Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of Child.
When Child was four years old, a parenting plan was entered designating Mother as Child’s primary residential parent and establishing Father’s co-parenting schedule.
Ten years later, Father petitioned to modify the parenting plan to change custody and necessarily increase his parenting time. He alleged the following material changes of circumstance justifying a change in custody: (1) Child’s deteriorating relationship with Mother; (2) Mother’s adoption of two other children; (3) Child’s preference to live with Father; and (4) Mother’s lack of parenting skills.
After hearing all the proof, the trial court found Father had failed to prove a material change of circumstance as necessary for either a change in custody or parenting time. The trial court found Father’s testimony was not credible while Mother’s was. Accordingly, the trial court denied Father’s petition to modify.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Tennessee courts apply a two-step analysis to requests to modify the primary residential parent or the residential parenting schedule. The threshold issue is whether a material change in circumstance has occurred since the entry of the parenting plan. Only if a material change of circumstance has occurred will the court move to the second step and determine if a modification is in the child’s best interest.
A change in circumstance regarding the parenting schedule is different from the change in circumstance regarding the designation of the primary residential parent. The threshold for establishing a material change of circumstance to modify the parenting schedule is low. To modify a parenting schedule, merely showing that the existing arrangement is unworkable for the parties is sufficient to satisfy the material change of circumstance test.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:
The evidence in the record before us preponderates against the trial court’s finding that there was no material change of circumstance for the purposes of residential parenting time. In this case, the original parenting plan was entered in 2002, over 11 years before the trial court’s final order was issued…. [O]ver a decade had passed since the entry of the prior custody order. Even discounting Father’s testimony, without a doubt [Child’s] needs have changed significantly since the entry of the prior custody order in 2002. Both Father and Mother have also had significant changes in their living conditions by the addition of other people to their households.
These changes were material under the lower threshold of Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-101(a)(2)(C). Therefore the trial court should consider . . . whether it is in [Child] best interest to grant Father greater parenting time.
Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.