Posted by: koherston | January 26, 2015

Change in Child Custody Reversed in Chattanooga: Hendricks v. Smith

Facts: Mother and Father, who were never married, entered an agreed parenting plan establishing a long-distance parenting schedule because of Mother’s and Children’s move to Ohio. The agreed parenting plan designated Mother as the primary residential parent.

Knoxville family law attorneyVery shortly thereafter, Father petitioned to change custody on the grounds that the agreed parenting plan had been procured by fraud. Specifically, Father claimed Mother represented in their negotiations that she was working as an “independent contractor.” Father belatedly learned that Mother actually was working as a licensed prostitute in Nevada at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch.

At the hearing, the proof showed the Children were not exposed to Mother’s occupation. Furthermore, by the time of trial, Mother was out of the prostitution business and doing social work in Nevada after having received her master’s degree in social work and her provisional license from the state of Nevada for social work.

The trial court found the was a material change in circumstances for the children because of Mother’s deceit and Mother’s occupation as a prostitute. The trial court further found it was in the Children’s best interest that custody be awarded to Father. Notably, the trial court did not conduct a statutory best interest analysis of any sort.

Mother appealed.

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

When assessing a petition to modify a permanent parenting plan, Tennessee courts must first determine if a material change in circumstances has occurred and then apply the “best interest” factors of Tennessee Code § 36-6-106(a).

A child custody determination is a fact-intensive issue that requires detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law by the trial court.

After reviewing the record below, the Court of Appeals concluded:

This Court has previously held that the General Assembly’s decision to require findings of fact and conclusions of law is not a mere technicality. Instead, the requirement serves the important purpose of facilitating appellate review and promoting the just and speedy resolution of appeals. Without such findings and conclusions, this court is left to wonder on what basis the court reached its ultimate decision….

We decline to overlook the absence of a best interest analysis and search for evidence in the record supporting the Juvenile Court’s decision. Instead, we vacate the Juvenile Court’s judgment and remand this case for the Juvenile Court to enter a permanent parenting plan after considering all relevant factors and making a best interest analysis. We decline at this stage to render any decision regarding whether the Juvenile Court erred in finding a material change in circumstances.

Accordingly, the trial court was reversed and the matter remanded for further hearing.

K.O.’s Comment: For reasons I cannot fathom, the Court chose to include in the opinion the fake name Mother used in her former employment, which makes it very easy to find on the Internet photographs and video of Mother in her former employment. Including this information is wholly unnecessary and, in my opinion, indefensible. It carries the very real possibility of harm to the children in the future if they should ever find this opinion online. Surely this was an oversight. The opinion should be withdrawn and replaced without this information.

Hendricks v. Smith (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, January 8, 2015).

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


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