Posted by: koherston | September 30, 2015

Child Custody Agreement Vacated for Lack of Factual Findings in Savannah, TN: Stricklin v. Stricklin

Facts: Mother and Father divorced after 12 years of marriage. The parenting plan awarded Father 150 days of parenting time “on all his days off.”

Not surprising, such vague language proved problematic. Mother later moved to modify the parenting plan to specifically designate Father’s parenting time.

not happyAfter a break in the hearing on Mother’s motion, the parties announced their agreement to the trial court. Counsel for the parties recited the details of the parties’ agreement as to Father’s parenting time. Both parties were present when the agreement was announced in court. The trial court accepted the agreed parenting schedule and entered an order consistent with the announcement.

A few weeks later, Father obtained new counsel and filed a motion seeking to repudiate the agreement announced in court. Father alleged he was “not happy with” the agreement and no longer agreed with it. Notably, Father complained the trial court failed to find the agreed parenting schedule was in the child’s best interest.

The trial court denied Father’s motion. Father appealed.

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

Father argued the trial court’s order reflecting the agreed disposition announced in open court is flawed because it fails to include findings regarding the child’s best interests.

Although parties may reach an agreement to modify an existing parenting arrangement, they cannot bind courts to approve agreements affecting a child’s best interests.

Tennessee law imposes a duty on trial courts to protect the best interests of children. Although parties may agree to a given parenting arrangement, such an agreement does not obviate the trial court’s duty to ensure that it is in the children’s best interests.

After reviewing the record, the Court agreed with Father’s argument, explaining:

Although it is true that the trial judge concluded the [motion] hearing by remarking that he was glad the parties had been able to work out their dispute “for the best interest of the child,” there is no other discussion on the issue of the child’s best interests. The record is simply devoid of sufficient findings that reflect the trial judge performed the solemn duty that is entrusted to him alone. It is not even entirely clear from the trial judge’s concluding oral statement whether he considered the agreement to be in the child’s best interests. Arguably, his statement can be construed as expressing his satisfaction that the parties had been able to reach a resolution on the best interest issue. The delegation of such an issue is not permissible.

Given the trial court’s failure to conduct an appropriate best interests analysis, we conclude that it erred in denying Father’s [] motion to alter or amend or vacate. That motion alerted the trial court to the fact that its [] order lacked findings on the best interests issue, but the trial court never cured this error. Although the absence of findings on the best interests issue requires us to remand the case, we do not believe it is appropriate to remand this case for the sole purpose of allowing the trial court to explain why the agreed-upon parenting terms are in the child’s best interests. Having reviewed the record transmitted to us, we are compelled to remand not only for appropriate findings, but also for an evidentiary hearing on the best interests issue…. Under the circumstances presented, we find it appropriate to remand this case to the trial court to hold a hearing on and to make detailed findings of whether or not the agreed-upon terms of the modified parenting plan are in the minor child’s best interests….

[T]he trial court’s best interests determination should consider the circumstances of the parties and minor child as they exist as of the date of the hearing on remand.

The trial court is in the unique position to determine the nature and extent of the hearing to be conducted…. [T]he record must simply reflect a sufficient basis for determining whether the agreed-upon parenting arrangement is in the best interests of the child…. Although we are remanding for a hearing, we do not express an opinion on the particular evidence that is to be heard or considered on remand. We simply hold that the record must reflect a sufficient basis for making the bests interests determination.

Accordingly, the trial court’s ruling was reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing.

K.O.’s Comment: The Court here relied on the opinions in Tuetken v. Tuetken and Fletcher v. Fletcher for guidance.

When parents announce their agreed resolution of a parenting schedule dispute, it is clear that (1) the trial court must make the specific finding that the agreement is in the child’s best interest, and (2) there must be a sufficient evidentiary basis in the record for the trial court’s determination.

Is an evidentiary hearing required? How much evidence is “sufficient” to support the best interest finding?

To insulate an agreement from subsequent attack, family law attorneys would be wise to build an evidentiary record supporting the best interest finding. Without it, a parent’s change of heart can lead to additional litigation down the road.

Stricklin v. Stricklin (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, September 21, 2015).

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


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