Facts: When Mother and Father divorced in 2010, the trial court entered an agreed parenting plan in which the parents shared equal time with Child via alternating weeks.
In 2012, Father sent Mother a relocation letter advising of his intent to move to Tucson, Arizona with Child. Shortly thereafter, Father filed a petition to modify the parenting plan to accommodate his planned relocation. Under Father’s proposal, Mother would be awarded 90 days of parenting time each year.
Mother filed a petition in opposition asserting, inter alia, that Father’s proposed move lacked a reasonable purpose.
While the relocation was pending, Father moved to Arizona. The parties continued to share equal time via alternating months.
Father, a registered nurse, testified the reason for his move was “greater opportunity for greater income” and the “support, companionship, and assistance of family and friends in the Tucson area.”
After a trial, the trial court found Mother proved Father’s proposed relocation of Child to Arizona had no reasonable purpose. Specifically, the trial court concluded:
There is no proof in this case that [Father] has better job opportunities, greater salary opportunities or career advancement opportunities in the Tucson area. In fact, there is no proof whatsoever with regard to [Father]’s comparable job opportunities in the Middle Tennessee or Southern Kentucky area because he has not made any inquiries or pursued such opportunities.
The trial court further found Mother should be named the primary residential parent.
On Appeal: In a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Parental relocation is governed by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108. The statute contains two different standards for relocation, set forth in subsection (c) and subsection (d)(1), depending on whether the parents spend equal or unequal intervals of time with the child.
In this case, the parties stipulated that the actual parenting time shared by the parties was not equal. The trial court found that because Father was exercising more parenting time, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108(d)(1) controlled.
Subsection (d)(1) sets the standard for parents spending unequal amounts of time with their child. It 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.
There are no bright-line rules with regard to what constitutes a reasonable purpose for a proposed relocation. Determinations concerning whether a proposed move has a reasonable purpose are fact-intensive and require a thorough examination of the unique circumstances of each case. In assessing whether a proposed relocation has a reasonable purpose, courts take into account both economic and non-economic factors. Regardless, the reasonable purpose of the proposed relocation must be a significant purpose, substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the other parent’s ability to participate fully in their children’s lives in a more meaningful way.
After reviewing the record, a majority of the Court concluded:
Despite the testimony that there was a nursing shortage and available jobs in the Clarksville area, particularly in long term care facilities, Father chose not to seek opportunities in the Clarksville area before relocating; his decision that he would not apply for nursing positions in Tennessee undermines his contention that he moved because he had an opportunity for greater income over his options in Tennessee. Father and his parents testified relative to the support system available to him in Arizona, while other witnesses testified as to the support available to him in Clarksville; the trial court implicitly found that the support available in Clarksville was entitled to greater weight in the context of the reasonable purpose inquiry than that in Arizona. As the trial court is the sole judge of the weight to be given testimony, we defer to the court in this regard. The evidence does not preponderate against the holding that Father had a support system available to him in the Clarksville area.
Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that Father’s move to Arizona did not have a reasonable purpose.
Dissent: Judge McBrayer dissented from the majority ruling, writing:
This Court has repeatedly acknowledged the Parental Relocation Statute has “a legislatively mandated presumption in favor of [the] relocating custodial parent.” Despite this, in my view, our Court has undercut this presumption by interpreting the word “reasonable” to mean “significant” or “substantial.”
The most fundamental canon of statutory interpretation is to give words in a statute their ordinary meaning. While the statute does not define “reasonable purpose,” our courts have interpreted the term “reasonable” in other contexts to mean ordinary, usual, rational, moderate, fair and sensible. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “reasonable” as “fair, proper, or moderate under the circumstances; sensible.”
Although “[t]he answer to the question of what is reasonable will vary according to the circumstances,” I cannot agree that the word “reasonable” means “substantial” or “significant.” “Significant” and “substantial” both connote a weightier reason and, thus, place a lighter burden on the non-custodial parent opposing relocation than a fair reading of the Parental Relocation Statute supports. In my view, defining the word “reasonable” to mean “substantial” or “significant” also leads to results that are difficult to explain….
Here, Father had a reasonable purpose for his move. The trial court acknowledges as much by finding that Father “posit[ed] a rational basis for his move.” Father sought to move to Tucson, Arizona, to be near his family and to work in his chosen profession. He secured a job as a registered nurse on the neurology floor at Tucson Medical Center. His compensation is $24 an hour plus a ten percent premium for the night shift. He has extended family members in Tucson who testified they are willing to help care for the child. The child would also have the opportunity to form relationships with relatives of both parents because Mother also has family in the Tucson area.
By the terms of the statute, the court must allow Father to move unless Mother has met her burden of proving his move lacks a reasonable purpose, 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 the parent’s motive for relocating with the child is vindictive. Because Mother failed to do so, I would reverse.
K.O.’s Comment: (1) While Judge McBrayer’s reasoning is logical, the approach he advocates would result in the wholesale rewriting of the “reasonable purpose” body of law as we know it. It will be interesting to see if future litigants assert his argument at the trial court level.
(2) Compare this case with Sanko v. Sanko, in which the Mother was permitted to relocate to Pennsylvania. In Sanko, the Court held a parent’s desire to be near extended family can be a reasonable purpose, particularly when it is augmented by additional considerations. The Court explained a relocation is unreasonable when the only reason for the move is to be closer to extended family.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.