Facts: The parties, parents of two minor children, divorced pursuant to a marital dissolution agreement. After post-divorce custody disputes arose, the parties went through mediation and arrived at an agreed parenting plan signed by both parties. The next day, Mother repudiated the agreement. Father then filed a motion to enforce the mediation agreement. Mother requested an evidentiary hearing on whether the parenting arrangement embodied in the mediated parenting plan was in the best interest of the children. The trial court declined to hear any evidence, and found the mediated parenting plan was a valid, enforceable contract. The trial court ruled:
The Court finds that the Parenting Plan form is sufficient to find a contract. The proof at the hearing was the parties’ intent was to resolve all issues raised by the case. Counsel represented both parties and the mediator signed off on the agreement along with both parties. Clearly there was a meeting of the minds to resolve the issues.
Secondly the Court finds that implicit in this mediation agreement is the understanding that it was proposed in good faith and in the best interest of the minor children. A review of the history of the parties’ specific circumstances and the past and present circumstances of the minor children, (as gleaned from the Court file, the pleadings and from argument of counsel) the Court finds the mediation agreement is in the best interest of the minor children.
Based on the foregoing, the trial court entered an order enforcing the mediated parenting plan. Mother appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Mother argued the trial court has the responsibility to determine the best interest of the parties’ minor children, was not bound by the mediated agreement, and was obliged to hear evidence on the children’s best interests before approved the parenting plan now repudiated by Mother.
Father argued “a party is presumed to know the contents of a contract he or she has signed.” Father acknowledged that a parenting plan is not a contract in the same way that a marital dissolution agreement may be viewed as a contract, but contended that Mother cannot simply change her mind about a signed, mediated parenting plan, and that such an agreement cannot be set aside “for just any reason.” Father argued that agreed parenting plans are often entered by trial courts without an evidentiary hearing, and that it would be impractical to require such a hearing in every case.
The Court examined precedent in which it was held that a trial court is not bound by the parties’ mediated agreement on parenting issues. For example, in Greer v. Greer, the Court said:
While an agreement on parenting issues would ideally reflect the parties’ considered judgment on the arrangement that would best fit the needs of their children, it is also recognized that other factors can come into play in such an agreement, such as the original dysfunction in the parties’ relationship, inequality of resources, reluctance to involve the children in the litigation, or even the parties’ desire to get the divorce “over with.” For that reason, the trial court has broad discretion to determine an appropriate parenting plan in light of the evidence adduced at a hearing and the best interest of the children, even where the parties have reached an agreement on such issues.
The Court explained that while marital dissolution agreements concerning issues not related to children, such as property division, spousal support, etc., are properly analyzed and enforced using principles of contract law. Tennessee family law requires that agreements regarding parenting issues be treated differently. The Court explains:
[T]he trial judge cannot simply presume that a mediated parenting plan is in the children’s best interest, particularly where, as here, it is repudiated by one of the parties prior to being incorporated into a court order. Instead, the trial judge must affirmatively ascertain whether it is in their best interest. . . .
We do not hold that, in every instance in which a trial court is presented with a mediated parenting plan, the trial court must conduct a full evidentiary hearing. Divorces are like snowflakes; each one is different. In some cases, the trial court is called upon to determine custody with no prior exposure to the parties; in other cases, by the time the trial court decides custody, the trial judge has come to know the parties all too well. We hold only that the trial judge, and the trial judge alone, has the solemn duty to determine whether a given parenting arrangement is in the best interest of a child in his charge, and that the record must reflect a sufficient basis for such a determination. In this case, we hold that the trial court abused his discretion by finding that the parenting arrangement in the mediated agreement was in the children’s best interest, in the absence of evidence to support such a finding.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.