New “Reasonable Purpose” Standard Results in Reversal of Nashville, TN Parental Relocation Case: Stringer v. Stringer

Facts: Mother and Father are the parents of Child. When they divorced in Texas, Mother was designated the primary residential parent. They subsequently moved to Tennessee.

In 2015, Mother notified Father of her intention to relocate with Child back to Texas to accept an employment opportunity. Mother was also motivated by the fact that her boyfriend lives in Texas.

Father petitioned in opposition to the relocation.

The proof showed Mother has a college degree in music education. Mother was working as a substitute teacher. While she does not have a Tennessee teaching license, the proof showed she could obtain one simply by applying for it.

The trial court found Mother’s relocation lacked a reasonable purpose because Mother was seeking to move to Texas to be close to her boyfriend, not because of her career in music education.

Mother appealed.

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

Tennessee’s Parental Relocation Statute is found at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108. It establishes different standards for analyzing the proposed relocation depending on whether the parents do or don’t spend substantially equal parenting time with the child.

When parents share substantially equal parenting time, no presumption is created for or against a parent’s request to relocate. The trial court must determine whether the relocation is in the child’s best interest.

When, as in this case, the parents do not share substantially equal parenting time, the statute provides that the parent spending the greater amount of time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds:

  • the relocation does not have 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 in that it is intended to defeat or deter visitation rights of the parent spending less time with the child.

The parent opposing the relocation bears the burden of proving one of these scenarios by a preponderance of the evidence.

In Aragon v. Aragon, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently held 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 is in the child’s best interest. Instead, it allows the parent to relocate unless the relocation “has no reasonable purpose at all.”

Applying the Aragon standard, the Court held that Father failed to prove that Mother lacked any reasonable purpose at all for moving:

[I]t appears that the trial court in this case [] improperly placed the burden of proof on Mother to show a reasonable purpose for the move rather than placing the burden on Father of proving that”[t]he relocation does not have a reasonable purpose.”

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Mother is not required to present any evidence to “establish” that she diligently pursued job opportunities in Tennessee in order to be allowed to relocate; rather, the burden remains at all times on the parent opposing relocation to show that the move lacks a reasonable purpose.

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Father argues, however, that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that Mother’s main purpose for relocating is to be closer to her boyfriend. [O]ur inquiry is far more limited than ascertaining the reasonableness of any and all of the custodial parents purposes in relocating. Rather, the Aragon Court directed that courts consider only “the limited question of whether [the relocating parent’s] stated purpose for moving . . . was reasonable. As we perceive it, the Aragon decision appears to have contemplated the situation where a relocating parent may have multiple reasons for moving, but, as long as there is at least one validly stated purpose for moving, the relocating parent must be allowed to move with the child. . . . Here, Mother’s motivation for moving may very well be that she wants to be closer to her boyfriend. Mother’s stated purpose, however, is to accept a job offer that allows her increased income, as well as the opportunity to work in her chosen field. The evidence shows that . . . Mother has been offered a job in Texas that could lead to a full-time teaching job in Mother’s chosen profession, and Father has simply not shown that Mother’s decision to move to pursue better employment is unreasonable. Father’s reliance on Mother’s purported ulterior motive and lack of reasonable efforts is not enough to meet his burden of proving that there is no reasonable purpose at all for Mother’s proposed relocation. . . . Mother, pursuant to statute, must be permitted to move.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment was reversed. Mother may relocate to Texas with Child.

K.O.’s Comment: This is the first appellate opinion to apply the holding of Aragon. The Court seems a little uneasy about the resulting outcome:

We are mindful that the current standard under Tennessee law places a much more substantial burden on the parent opposing the relocation than before because it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative. Regardless of our concerns about the standard, however, we are not free to depart from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s unequivocal holding.

Any change in the law of parental relocation will have to come from the legislature.

Stringer v. Stringer (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, June 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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