Suspension of Visitation Reversed in Clarksville, Tennessee: In re Carter K.

FactsMother and Father are the never-married parents of Child.

Mother petitioned to suspend Father’s visitation because he had repeatedly threatened to flee the state with the child, Father’s girlfriend recently attempted suicide, Father and Girlfriend were violent in Child’s presence, they possess illegal drugs, and both repeatedly threatened Mother.

tennessee marriageFather testified that he was no longer in a relationship with Girlfriend, affirmed that he was single, that he and Girlfriend never married, and that they “mutually ended” their relationship.

The juvenile court entered a Parenting Plan Order awarding visitation to Father.

Shortly thereafter, Mother moved to alter or amend the ruling because, despite his testimony to the contrary, Father had married Girlfriend two weeks prior to the trial.

Father’s attorney was permitted to withdraw after learning, after the trial, that Father had, in fact, married Girlfriend weeks before the trial.

In the “Vacate Order,” trial court vacated the Parenting Plan Order, suspended Father’s visitation, and awarded Mother over $21,000 for attorney’s fees.

Father appealed.

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

Rule 52.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure requires that, “[i]n all actions tried upon the facts without a jury, the court shall find the facts especially and shall state separately its conclusions of law and direct the entry of the appropriate judgment.”

Simply stating the trial court’s decision, without more, does not fulfill this requirement.

Terminating all visitation has the practical effect of terminating the parent-child relationship. It must be supported by specific findings that visitation by the noncustodial parent will cause physical, emotional, or moral harm to the child.

The Court found fault with the trial court’s failure to make appropriate findings:

In custody disputes, our task on appeal is generally to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in fashioning the particular parenting arrangement. . . . A trial court abuses its discretion . . . by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence.

Absent findings of fact and conclusions of law, this Court is left to wonder on what basis the juvenile court reached its ultimate decision. Unfortunately, the Parenting Plan Order and Vacate Order do not sufficiently articulate the factual and legal bases relied upon by the juvenile court for us to determine whether the juvenile court appropriately exercised its judgment in fashioning the initial parenting plan or suspending Father’s visitation.

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[N]othing in the juvenile court’s Parenting Plan Order indicates that the court considered the applicable statutory factors, or explains why the parenting plan is in the minor child’s best interest.

It appears to this Court that the juvenile court fashioned the Parenting Plan Order based, at least in part, upon the juvenile court’s perception that Father lacked credibility and has made bad decisions in the past. However, the Parenting Plan Order lacks any findings concerning the minor child’s best interest, or how his best interest is affected by Father’s willingness to prevaricate. The juvenile court must make specific findings to support its conclusion that imposition of the order parenting plan is in the child’s best interest in light of the statutory factors.

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The juvenile court’s Vacate Order suspending Father’s visitation clearly lacks a specific finding that visitation by Father will likely result in physical, emotional, or moral harm to the minor child.

The Court delivered this parting shot that may well preview the juvenile court’s findings:

It is clear from our review of the record that there is evidence of Father’s extreme lack of judgment and bad decision-making. His willingness to allegedly perjure himself in open court concerning his marital status and relationship with Girlfriend draws serious questions concerning Father’s integrity and character.

The case was remanded to the juvenile court for more detailed findings of fact.

In re Carter K. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, February 14, 2018).

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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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