Facts: Mother is the biological mother of two children aged 3 and 4. At the time of their births, Mother was unmarried and resided with her parents, the children’s maternal grandparents.
Grandparents petitioned to terminate Mother’s parental rights and to adopt the children. They allege that Mother moved out of their home several years earlier and gradually abandoned her parental obligations.
Mother and Grandparents entered into an agreement that Grandparents would be the custodians of the children, the petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights would be dismissed, and Mother would lose her superior parental rights such that in any future proceeding she must show it is in the children’s best interest for her to receive custody. The trial court approved this agreement, and Grandparents’ petition was dismissed.
Roughly one year later, Mother petitioned to regain custody of her children. First, Mother argued she retained her superior parental rights. Alternatively, Mother alleged that Grandparents frequently disparaged Mother in the children’s presence, provided an inadequate living environment, and unreasonably refused Mother access to the children, all of which constituted a material change of circumstances making a change of custody in the children’s best interest.
The proof at trial showed that Mother had matured and is now in a position to care for the children. She married, is financially stable, and has maintained steady employment.
The trial court found that Mother had established physical, emotional, and financial stability over the previous year. The trial court also found that Grandparents lacked credibility, had unnecessarily hindered Mother’s access to the children, and had failed to promote a loving and nurturing relationship between Mother and the children.
Based on these findings, the trial court granted Mother’s petition, thereby returning the children to her custody. The trial court found that Mother retained her superior parental rights and is a fit parent. Alternatively, the trial court found that Mother established a material change and that the restoration of custody was in the children’s best interest.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.
A parent has a fundamental right, based in both the federal and Tennessee constitutions, to the care and custody of his or her own child. Thus, courts deciding initial custody disputes give natural parents a presumption of “superior parental rights” regarding the custody of their children. Under this doctrine of superior parental rights, courts must favor the biological parent when faced with a competing custody claim by a nonparent. For this reason, in an initial custody proceeding, a court cannot award custody to a nonparent over a natural parent unless the nonparent can demonstrate that the child will be exposed to substantial harm if custody is awarded to the biological parent.
A parent is generally not entitled to invoke the doctrine of superior parental rights, however, when seeking to modify a valid order placing custody with a nonparent. In such cases, trial courts apply the standard typically applied in parent-vs-parent modification cases: that a material change in circumstances has occurred, which makes a change in custody in the child’s best interests. The material change in circumstances standard is applied even if the biological parent voluntarily ceded custody of the children to the nonparent.
Still, a natural parent can retain his or her superior parental rights despite the fact that a nonparent has been awarded custody:
- when no order exists that transfers custody from the natural parent;
- when the order transferring custody from the natural parent is accomplished by fraud or without notice to the parent;
- when the order transferring custody from the natural parent is invalid on its face; and
- when the natural parent cedes only temporary and informal custody to the nonparents.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment that Mother retained her superior parental rights:
In the present case, the trial court determined that Mother retained her superior parental rights because it found the  agreed order concerning custody to be a temporary order. We disagree.
The order uses express language representing that it is a final custody determination. . . . Moreover, both the agreed order and the handwritten agreement upon which the order was based plainly state that the arrangement “defeats [Mother’s] superior parental rights.” The order goes on to specifically cite Blair v. Badenhope, the very case in which our Supreme Court recognized that a parent who voluntarily cedes custody cannot invoke the doctrine of superior parental rights to modify a valid order transferring custody to a nonparent.
We recognize that the next line of the order stating that “for purposes of future proceedings, [Mother] must show that it is in the best interest of the minor children for her to receive custody” is misleading. As explained in Blair, a parent in cases such as this one must demonstrate both a material change of circumstance and that a change in custody is in the child’s best interest in order to regain custody. Still, despite the inconsistency in the [agreed] order, we conclude it was a final order granting Grandparents custody of Mother’s children.
Thus, Mother did not retain superior parental rights because the agreed order granting custody to Grandparents was a final order, not a temporary one.
Nonetheless, the trial court’s change of custody was affirmed because the trial court properly found there had been a material change in circumstance such that the change of custody was in the children’s best interest.
Thus, even though Mother no longer possessed superior parental rights, the trial court’s decision to grant her custody of her children was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.