Posted by: koherston | June 26, 2017

Child-Custody Change Vacated in Columbia, TN Postdivorce Dispute: In re Gunner F.

Facts: Mother and Father divorced in 2012. The court approved their agreed parenting plan designating Mother as the primary residential parent while awarding each parent equal parenting time with Child. Both parents lived in Maury County.

Approximately 1 1/2 years later, Mother and Child moved to a new home in Lewis County that is a 30-minute drive from Father’s home.

Father filed a motion to enroll Child in school in Maury County.

Mother petitioned to modify the parenting plan to increase her parenting time to 261 days and enroll Child in school in Lewis County.

The trial court changed the primary residential parent designation from Mother to Father so Father could enroll Child in school in Maury County. The trial court explained:

The only real issue in this matter is who will have to make the 60-70 mile round-trip per school day when it is their week to have the child and the child is in enrolled in the other county. . . . Since it was  Mother’s decision to move, she should have reasonably foreseen that her decision would affect Father and that increased travel time would be a factor that had to enter into her decision.

The trial court did not address the best-interest analysis.

Mother appealed.

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

When a parent petitions to modify a parenting plan to change the primary residential parent, the threshold issue is whether there has been a material change of circumstances since the parenting plan took effect.

Although there are no bright-line rules for determining whether a material change of circumstances has occurred, Tennessee courts should consider

  • whether a change has occurred after the entry of the parenting plan,
  • whether the change was not known or reasonably anticipated when the parenting plan was entered, and
  • whether the change is one that affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.

Not every change in a child’s life or the life of the child’s parents rises to the level of a material change warranting a change in the primary residential parent.

If the court finds there has been a material change in circumstances, then it must determine whether it is in the child’s best interest to modify the parenting plan as requested. The best-interest analysis requires the court to consider the factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a).

The Court vacated the trial court’s ruling and remanded it for factual findings regarding the child’s best interests:

In this case, the trial court did not mention the child’s best interests in its order. Therefore, this Court cannot discern whether the trial court considered that part of the two-step modification analysis.

The case was remanded to the trial court to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law as to Child’s best interest.

K.O.’s Comment: Is the trial court’s finding of a material change sufficient to change the PRP designation on these facts consistent with Garrett v. Garrett?

In Garrett, the parties shared equal time, the PRP/mother moved to a neighboring county, and the children had to change schools. The trial court made the father the PRP so the children could continue to attend the same schools they always had. The Court of Appeals held the trial court erred in finding a material change sufficient to change the PRP designation because the situation was reasonably foreseeable:

The [School] Board’s policy regarding enrollment was readily available to the Parents. Additionally, it was entirely foreseeable and reasonably anticipated that the Parents would live in different school zones, thereby necessitating a decision regarding which school the Children should attend in accordance with relevant policies regarding enrollment. . . . Accordingly, we hold that the trial court erred in modifying the custody arrangement by designating Father as the primary residential parent.

How is this case any different?

In re Gunner F. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, June 6, 2016).

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


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