Violations of Parenting Plan Are Not a Material Change in Dyersburg, TN Child-Custody Dispute: Ballard v. Cayabas

Facts: When Mother and Father divorced in 2011, Mother was designated Child’s primary residential parent.

Four years later, Father petitioned to modify the parenting plan and be designated the primary residential parent. He alleged that Mother’s failure to follow the parenting plan constituted a material change of circumstances.

Tennessee parenting planSpecifically, Father alleged that Mother took Child to New Mexico and that Child was baptized without Father’s knowledge or consent. He complained that she obtained dental insurance for Child without consulting him and rescheduled a dental appointment without his input. He said she twice failed to provide him an itinerary for her out-of-state travel with Child. He also claims she failed to pay her portion of Child’s uncovered medical expenses on various occasions.

The trial court denied Father’s petition because it was not shown that Mother’s violations of the parenting plan affected Child’s well-being in a meaningful way.

Father appealed.

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

When assessing a petition to modify a parenting plan, Tennessee courts must first determine if a material change in circumstances has occurred. If the court makes this finding, then it must engage in an analysis of the child’s best interest.

While there are no bright-line rules for determining when a change in circumstances warrants a change in the primary residential parent, the following factors are often examined to determine whether a material change in circumstances has occurred:

  • the change occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified;
  • change is not one that was known or reasonably anticipated when the order was entered; and
  • the change is one that affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.

After reviewing the record, the Court agreed that Father failed to demonstrate a material change in circumstances:

While the trial court clearly determined that Mother violated the parenting plan, the trial court did not specifically determined that the violations affected Child’s well-being in a meaningful way. In fact, the testimony at trial supported the trial court’s conclusion that Child is intelligent, affectionate with both parents, polite, well-mannered, excelling in school, and well-rounded socially. Without evidence that the violations of the parenting plan affected Child’s well-being in a meaningful way, the trial court’s best-interest analysis was unnecessary. . . . Father failed to prove that Mother’s violations of the parenting plan affected Child’s well-being in a meaningful way.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

K.O.’s Comment: Parents sometimes forget that they must establish a causal connection between the change and a meaningful impact on the child. The impact can be positive or negative, but a causal connection must be shown. A good example of this is Galaway v. Galaway, where the Court explained that not every change in a child’s life or the life of her parents rises to the level of a material change warranting a change in the parenting plan.

Ballard v. Cayabas (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, October 12, 2017).

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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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