Facts: After eight years of marriage, these parents of two children were divorced. Mother was designated the primary residential parent. Father received 114 days of visitation.
Mother and Father began exhibiting hostility toward one another immediately after the divorce. They engaged in drawn-out and heated disagreements over everything from whether they could park in one another’s driveways when picking up and returning the children to whether their daughter should undergo major surgery.
Father filed a petition to change custody, alleging there had been a substantial and material change of circumstances that required a modification parenting plan, and that it was in the children’s best interests for Father to be the primary residential parent and to have final decision-making authority over the children’s educations, non-emergency healthcare, religion, and extracurricular activities.
The trial court found that a material change of circumstances had occurred. Specifically, the trial court found, “Mother has systematically endeavored to destroy the relationship between the Father and the parties’ minor children,” and that “Mother’s view of Father is so biased that her credibility has been damaged in the mind of the court.”
The foregoing notwithstanding, the trial court found the children were closer to Mother because she was a stay-at-home mother for many years prior to the divorce, she has been the children’s primary caregiver for their entire lives, and because the children have performed well in school since the divorce with Mother as the primary residential parent. The trial court concluded it was in the children’s best interest for Mother to remain the primary residential parent, but for Father to receive additional parenting time with fewer interruptions from Mother, to allow Father “the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with the minor children.” Father was granted approximately three additional weeks of parenting time.
The trial court further found it was in the children’s best interest for Mother to have final decision-making authority over the children’s non-emergency medical decisions, after consultation with Father. Decisions concerning the children’s educations, religion, and extracurricular activities remain joint under the new parenting plan.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Father first argued the trial court’s finding that it was in the children’s best interest for Mother to remain as the primary residential parent was an abuse of discretion because the decision rewards Mother for her bad behavior.
A decision regarding the children’s best interest should be designed to promote children’s best interests by placing them in an environment that will best serve their physical and emotional needs. Parenting decisions should not be intended or designed to reward parents for prior virtuous conduct, nor to punish them for their human frailties or past missteps. Always, the best interest of the child is paramount.
After reviewing the record, the Court reasoned:
The trial court did not “reward” Mother for her bad behavior; instead the court criticized Mother’s behavior, [and] awarded Father additional parenting time…. The evidence fully supports the trial court’s findings that Mother has always been the children’s primary caregiver, that Mother has done an excellent job fulfilling the caregiver role throughout the children’s lives, and that continuity in the children’s lives is extremely important in this case. We recognize, as the trial court did, that Mother needs to change her ways in many respects; in this case, the simple truth is the trial court was faced with a difficult choice in designating a primary residential parent. Each parent has many admirable traits but their animosity toward each other and their failure to compromise on important — and unimportant — parenting decisions has undermined the quality of their parenting. Based on the record before us, we have concluded that the trial court acted within its discretion, keeping the children’s best interest at the forefront of its analysis, by retaining Mother as the primary residential parent.
Father also argued the trial court erred in awarding sole decision-making authority authority over the children to Mother.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-407(b) provides that the court “shall order sole decision-making to one (1) parent when it finds that: . . . both parents are opposed to mutual decision making.” Subsection (c) further provides that in allocating decision-making authority, the court “shall consider . . . the history of participation of each parent in decision making . . . [and w]hether 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, . . . health.”
The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, writing:
The proof in the record demonstrates the parties have failed miserably at joint decision-making regarding the children’s medical care since the divorce and both parties agree (ironically) that final authority on this issue should be vested in one parent. Mother is the primary residential parent and the children’s lifelong primary caregiver. Moreover, the children are both healthy and well cared for. Thus, we find no error with this decision.
Because of the highly deferential standard of review, the trial court was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.
- Alimony Not Terminated on Grounds of Post-Divorce Cohabitation in Winchester: Mabee v. Mabee (herstontennesseefamilylaw.com)
- Child Custody Reversed in Clarksville Divorce: Ward v. Ward (herstontennesseefamilylaw.com)
- Failure to Change Child Custody Reversed in Livingston Post-Divorce Matter: Maxwell v. Woodard (herstontennesseefamilylaw.com)
- In 2-1 Decision, Grandparent Visitation Reversed in Dickson: Uselton v. Walton (herstontennesseefamilylaw.com)
- Gallatin Court Refuses to Change Child’s Last Name: Carroll v. Corcoran (herstontennesseefamilylaw.com)