Facts: Mother in Father are the parents of 10-year-old Child. A parenting plan gave them joint custody and designated Mother as the primary residential parent. Several years later, Father filed a petition to modify the parenting plan in which he sought to be named the primary residential parent.
After a trial in which Mother presented no proof, the trial court held that there had been a material change of circumstances and that Child’s best interests would be served by naming Father as the primary residential parent.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Mother argued that the evidence did not support the trial court’s holding that there was a material change of circumstance.
A decision on a request for modification of a parenting arrangement requires a two-step analysis. A party petitioning to change an existing child custody order must prove both (1) that a material change of circumstances has occurred and (2) that a change of custody or residential schedule is in the child’s best interest. Only after a threshold finding that a material change of circumstances has occurred is the court permitted to proceed to make a fresh determination of the best interest of the child.
Although there are no bright line rules as to whether a material change in circumstances has occurred after the initial custody determination, there are several relevant considerations: (1) whether a change has occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified; (2) whether a change was not known or reasonably anticipated when the order was entered; and (3) whether a change is one that affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.
Only if a material change of circumstances is shown to exist is the trial court to proceed to the next step of the analysis: whether modification of the existing parenting arrangement is in the child’s best interest. That determination requires consideration of a number of factors, including those set out in Tennessee Code Ann. § 36-6-106(a) (factors to consider in custody determination) or Tennessee Code Ann. § 36-6-404(b) (factors to consider in establishing a residential schedule).
After reviewing the record, the Court commented:
The evidence shows that since 2005 Mother has been married and divorced twice, was involved in another romantic relationship at the time of the hearing, and has been in rehabilitation for addiction to prescription medication. The evidence also shows that, over the period, [Child] began school and accumulated a number of absences from school, has been inattentive in class, and failed to turn in completed homework, which led to her grades dropping at school. The record supports the court’s holding that a material change of circumstance occurred since the adoption of the original parenting plan in 2005.
Accordingly, the trial court’s change of child custody was affirmed.
K.O.’s Comment: The proof also showed that many of the issues about which Father complained had dramatically improved by the time of trial. Thus, this appears to have been a very close case as to whether there was a material change of circumstances sufficient to justify the drastic remedy of a change in child custody.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.