Posted by: koherston | July 21, 2014

Failure to Encourage Relationship with Parent Leads to Change in Child Custody in Chattanooga: Dickerson v. Cantrell

Facts: Mother and Father, parents of Child, divorced in 2011. They agreed that Mother be designated the primary residential parent. Father received reasonable visitation.

Two years later, Maternal Grandparents filed a petition for custody of Child on the grounds that Child was dependent and neglected in Mother’s care. Specifically, Maternal Grandparents alleged Mother is bipolar and was abusing prescription and nonprescription drugs. They claimed Mother had been in and out of several mental institutions but they did not help her at all.

Upon learning of the petition, Father filed a petition to modify the parenting plan, alleging that a material change in circumstances has occurred as evidenced by Maternal Grandparents’ petition for custody.

At the hearing on Father’s petition, Maternal Grandparents minimized and contradicted the allegations asserted in their petition for custody. The trial court denied Maternal Grandparents’ request to intervene in the child custody modification proceeding.

The trial court found a material change of circumstances had occurred that affected Child’s well-being in a meaningful way and that it was in Child’s best interest to designate Father as the primary residential parent. The trial court specifically found that Maternal Grandparents were not credible witnesses, but that Father was a credible witness whose “parenting had been undermined by the continuous interference by [Maternal Grandparents] and the bizarre behavior of [Mother].”

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Mother argued she had addressed and corrected her behavioral issues prior to trial and, therefore, that was not a material change of circumstances justifying the change of child custody.

The determination of whether a “material change in circumstance” occurred requires a different standard depending upon whether a parent is seeking to modify custody (i.e., change the primary residential parent) or modify the residential parenting schedule. The Tennessee Code establishes a lower threshold for modification of a residential parenting schedule.

There are no hard and fast rules for when there has been a change of circumstances sufficient to justify a change in custody. However, to determine whether a material change in circumstances has occurred, the court should consider whether: (1) the change occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified; (2) the changed circumstances were not reasonably anticipated when the underlying decree was entered; and (3) the change is one that affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.

After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:

In this case, Mother’s behavior progressively deteriorated while she resided with Grandparents. Despite Grandparents’ retraction of their initial allegation that Mother was unfit, the record establishes that the Child’s living environment had simply become unsafe and contentious and involved regular police intervention. While Mother may have made efforts to address her behavioral issues, the trial court found that Grandparents were not credible witnesses. Additionally, Grandparents and Mother admitted to hiding her behavior from Father in an effort to preclude his involvement with the Child. The increasingly hostile environment in which the Child lived and the interference with Father’s ability to parent the Child was a material change in circumstances that was not reasonably anticipated and that affected the Child’s well-being in a meaningful way.

Having found a material change of circumstances, the Court proceeded to determine whether a change in custody was in Child’s best interest. On that issue, the Court wrote:

While Mother previously served as the primary caregiver for a number of years, the relevant factors are fairly equally weighted between the Parents. However, the record is clear that Mother’s ability to parent the Child by herself without interference from Grandparents and to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the Child and Father is severely lacking. With all of the above considerations in mind, we conclude that the preponderance of the evidence supports the trial court’s naming of Father as the primary residential parent as being in the best interest of the Child.

Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Dickerson v. Cantrell (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, May 16, 2014).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.


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