Burnham-Steptoe v. Steptoe, 97-CA-00428-COA.

Decision Date14 September 1999
Docket NumberNo. 97-CA-00428-COA.,97-CA-00428-COA.
Citation755 So.2d 1225
PartiesElizabeth Anne BURNHAM-STEPTOE, Appellant, v. Geoffrey Johnathan STEPTOE, Appellee.
CourtMississippi Court of Appeals

Robert W. Long, Canton, Attorney for Appellant.

Albert B. White, Madison, Attorney for Appellee.

EN BANC.

BRIDGES, J., for the Court:

¶ 1. Elizabeth Steptoe and Geoffrey Steptoe married in 1992 and separated in 1995. Pursuant to their divorce in 1996, the Madison County Chancery Court granted custody of the two minor children of the marriage to Ms. Steptoe. Furthermore, Ms. Steptoe was awarded $557 per month for child support, $300 per month for twenty-four months as rehabilitative alimony, and $10,000 in attorney fees. Mr. Steptoe is required to maintain medical insurance for the children, pay half of the children's non-covered medical expenses, make the payments for Ms. Steptoe's automobile for twenty-four months or until the payments are completed, whichever occurs first, and maintain a $50,000 life insurance policy on himself with the two children named as beneficiaries. The chancellor awarded to Ms. Steptoe half of the marital property after deducting liabilities from the marital assets.

¶ 2. Ms. Steptoe appeals, citing the following assignments of error, which we quote verbatim from her brief:

1. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN ITS METHODOLOGY IN ARRIVING AT MR. STEPTOE'S ADJUSTED GROSS INCOME, UPON WHICH IT BASED ITS CALCULATIONS OF MONTHLY CHILD SUPPORT PAYMENT DUE TO MS. STEPTOE BY HER FORMER HUSBAND. THUS, THE TRIAL COURT COMMITTED MANIFEST ERROR AND ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN ARRIVING AT THE AMOUNT OF CHILD SUPPORT WHICH IT AWARDED TO MS. STEPTOE.
2. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED WHEN IT FAILED TO EITHER GRANT EXCLUSIVE USE OF THE MARITAL HOME TO MS. STEPTOE OR TO REQUIRE MR. STEPTOE TO PROVIDE MS. STEPTOE AND THE MINOR CHILDREN OF THE PARTIES AN ADEQUATE PLACE TO LIVE.
3. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN ITS CALCULATION OF THE VALUE OF NATIONAL LODGING, THE BUSINESS AND MAJOR MARITAL ASSET JOINTLY OWNED BY THE PARTIES. THUS, THE TRIAL COURT COMMITTED MANIFEST ERROR IN ITS EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION OF ASSETS ACCUMULATED BY THE PARTIES DURING THE COURSE OF THEIR MARRIAGE.
4. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DEDUCTING FROM MS. STEPTOE'S SHARE OF MARITAL ASSETS ANY DEBT OWED BY HER AS A RESULT OF HER PARTICIPATION IN THE BUSINESS "TIMES CHANGE".
5. THE TRIAL COURT COMMITTED MANIFEST ERROR WHEN IT DEDUCTED FROM HER SHARE OF THE VALUE OF HER MARITAL ASSETS THE AMOUNT OF ANY DEBT INCURRED PRIOR TO THE MARRIAGE BY MR. STEPTOE IN
THE OPERATION OF ABBEY NATIONAL TRANSPORT, A BUSINESS CREATED AND OPERATING PRIOR TO THE MARRIAGE OF THE PARTIES.
6. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FAILING TO AWARD EITHER LUMP SUM OR PERMANENT PERIODIC ALIMONY TO MS. STEPTOE.
7. THE TRIAL COURT COMMITTED MANIFEST ERROR IN FAILING TO AWARD ADEQUATE ATTORNEYS FEES AND OTHER LITIGATION EXPENSES INCURRED BY MS. STEPTOE IN THESE PROCEEDINGS, INCLUDING THE FEES OF HER CERTIFIED PUBLIC ACCOUNTANT, WHO WAS THE ONLY WITNESS TO TESTIFY AND GIVE EVIDENCE OF THE VALUE OF THE BUSINESSES OF THE PARTIES.

Mr. Steptoe counters that the chancellor's decision is based upon substantial evidence.

¶ 3. We affirm the judgment of the chancery court.

I. FACTS

¶ 4. Appellee Geoffrey Johnathan Steptoe and Appellant Elizabeth Ann Burnham Steptoe married on October 18, 1992. Before and during their marriage, the parties pursued several business endeavors, including Abbey National Transport, National Lodging, Import Fashions, and Times Change. Prior to the marriage, Mr. Steptoe lived in Ms. Steptoe's Jackson apartment until he bought a home in Canton. After they married, the parties resided in the house which Mr. Steptoe purchased. They separated and reconciled several times during the four year marriage, and Ms. Steptoe would move into her parents' home in Forest, Mississippi, during the periods of separation.

