Tennessee Supreme Court Redefines “Reasonable Purpose” in Parental Relocation Cases: Aragon v. Aragon

Facts: This is a parental relocation case where the Court of Appeals split 2-1 over what is meant by a “reasonable purpose” for a parent’s relocation.

The facts of the case can be found in this post discussing the Court of Appeals’ decision.

In the 2-1 decision from the Court of Appeals, the Majority held “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.”

The dissenting judge argued “reasonable” should be interpreted to mean ordinary, usual, rational, moderate, fair, and sensible, just as it is elsewhere in Tennessee law.

The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted Father’s request to review the case.

On Appeal: The unanimous Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.

Tennessee’s Parental Relocation Statute, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108, sets out a comprehensive framework for resolving disputes involving the relocation of a primary residential parent.

Where the parents are not spending substantially equal periods of time with their child, the parent seeking to relocate must notify the other parent of the intent to relocate and state his or her reasons for the proposed relocation. The burden then falls to the parent opposing the move to file a petition and prove one of the grounds enumerated in the statute. If this burden of proof is carried, the trial court may consider the best interest of the child and decide whether to permit the relocation. If this burden of proof is not carried, the trial court is obligated to grant permission for the relocation.

Rather than leave the decision in parental relocation matters to trial courts, with widely varying approaches, results, and timelines, the statute creates a mandatory structure that drastically limits the trial court’s discretion and compresses the timeline for resolution. The statute includes a presumption in favor of permitting relocation when the parents do not spend equal intervals of time with the child.

The Supreme Court determined the legislative history surrounding the enactment of Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108 does not support the Majority’s interpretation of “reasonable” to mean “significant” or “substantial,” nor does it support an approach in which the trial court weighs the purpose of the proposed relocation “against the gravity of the loss of the noncustodial parent’s ability to participate fully in their children’s lives in a more meaningful way”:

Rather, the statutory structure and legislative history both indicate an intent to make relocation case is relatively clear-cut, to permit the parent who has been spending the majority of the residential parenting time with the child to relocate with the child without court intervention, except in unusual cases in which the other parent proves that the move is vindictive, risks serious harm to the child, or has no reasonable purpose at all.

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We note that [the Majority’s] view of the term “reasonable purpose” encourages trial courts to consider evidence that has little to do with the proposed purpose of the move and more to do with the perceived overall fairness of the primary residential parent’s decision to relocate or whether the move is in the child’s best interest.

For example, in the case at bar, the trial court factored into its decision Mother’s assertion that, because neither parent could secure employment, she accepted work abroad with the understanding that Father intended to remain in middle Tennessee after he received his nursing education, but after obtaining the benefit of their bargain, Father decided not to seek a nursing job in Tennessee. These facts would be pertinent if the trial court were charged with deciding whether Father’s proposed relocation was fair to Mother; it was not, however, tasked with making that determination. The testimony relied upon by the trial court in fact ranges far afield from an evaluation of the limited question of whether Father’s stated purpose for moving to Arizona was reasonable. The rigid structure of § 36-6-108—in which best interest is reached only if and when the parent opposing the move proves one of the grounds—suggests that the “reasonable purpose” ground is not intended to be a guise under which the trial court may determine whether the parent’s decision to relocate is wise or fair or in the child’s best interest.

Accordingly, we overrule [prior caselaw in Tennessee] insofar as it interpret[s] the term “reasonable purpose” in § 36-6-108 to mean “a significant purpose, substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the noncustodial parents ability to participate fully in their children’s lives any more meaningful way.” The term “reasonable purpose” should be given its ordinary meaning.

In the future, a “reasonable” purpose should be read to mean an ordinary, usual, rational, moderate, fair, or sensible purpose.

Thus, the trial court’s denial of permission for Father to relocate to Arizona with the child was reversed along with the trial court’s modification of the parenting plan to designate Mother as the primary residential parent.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) This opinion was written by Justice Holly Kirby, the still-reigning World’s Most Awesome Judge. Prior to her elevation to the Supreme Court, she wrote the bulk of the family-law opinions from the Western Section. I predict she will write most of the family-law opinions issued by the Supreme Court during her tenure. Lawyers with family-law cases before the Supreme Court should expect her views on family-law matters to be particularly influential on her colleagues.

(2) This ruling makes it easier for a primary residential parent to relocate with the child. It substantially rewrites “reasonable purpose” jurisprudence in Tennessee by explicitly reversing the legal standard that originated in Webster v. Webster and was applied in cases like Carman v. Carman, Sanko v. Sanko, Thornloe v. Osborne, Redmon v. Redmon, and many others. Notably, the Webster opinion that started it all was also written by then-Judge Kirby.

(3) This is only the second time the Tennessee Supreme Court has addressed Tennessee’s Parental Relocation Statute, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108. The other time was in Kawatra v. Kawatra, which dealt with how to measure each parent’s time with their child.

Aragon v. Aragon (Tennessee Supreme Court, March 16, 2017).

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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