Layton v. Layton

Decision Date24 November 2015
Docket NumberNo. 2014–CA–00224–COA.,2014–CA–00224–COA.
Citation181 So.3d 275
Parties John P. LAYTON Jr., Appellant v. Amanda Reece LAYTON, Appellee.
CourtMississippi Court of Appeals

John R. Reeves, John Justin King, Jackson, attorneys for appellant.

J. Edward Rainer, Gary Lee Williams, Brandon, attorneys for appellee.

Before IRVING, P.J., MAXWELL and WILSON, JJ.

WILSON, J., for the Court:

¶ 1. On January 17, 2014, the Simpson County Chancery Court granted Amanda Reece Layton a divorce from John Layton Jr. on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. On appeal, John challenges the chancellor's equitable distribution of the couple's property and debts, award of alimony to Amanda, and provisions of the judgment requiring him to obtain a life insurance policy for Amanda's benefit and pay her attorney's fees. Finding no error, we affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. Amanda and John were married on July 8, 2000, in Pike County. They separated on July 22, 2010. There were no children born to the marriage.1 John filed a complaint for divorce on August 8, 2010, alleging adultery and habitual cruel and inhuman treatment or, in the alternative, irreconcilable differences. Amanda responded and counterclaimed for divorce on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, habitual drunkenness, and adultery or, in the alternative, irreconcilable differences.

¶ 3. The chancellor held a hearing on January 10, 2011, and entered a temporary order requiring John to provide health insurance for Amanda, to return a car to her and pay the insurance and debts related to it, to pay $2,630 per month in temporary alimony, and to not dissipate assets. John was given use of a truck and the marital home and required to pay the associated debts and insurance. Amanda was ordered to pay $780 in credit card bills.

¶ 4. The case was tried in four different courthouses over parts of eleven days during the next two-plus years. The chancellor entered the final judgment on January 17, 2014, granting Amanda a divorce from John on the ground of John's habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.2

¶ 5. The chancellor found that John, who works as an oilfield drilling consultant, had a gross monthly income of $22,000 and net monthly income of $13,420 at the time of trial. In contrast, Amanda was employed as a medical office assistant with a gross monthly income of only $1,381, and she had moved back in with her parents in order to make ends meet. Amanda attended junior college and several semesters of college on two different occasions a number of years ago but never graduated. The chancellor concluded that she was unlikely to complete any college degree at this point.

¶ 6. The chancellor calculated that his equitable distribution of the parties' assets and liabilities left John with total assets of $505,701.41 and total debt of $874,183.91. Marital assets given to John include, inter alia, the marital home, valued at $320,000; a separate 30–acre tract of land, valued at $60,000; a truck; a Hummer; a tractor; a mower; two ATVs; a horse trailer; five horses; a boat; and a one-half interest in a mobile home. The marital debts assigned to John include, inter alia, the mortgage on the marital home of $263,789; the debt on the separate 30–acre tract of $31,407; various federal and state tax debts totaling approximately $366,000; and the debt on a 2010 Lexus being driven by Amanda of $54,610. The chancellor also found that $86,311.44, representing nine-twelfths of the couple's 2011 federal tax debt, was nonmarital debt for which John was solely responsible. Finally, the chancellor found that John owed $48,578 on a 2011 Chevy Tahoe that he had purchased after the court's 2011 temporary order, which the chancellor deemed a nonmarital debt. John does not challenge any of these findings on appeal. The chancellor included the two nonmarital debts in his calculation of John's total debt.

¶ 7. The chancellor calculated that his equitable distribution left Amanda with assets of $82,545.24 and debt of $20,039. This included the 2010 Lexus, valued at $46,000; some personal property; and miscellaneous debts. The chancellor also awarded Amanda $2,900 per month in periodic alimony. Finally, the chancellor ordered John to obtain a $100,000 life insurance policy with Amanda as the beneficiary and to pay Amanda's attorney's fees of $38,085.93.

¶ 8. John does not contest the chancellor's finding that Amanda was entitled to divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. He challenges only the financial aspects of the divorce judgment. On appeal, he asserts that the chancellor erred by assigning him the bulk of the parties' debt, by awarding alimony, and by requiring him to obtain a life insurance policy with Amanda as the beneficiary and to pay her attorney's fees.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 9. "Under the standard of review utilized to review a chancery court's findings of fact, particularly in the areas of divorce [and] alimony ..., this Court will not overturn the court on appeal unless its findings were manifestly wrong." In re Dissolution of Marriage of Wood, 35 So.3d 507, 512 (¶ 8) (Miss.2010) (quoting Duncan v. Duncan, 774 So.2d 418, 419 (¶ 4) (Miss.2000) ). A finding is not "manifestly wrong" unless the error is "unmistakable, clear, plain, or indisputable." Mosley v. Atterberry, 819 So.2d 1268, 1272 (¶ 16) (Miss.2002).

