Parental Relocation Prohibited in Chattanooga: Lawrence v. Broadnax

Facts: Mother and Father divorced in April 2012. Mother was designated the primary residential parent of Child, while Father was awarded 104 days of parenting time.

Tennessee PhiladelphiaIn October 2014, Mother provided Father with a notice of intent to relocate to Philadelphia, citing an employment opportunity as the reason for the relocation.

Father filed a timely petition in opposition to the requested relocation. He also filed a proposed parenting plan requesting to change the primary residential parent designation.

At the trial, Mother presented evidence that she had been offered a teaching position in Trenton, New Jersey, with an annual salary of $60,000, which Mother claimed was higher than what she could earn in Tennessee.

Father alleged Mother was not promoting a relationship between Father and Child. He also presented proof that his family is in Tennessee and all are involved in Child’s life.

The trial court granted Father’s petition, finding that Mother’s proposed relocation did not have a reasonable purpose.

Mother appealed.

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

The parental relocation statute — codified at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108 — governs this action. The statute creates a mechanism for determining whether a parent may relocate outside the state or more than 50 miles from the other parent within Tennessee.

Because Mother and Father were not spending substantially equal intervals of time with Child, the issue at trial was whether Mother should be permitted to relocate with Child pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108(d)(1), which provides:

(d)(1) If the parents are not actually spending substantially equal intervals of time with the child and the parent spending the greater amount of time with the child proposes to relocate with the child, the other parent may, within thirty (30) days of receipt of the notice, file a petition in opposition to removal of the child. The other parent may not attempt to relocate with the child unless expressly authorized to do so by the court pursuant to a change of custody or primary custodial responsibility. The parent spending the greater amount of time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds:
(A) The relocation does not have a reasonable purpose;
(B) The relocation would pose a threat of specific and serious harm to the child that outweighs the threat of harm to the child of a change of custody; or
(C) The parent’s motive for relocating with the child is vindictive in that it is intended to defeat or deter visitation rights of the non-custodial parent or the parent spending less time with the child.

The parent opposing the relocation bears the burden of proof to establish one of these three grounds. The relocation shall be permitted if the opposing parent fails to prove any of the three grounds. If the court finds one of the grounds to be present, then the court shall determine whether or not to permit relocation of the child based on the best interest of the child.

After reviewing the record, the Court reasoned:

Mother did not claim that she was unable to pursue any employment opportunities in Tennessee. She merely claimed that she could not obtain a comparable salary in Tennessee. She does not account for what she admitted at trial was an increased cost of living in New Jersey as evidenced by the tuition for the Child’s schooling and increased rent. Her testimony concerning the opportunity for career advancement is also unsubstantiated and subjective when considered with the fact that she only submitted “five or six” applications in Tennessee and the fact that her employment history has been largely unstable as evidenced by her employment at four different institutions in the past four years. Additionally, the record reflects that the Child enjoyed a loving relationship with Father and his extended family in Tennessee. With all of the above considerations in mind, we affirm the trial court’s determination that Mother’s purpose for relocating was unreasonable when weighed against the Child’s loss of Father’s ability to participate fully in his life.

Accordingly, the trial court’s determination that there was no “reasonable purpose” for the proposed relocation was affirmed. The trial court failed to assess whether the proposed relocation was in Child’s best interest, however, so the case was remanded to the trial court to make a comprehensive best interest analysis using the factors set forth in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108(e).

K.O.’s Comment: This case is similar to Thorneloe v. Osborne, where the Court found the higher salary in the proposed new location was offset by the higher cost of living.

The relevant economic factors typically considered in the reasonable purpose analysis include but are not limited to the relative significance of the increase in income, the cost of living in the proposed location compared to the present location, the firmness of the job offer, the opportunity for career advancement, and the economic betterment of the family unit.

Even if there are economic reasons for relocating, the reasonable purpose must be substantial when weighed against the gravity of loss of the non-custodial parent’s ability to participate fully in the child’s life. This consideration weighed against the proposed relocation in this case.

Lawrence v. Broadnax (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, July 31, 2015).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce 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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