Facts: The parties are the parents of one child. Both parents are licensed physicians. Mother is a board-certified otolaryngologist. She did clinical fellowship training in microvascular reconstruction and head and neck oncology, a sophisticated surgical subspecialty of otolaryngology.
During the marriage, Mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the symptoms of which forced her to cease practicing medicine. Over the years, Mother tried a variety of measures to alleviate her symptoms. Eventually, dietary changes greatly improve them. After her symptoms abated, she began aggressively seeking out opportunities to continue practicing medicine.
The parents divorced after 17 years of marriage. The parenting plan designated Mother as Primary residential parent and allocated Father 120 days of parenting time.
A little over a year after the divorce, Mother notified Father of her intent to relocate with Child to Illinois. Mother planned to retrain in her subspecialty so she could return to practicing medicine in that subspecialty. Father opposed the relocation.
The proof showed that Mother had an opportunity to retrain in her subspecialty at a medical school in Illinois. The retraining position would have a salary of approximately $58,000 per year, which was significantly less than the income Mother received from disability insurance. After completing the training, however, a faculty appointment at the medical school was “highly likely.” As a faculty member, Mother expected to receive approximately $250,000 per year, which would be a substantial increase in Mother’s income.
The trial court found that Mother’s desire to retrain in her field of expertise was a reasonable purpose to relocate, and that such retraining was available in Illinois but not in Tennessee. The trial court permitted Mother’s relocation.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Father argued that Mother’s proposed relocation lacked a reasonable purpose because, at the time of trial, Mother had not received an actual job offer from the medical school; instead, she had only the hope of a job offer after her retraining.
Where the parents do not spend substantially equal intervals of time with the child, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108 has a legislatively mandated presumption in favor of the relocating custodial parent. Under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108(d)(1), the trial court must grant the primary residential parent permission to relocate unless the parent opposing relocation proves at least one of three enumerated grounds: (1) that the relocation does not have a reasonable purpose; (2) that the relocation poses a threat of specific and serious harm that outweighs the risk of harm that would result from a change of custody; or (3) that the primary residential parent’s motive for the relocation is vindictive. The parent opposing the relocation bears the burden of proof to establish one of these three grounds, and if he or she fails to do so, the relocation must be permitted. If the parents do not spend substantially equal intervals of time with the child, the trial court will not address the issue of whether the relocation is in the best interest of the child until and unless one of the statutory grounds is proven.
There are no bright-line rules with regard to what constitutes a reasonable purpose for a proposed relocation. Relevant economic factors that are typically considered include, without limitation, the relative significance of the increase, the cost of living in the proposed location compared to the present location, the firmness of the job offer, opportunity for career advancement and economic betterment of the family unit. Relocation because of a better job opportunity, greater salary, and career advancement opportunities, establishes a “reasonable purpose” within the meaning of the statute. On the other hand, under the circumstances presented in other cases, the Court of Appeals has found when there is no firm job offer and no proof of better job opportunities that the move was not for a reasonable purpose. Non-economic factors must be considered as well. In all cases, the reason for the proposed relocation must be substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the non-custodial parent’s ability to participate fully in their children’s lives in a more meaningful way.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:
While we recognize that Mother’s job offer was not guaranteed, it is also important to note that non-economic factors are part of the equation. In this case, Mother is a highly trained medical professional who practiced in a sophisticated subspecialty and was then forced to give up her chosen profession for many years because of a debilitating disease. After gaining a measure of control over the symptoms of her disease, and after exhaustive efforts to find retraining in her subspecialty, she found an opportunity to complete the retraining and practice her chosen medical subspecialty again. As the trial court found, Mother’s desire to retrain in her area of expertise is reasonable.
Accordingly, the trial court was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.