¶ 10. Pure questions of law are reviewed de novo. Wood, 35 So.3d at 512 (¶ 8). However, when reviewing a chancellor's equitable distribution of property, this Court does not apply or reevaluate the Ferguson factors3 de novo but only "reviews the judgment to ensure that the chancellor followed the appropriate standards and did not abuse his discretion." Phillips v. Phillips, 904 So.2d 999, 1001 (¶ 8) (Miss.2004). Likewise, when reviewing decisions on alimony, we do not apply or reweigh the Armstrong factors4 de novo but instead recognize that "[a]limony awards are within the discretion of the chancellor, and ... will not be reversed on appeal unless [the chancellor] abused his discretion." Parker v. Parker, 934 So.2d 359, 361 (¶ 3) (Miss.Ct.App.2006) (quoting Ethridge v. Ethridge, 648 So.2d 1143, 1145–46 (Miss.1995) ); accord Tilley v. Tilley, 610 So.2d 348, 351 (Miss.1992) ("The amount of alimony awarded is a matter primarily within the discretion of the chancery court because of its peculiar opportunity to sense the equities of the situation before it."). Finally, "[t]he award of attorney fees in divorce cases is left to the discretion of the chancellor, assuming he follows the appropriate standards." Creekmore v. Creekmore, 651 So.2d 513, 520 (Miss.1995).

ANALYSIS

I. Equitable Distribution

¶ 11. John first complains that the chancellor assigned of all of the couple's $450,000–plus tax debt to him, which ultimately left him with total debts that exceeded his total assets by $368,482. Specifically, John claims that the chancellor "found that $452,587.83 of the taxes owed by the parties was marital debt but made John pay all of it." This is not entirely correct. As noted above, the chancellor found that $86,311.44 of the couple's 2011 tax debt was John's nonmarital debt and his responsibility alone, and John has not challenged this factual finding on appeal.

¶ 12. More important for purposes of this appeal, John's argument on this issue fails to identify any abuse of discretion or reversible error. John quotes the eight factors enumerated in Ferguson but addresses only two: he notes (correctly) that the chancellor found that neither party was more wasteful than the other (factor two) and then asserts (incorrectly) that "[t]he fifth factor set forth in Ferguson, i.e., ‘Tax and other economic consequences, and contractual or legal consequences to third parties, of the proposed distribution,’ was ignored by the lower court." This is incorrect. The chancellor specifically noted: "No testimony was presented ... regarding this factor.... [T]he Court is aware [a] federal tax lien attaches to all real and personal property of the parties." John simply misunderstands the meaning and application of this factor. It requires the chancellor to consider tax consequences resulting from the division of property itself, see Davis v. Davis, 832 So.2d 492, 500–02 (¶¶ 30–37) (Miss.2002), not the mere happenstance that some of the couple's preexisting debts are tax debts. As the chancellor correctly found, there is no evidence that assignment of the tax debt to John had any additional tax consequences.5 John's flawed criticism of the chancellor's consideration of one of the eight Ferguson factors has no merit.

¶ 13. John ultimately asserts that reversal is required because "[t]here is nothing in the record to support such a vast disparity in debt delegation." This simply is not the case. The chancellor considered each of the eight Ferguson factors and found, inter alia, that Amanda had "done her best to contribute to the stability and the harmony of the marital relationship despite John's abusive ways"; and that John has substantial income, earning power, and prospects, whereas Amanda does not. Indeed, at the time of trial, John's net income was ten times Amanda's gross income. John does not challenge these underlying factual findings on appeal. The chancellor also noted that he had given John the vast majority of the real and personal property to which the tax liens attached and that John, not Amanda, had the ability to repay the tax debts.

¶ 14. The chancellor's decision was not an abuse of discretion. "[T]he goals of equitable distribution are a fair division of marital property based on the facts of each case and termination of the legal relationship in a manner which each party may realize self-sufficiency." Seymour v. Seymour, 960 So.2d 513, 519 (¶ 15) (Miss.Ct.App.2006) (citing Ferguson, 639 So.2d at 929 ). "Equitable distribution does not mean equal distribution," however, id. (quoting Lauro v. Lauro, 924 So.2d 584, 590 (¶ 23) (Miss.Ct.App.2006) ); and "an unequal division may be appropriate...

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