, stock ownership plan, and savings and security plan; and periodic alimony in the amount of $400 per month and lump sum alimony in the sum of $30,000 to be paid at the rate of $10,000 annually. Billy appealed.

Issue. Did the chancery court err by equitably distributing the marital property rather than following the separate property system?

Held. The chancery court is within its authority and power to equitably divide marital assets at divorce.
States generally use one of three methods to divide marital assets at divorce: separate property, equitable distribution, and community property. Mississippi has used the separate property system, but this sometimes resulted in unjust distributions. This system occasionally ignores the financial contributions of the non-titleholding spouse, and is also unable to take account of a spouse’s non-financial contributions.

This court has previously allowed lump sum alimony as an adjustment to property division to prevent unfair distribution, with this power of the chancery court deriving from the legal duty of the husband to support the family.

Fairness is the prevailing guideline in marital distribution, and this Court directs the chancery courts to evaluate the division of marital assets using the following guidelines: substantial contribution to the accumulation of the property, the market and emotional value of the assets, tax and other economic consequences of the distribution, the parties’ needs, and any other factor that in equity should be considered. All property division, lump sum or periodic alimony payment, and mutual obligations for child support should be considered together.

Billy contends that he owned all the interest in the pension plan, stock, and savings through his employer, and that it was his separate property. However, when one spouse has contributed directly to the fund, while the other spouse has contributed indirectly by domestic services or earned income both parties have enjoyed, it is equitable to allow both parties to reap the benefits of the one existing retirement plan.

Billy also contends that the chancellor lacked the authority to order him to convey his one-half interest in the jointly owned four acres on which the marital home was located. If contribution toward the acquisition of assets is proven by a divorcing party, then the court has the authority to divide these jointly accumulated assets. Therefore, the chancellor was within his authority to transfer title to Linda the marital home and acreage. However, this Court remands for equitable division to be guided by the factors promulgated.

Discussion. The Court’s ruling provided for a change from a separate property division to equitable division in order to better account for non-financial contributions by a divorcing spouse.