¶ 5. Ms. Steptoe filed her complaint for divorce with the Madison County Chancery Court on January 25, 1996. She cited grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and, in the alternative, irreconcilable differences. After extensive discovery efforts and numerous pleadings, the parties agreed to a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, and the chancellor rendered his order granting the divorce on October 2, 1996. Ms. Steptoe was awarded custody of the minor children subject to Mr. Steptoe's visitation rights as set out in the order.

¶ 6. An order of temporary relief remained in effect pending a trial to determine child support, alimony, marital property division, and attorney's fees. The trial occurred during November and December of 1996.

II. PROCEEDINGS BELOW

¶ 7. In addition to hearing testimony from the parties, the chancellor appointed an accountant to conduct an audit for the purpose of valuing Mr. Steptoe's business. The court also heard testimony from an accountant hired by Ms. Steptoe to value Mr. Steptoe's business. The court noted that Mr. Steptoe would have to pay twenty percent (20%) of his adjusted gross income for child support.

¶ 8. The chancellor acknowledged that determining accurate financial information as to Mr. Steptoe's income was difficult. Thus, the court utilized the financial information provided by the court-appointed auditor who reviewed Mr. Steptoe's limited records and information that Mr. Steptoe provided after the court-appointed auditor completed his report. After subtracting an amount from Mr. Steptoe's personal draw that Mr. Steptoe established was used for business expenses, the chancellor converted the draw from the business over a nine month period to a figure reflecting Mr. Steptoe's gross salary for a twelve month period. Because Mr. Steptoe provided no information about taxes, social security contributions or mandatory retirement contributions, the chancellor estimated the deductions to ascertain Mr. Steptoe's adjusted gross income of $33,425.

¶ 9. Based upon its calculation, the court ordered Mr. Steptoe to pay $557 on a monthly basis for child support and to maintain the medical insurance coverage of his children. The parties would share equally in the costs of uncovered medical expenses. Mr. Steptoe was required to obtain a life insurance policy for at least $50,000 naming his children as co-beneficiaries and allowing Ms. Steptoe to administer the funds if the policy were paid.

¶ 10. The court concluded that two businesses, Abbey National and National Lodging, and the house where the parties lived while they were married were marital assets subject to equitable distribution. The chancellor calculated the value of the house and the businesses and addressed the "Ferguson Factors" developed by the Mississippi Supreme Court.1 Basing his decision upon these factors, he awarded Ms. Steptoe half the equity in the house and half the value of National Lodging. The court also held Ms. Steptoe responsible for half the remaining debt of Abbey National, and that debt was offset against her share in the house equity and National Lodging.

¶ 11. The court considered the appropriate factors and denied Ms. Steptoe permanent periodic alimony.2 The court also assessed factors such as the brevity of the marriage and the lack of financial security of both parties and refrained from awarding lump sum alimony to Ms. Steptoe.3 In spite of the court's decision to deny permanent periodic alimony and lump sum alimony, the court awarded "rehabilitative periodic alimony" in the amount of $300 per month for twenty-four (24) consecutive months to provide Ms. Steptoe financial assistance as she works to become self-supporting. Furthermore, the court ordered Mr. Steptoe to continue making payments on the Trooper automobile for twenty-four (24) months or until it is paid in full, whichever occurs first, while Ms. Steptoe would have to purchase the tag and maintain insurance on the Trooper.

¶ 12. In response to Ms. Steptoe's request for attorney's fees and costs of litigation, the court considered evidence submitted by her attorney. Although he found that her attorney's fees were reasonable, the chancellor determined that not all of the work was reasonably required. Of the $21,812 requested, the court awarded $10,000 to Ms. Steptoe and required her to pay for the services of the expert whom she hired.

¶ 13. The court calculated that Mr. Steptoe owed Ms. Steptoe $10,502, her share of the marital property after her half of the equity was reduced by her half of the undisputed debt, and $10,000 in attorney's fees. From the total of $20,502, the court deducted $15,600 for Ms. Steptoe's share of the debt of Abbey Transport which was being disputed in an Illinois court. The chancellor ordered Mr. Steptoe to pay the remainder to Ms. Steptoe in two installments of $2,451, the first installment to be paid on or before May 15, and the second installment to be paid on or before August 15, 1997.

III. REVIEW, ANALYSIS, AND RESOLUTION OF THE ISSUES

¶ 14. Ms. Steptoe fails to cite authority to support some of her assertions of error. Failure to cite relevant authority obviates the appellate court's obligation to review such issues. Williams v. State, 708 So.2d 1358 (¶ 12) (Miss.1998); Grey v. Grey, 638 So.2d 488, 491 (Miss.1994); McClain v. State, 625 So.2d 774, 781 (Miss. 1993); Smith v. Dorsey, 599 So.2d 529, 532 (Miss.1992). Consequently, this Court is permitted to disregard certain issues Ms. Steptoe raises on appeal. See Edlin v. State, 533 So.2d 403, 409-10 (Miss.1988) (holding that "[i]t is the duty of the appellant to overcome the presumption of the correctness of the trial court's judgment by demonstrating some reversible error").

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 15. "As to division of marital assets, it is the broad inherent equity powers of the chancery court that give it the authority to act." Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So.2d 921, 927 (Miss.1994). The reviewing court will not disturb the chancellor's findings absent a determination that the...

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