Default Judgment Modifying Parenting Schedule and Child Support Reversed In Sparta, TN: Lawson v. Stewart

Facts: When Mother and Father divorced in 2009, Mother was designated the primary residential parent for their child, and Father was awarded 109 days of parenting time. Father’s child-support obligation was determined to be $220 a month.

In 2016, Mother petitioned to modify the parenting plan to reduce Father’s parenting time and increase his child-support obligation. She alleged that Father failed to exercise much of the parenting time he had been awarded.

After Father failed to file a responsive pleading, Mother moved for a default judgment. Father requested additional time to answer the complaint, and the trial court gave him more time. Still, no answer was filed by the deadline ordered by the court.

Two weeks after the deadline passed, the trial court entered a default judgment against Father. Without conducting an evidentiary hearing, the trial court adopted Mother’s proposed parenting plan, thereby decreasing Father’s parenting time to 55 days per year and increasing his child-support obligation to $483 per month.

A week after the default judgment, Father moved to alter or amend the default judgment. The trial court denied Father’s motion.

Father appealed.

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

Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 55.01 allows a party to move the court for a default judgment when an opposing party has failed to timely file an answer to the complaint. Default judgments are permitted in parenting disputes.

The entry of a default judgment has the effect of an answer admitting the material allegations of fact contained in the complaint. In order to sustain a default judgment, the complaint must contain direct allegations on every material point needed to sustain the relief requested.

Even in cases where a trial court has entered a default judgment, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-101 requires that the trial court engage in a factually intensive, two-step analysis before modifying a parenting plan.

First, the trial court must determine whether a material change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the existing parenting plan. Because a finding of a material change in circumstances must be supported by competent proof, it cannot be made unless formal proof is presented to the trial court.

Second, upon finding that a material change in circumstances has occurred, the trial court must determine whether modifying the parenting plan is in the child’s best interest. Here, the trial court must consider the proof presented by the parties in light of the factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a).

The Court concluded that the allegations in Mother’s complaint — standing alone — were insufficient to change the parenting schedule and modify child support:

Because the circumstances of every child are unique, the trial court must engage in a particularly fact-driven analysis before determining whether modification of an existing parenting plan is in the child’s best interest. . . . The trial court itself must determine whether modification is in the child’s best interest — delegation of the duty is not permissible.

Here, the trial court did not conduct an evidentiary hearing and accepted Mother’s revised parenting plan by default. The only evidence available for the trial court to consider were Father’s admissions of the allegations in Mother’s complaint. . . .

Father attacks the legal sufficiency of the aforementioned allegations/admissions to support the relief awarded by the trial court. Even while taking the allegations in Mother’s complaint as true, we are unable to conclude that the pleadings alone aver sufficient facts to support the trial court’s modification of the existing parenting plan order and Father’s child-support obligation in this case. Moreover, the trial court’s order fails to make specific findings mandated by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106.

In making what is a particularly fact-driven determination, the trial court heard no testimony, considered only Father’s limited admissions, and made no findings of fact.

Similarly, the trial court heard no proof concerning the parties’ incomes, but, nonetheless, modified Father’s child-support obligation based on the worksheets attached to Mother’s proposed parenting plan submitted with her complaint. . . .

The entry of default did not give the trial court carte blanche to stray from the averments in Mother’s complaint or to consider alternative “facts” not contained in the record. [Consequently,] we are unable to conclude that the evidence preponderates in support of the trial court’s findings or conclusions.

Thus, the trial court’s ruling was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Lawson v. Stewart (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, September 28, 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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