Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of Child.
After they broke up, the juvenile court designated Mother as the primary residential parent and awarded Father parenting time every other weekend and additional time on Wednesdays.
Nine months later, Father petitioned to change the primary residential parent designation. He alleged Mother was uncooperative and confrontational, unwilling to foster his relationship with Child, and attempting to alienate Child from him. Among other things, the proof showed:
- Mother did not inform Father of Child’s school events or medical appointments. Mother became so uncooperative that Father began making the appointments himself;
- Mother made false accusations of abuse against Father, including three reports to the police and two reports to the Department of Children’s Services, neither of which ever filed any charges against Father;
- Mother filed an assault report against her live-in boyfriend, and he was arrested. Child was in the home during the incident. Despite the domestic violence, the couple married two months later;
- Mother testified that she and her husband recently celebrated their one-year anniversary when, in fact, the relationship ended after four months. Mother wanted her then-husband to testify that they had an ongoing relationship because she thought it would help her;
- Mother’s now-estranged husband said he heard Mother tell Child directly that she did not want Child to visit Father; and
- Mother’s now-estranged husband said he and Mother abused pain pills and tried methamphetamine when Child was in the home.
The trial court changed custody, naming Father as the primary residential parent and granting Mother 120 days of parenting time.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Tennessee courts apply a two-step analysis to requests for either a modification of the primary residential parent or the residential parenting schedule.
The threshold issue is whether a material change in circumstance has occurred since the court adopted the current parenting plan. Only if a material change in circumstance has occurred will the court consider whether a modification to the current parenting plan would be in the child’s best interest by examining the best-interest factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106.
Although there are no hard and fast rules for determining when a material change in circumstance has occurred, factors the court considers include (1) whether the change occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified, (2) whether the change was known or reasonably anticipated when the order was entered, and (3) whether the change affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.
Not every change in circumstance is a material change. The change must be significant before it will be considered material.
The Court made quick work of Mother’s challenge:
When viewed in light of Mother’s unfounded abuse reports and derogatory comments about Father, Mother’s uncooperative behavior evidence is an unwillingness to allow Father a role in [Child’s] life. Maintaining and encouraging a relationship between the child and the noncustodial parent is important to the child’s well-being. . . .
Mother married a man that she had filed assault charges against twice. Thus, a convicted abuser lived in her home with [Child] for at least four months after the entry of the custody order. . . . Mother’s relationship with [her husband] was a relevant change to [Child’s] home environment. As we have stated before, exposure to domestic violence may certainly have a negative impact on a child.
Thus, the trial court’s decision to change the primary residential parent was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.