Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of two minor children. After they split in 2005, the trial court approved their agreed permanent parenting plan, which plan provided for rotating the children every two weeks and designated Father as the primary residential parent. The parties later reconciled and lived together from 2007 until 2009, when they split again. In 2010, Mother petitioned to modify the parenting plan to name her as the primary residential parent and sought permission to relocate to Middle Tennessee with the children. After a trial, the trial court found there had not been a material change of circumstances justifying modification of the parenting plan. The trial court also found it was not in the children’s best interest to relocate to Middle Tennessee. Mother appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Material Change. Mother argued the trial court erred in failing to find a material change of circumstances concerning “medical neglect, living arrangement of Father, abuse, stability, use of profanity by Father around children, violations of the Permanent Parenting Plan, and Mother’s engagement.”
Existing custody arrangements are favored because children thrive in stable environments. A child custody decision, once made and implemented, is considered res judicata upon the facts in existence or those which were reasonably foreseeable when the decision was made. However, a trial court may modify an award of child custody when both a material change of circumstances has occurred and a change of custody is in the child’s best interests.
The “threshold issue” is whether a material change in circumstances has occurred after the initial custody determination. While there are no hard and fast rules for determining when a child’s circumstances have changed sufficiently to warrant a change of custody, the following factors are typically considered when determining whether a material change in circumstances has occurred: (1) the change has occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified, (2) the change is not one that was known or reasonably anticipated when the order was entered, and (3) the change is one that affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.
If a material change in circumstances has been proven, it must then be determined whether the modification is in the child’s best interests according to the factors enumerated in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106. It necessarily follows that if no material change in circumstances has been proven, the trial court must deny the request for a change of custody.
With these principles in mind, the Court conducted the following analysis:
Father’s living arrangement with his parents, while apparently somewhat cramped, does not constitute a material change in circumstances. . . . With regard to Mother’s engagement, we observe that Mother testified that she either has been engaged or considered marriage with four individuals, including the most recent. Respectfully, we do not find Mother’s engagement to constitute a material change of circumstance. . . .
Abuse, emotional or physical, would indeed affect the Children’s well-being and be a significant basis for finding a material change of circumstances. . . . The Trial Court’s implicit finding, however, was a clear rejection of Mother’s abuse contentions. . . .
The evidence in the record does not preponderate against any of the the Trial Court’s findings, including its implicit finding. As we affirm the Trial Court’s finding and decision that no material change in circumstances has occurred, we forego a best interest analysis.
Relocation. Mother then argued the trial court erred in failing to permit her to relocate with the children to Middle Tennessee.
Because the parents spend substantially equal time with the children under the parenting plan, the applicable statute is Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108(c), which creates no presumption in favor of or against the request to relocate and requires the trial court decide the issue based on the best interests of the child.
The Court stated:
The evidence shows that the Children are well-established in their community and school in Hamblen County. Although Mother testified that she intends to marry her fiancé, as discussed above, we note that she testified to having had several tentative engagements to marry in the past, and did not marry. Further, in keeping with the statutory factors and mindful of the Children’s best interests, we afford much weight to stability and continuity in the Children’s lives, including the Trial Court’s decision now affirmed by us that Father remain the primary residential parent. The Trial Court did not err in denying Mother’s request to relocate the Children.
Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed in all respects.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.