Superior Parental Rights Leads to Reversal in Dandridge, TN Custody Dispute: Clark v. Cooper

Knoxville divorceFacts: Child was born to the never-married Mother and Father. Well after paternity and visitation were established, Mother and Father agreed to give “temporary legal and physical custody” of Child to the paternal grandparents. Although this was never a case of dependency and neglect, the trial court found neither parent was a proper custodian for Child at that time. Both Mother and Father were awarded visitation.

Approximately six months later, Mother sought to have Child returned to her custody. The trial court found there was no showing of a material change in circumstances warranting a change in custody.

Mother appealed.

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

Mother argued the trial court erred in requiring that she demonstrate a material change in circumstances in order to obtain a modification of the existing “temporary” custody arrangement. Instead, Mother argued the doctrine of superior parental rights should have been applied to a request to modify a temporary custody order placing custody of the parties’ minor child with non-parents.

In Blair v. Badenhope, 77 S.W.3d 137 (Tenn. 2002) (“Blair II”), the Tennessee Supreme Court held

that a natural parent is not generally entitled to invoke the doctrine of superior parental rights to modify a valid custody order awarding custody to a non-parent. Instead, in the absence of extraordinary circumstances — for instance, the natural parent was not afforded an opportunity to assert superior parental rights in the initial custody proceeding; the custody order is invalid on its face; the order is the result of fraud or procedural illegality; or the order grants only temporary custody to the non-parent – a trial court should apply the standard typically applied in parent-vs-parent modification cases: that a material change in circumstances has occurred, which makes a change in custody in the child’s best interests.

After reviewing the record, the Court reasoned:

[T]he agreed order in this case [] expressly provides that it was a “temporary custody agreement” that gave only “temporary physical and legal custody” of the Child to the paternal grandparents. As such, the order falls squarely within one of the exceptions contemplated by [the Tennessee Supreme Court] in that it is not a valid final custody order. It follows that Mother is clearly entitled to invoke the doctrine of superior parental rights in her motion to modify custody. Accordingly, the trial court erred by instead subjecting her motion to modify to a “material change in circumstances” standard.

The trial court’s judgment was vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings.

Clark v. Cooper (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, June 19, 2014).

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

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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