Facts: The parties, parents of three children, divorced in 2008. Mother was named the primary residential parent. Father was awarded 125 days of parenting time. The trial court also awarded joint decision-making authority, with the guardian ad litem as the final decision maker in the event of disagreement.
Several years later, the parties sought various changes to the parenting plan to reflect some changed circumstances, including Mother’s relocation to Atlanta with the children. While other issues were litigated, of interest to us is Mother’s request that she be given sole decision-making authority over the children.
Mother claimed the parties had been unable to reach agreement on much of anything. For example, the trial court found that medical tests revealed one of the children was allergic to dogs and cats. Mother has continuously requested that the child not be around animals because of the child’s continuing symptoms such as runny eyes, coughing, sneezing, etc. Mother advised Father of the child’s allergy problems yet Father continued to expose the child to animals, including bringing cats with him when visiting the child in Atlanta. Father testified that better grooming of the cats would relieve the problem of pet dander.
Father claimed that Mother made unilateral decisions regarding the children in violation of the parenting plan. The trial court found that Mother failed to consult Father about extracurricular activities and educational choices for the children.
The trial court ultimately ruled that final decision-making authority would reside in the courts. Specifically, it modified the parenting plan to provide that “[i]n the event the parents are unable to reach a decision, that issue shall be presented to a court of proper jurisdiction for a final decision.”
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Mother argued that she should have been granted final decision-making authority based upon the parties’ prior inability to jointly make decisions regarding the children and upon the significant distance between the parties’ residences — Mother’s in Atlanta and Father’s in Memphis.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-407 sets forth the criteria a trial court is to consider when allocating parenting responsibilities, including:
(2) The history of participation of each parent in decision making in each of the following areas: physical care, emotional stability, intellectual and moral development, health, education, extracurricular activities, and religion; and whether each parent attended a court ordered parent education seminar;
(3) Whether the parents have demonstrated the ability and desire to cooperate with one another in decision making regarding the child in each of the following areas: physical care, emotional stability, intellectual and moral development, health, education, extracurricular activities, and religion; and
(4) The parents’ geographic proximity to one another, to the extent that it affects their ability to make timely mutual decisions.
There can be no doubt that it is in the best interest of the children that decisions about their welfare be made without undue delay and stress. Where the parents are unable to agree on matters of great importance to the welfare of their children, the primary decision-making authority must be placed in one parent or the other.
After reviewing the record, particularly the trial court’s findings that the parties “have had their differences,” “can’t get along,” and might not ever be able to, the Court concluded that Mother should be designated the sole decision maker for the children, writing:
While we express some hesitation in granting Mother’s request to be named final decision maker, the parties’ demonstrated inability to cooperate, coupled with the significant distance between them, necessitates that primary decision-making authority be placed in one parent. Because Mother is the primary residential parent, she is the obvious person with whom to place this responsibility.
Accordingly, the trial court was reversed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.