Facts: Mother and Father were married and had one child. They divorced in 2011. Mother was designated the primary residential parent and awarded 254 days of parenting time. Father received 111 days.
At the time of divorce, Mother worked at a hospital making $44,000 per year. She also attended a nurse practitioner program.
In anticipation of her upcoming graduation from the nurse practitioner program, Mother began looking for employment opportunities. Mother sent Father a certified letter proposing that she relocate to Mississippi with the parties’ daughter, for employment as a nurse practitioner and also to live closer to her family.
Father filed a timely objection to Mother’s proposed relocation and petitioned to modify the parenting plan.
At the hearing, Mother testified she had been offered a job in Mississippi as a nurse practitioner with a starting salary of almost $80,000. She further testified she looked for positions in Jackson or McNairy County but found no job openings as advantageous is the job she was offered in Mississippi. Mother did not apply for any jobs in Tennessee.
Father testified he had not personally searched for available nurse practitioner jobs in the area but opined that “surely” there were such jobs available.
The trial court denied both Mother’s proposed relocation and Father’s petition to modify the parenting plan. It found Mother did not make reasonable efforts to find a similar job closer to home. It also found Father to be very active in the child’s life and daily activities such that the proposed relocation would limit his involvement in the child’s life.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
One of the most common post-divorce flashpoints occurs when the primary residential parent decides to move with his or her child or children to another city or state. The farther the move, the more intense the opposition because of the move’s effect on visitation and the ability of the other parent to foster and maintain an appropriate relationship with his or her child or children.
In Tennessee, parental relocation is governed by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108. The framework in the statute sets out different standards for relocation, depending on whether the parents spend substantially equal intervals of time with their child. Under the statute, when parents spend substantially equal amounts of time with the child, “[n]o presumption in favor of or against the request to relocate with the child shall arise,” and the trial court must determine whether the relocation is in the child’s best interest.
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. The relocation statute mandates a grant of permission to relocate unless the parent opposing relocation proves at least one of the three enumerated grounds. The court does not reach the issue of whether the move is in the best interest of the child unless one of the grounds is proven. 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.
In this appeal, the only ground at issue was whether Mother’s proposed relocation had a “reasonable purpose.” There are no bright-line rules with regard to what constitutes a reasonable purpose for a proposed relocation. Determinations concerning whether a proposed move has a reasonable purpose are fact-intensive and require a thorough examination of the unique circumstances of each case. In assessing whether a proposed relocation has a reasonable purpose, courts take into account both economic and non-economic factors. Regardless, the reasonable purpose of the proposed relocation must be a significant purpose, 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.
On appeal, Father argued that as long as he showed Mother did not look “hard enough” for a job closer to McNairy County, he carried his burden of proving the lack of a reasonable purpose for Mother’s proposed relocation.
Father’s position is contrary to the established burden of proof in parental relocation cases. The burden was not on Mother to prove the reasonableness of her planned relocation; to the contrary, the burden was Father to establish that the relocation was not for a reasonable purpose.
The Court of Appeals rejected Father’s argument, writing:
[R]elevant 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, . . . opportunity for career advancement and economic betterment of the family unit. As the party with the burden of proving lack of reasonable purpose, however, the onus was on Father to produce evidence from which such a comparison could be made. Mother testified that nurse practitioner job positions available in the general McNairy County and Jackson, Tennessee areas were not suitable for her, that they were either temporary positions or included requirements she did not meet. In response, Father proffered only his own testimony criticizing Mother for not applying for nurse practitioner positions near McNairy County and speculating that “surely” there were such nurse practitioner jobs available in his area. This does not suffice to meet his burden of proving that Mother’s proposed relocation does not have a reasonable purpose….
Accordingly, we must reverse the trial court’s denial of Mother’s request for permission to relocate with the parties’ daughter. The trial court is directed to grant Mother’s request for permission to relocate, and the cause is remanded for further proceedings such as modification of the parties’ parenting schedule to accommodate Mother’s relocation.
Accordingly, the trial court was reversed.
K.O.’s Comment: Father obtained very helpful findings from the trial court regarding the “gravity of loss” to him and the child if Mother’s relocation were allowed. Those findings could have formed an independent basis for rejecting Mother’s proposed relocation apart from the sufficiency of her job search. See, e.g., Carman v. Carman or Thorneloe v. Osborne. The opinion does not indicate whether those findings were argued or emphasized.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.