Facts: When the parents divorced, the parenting plan allowed each to claim the child on his or her federal income tax return in alternating years.
The same day that Father filed a petition to modify the parenting plan in chancery court, the Department of Children’s Services filed a dependency and neglect petition in juvenile court to have Mother’s parenting time suspended or supervised. The juvenile court held a hearing and limited Mother’s parenting time to nine hours of supervised visitation each week.
Shortly thereafter, the chancery court held a hearing on Father’s petition and modified the parenting plan to give Father the federal income tax exemption for the child every year.
Six months later, Mother filed a motion in the chancery court to vacate its order modifying the parenting plan because the juvenile court had exclusive jurisdiction over the child when the order was entered.
The chancery court denied Mother’s motion. Mother appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
The issue is whether the chancery court’s order modifying the parenting plan is void for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
When a court is without subject-matter jurisdiction to hear a case, its judgment is void. A party may challenge a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction at any time.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-103 gives the juvenile court exclusive jurisdiction over a child in a dependency and neglect proceeding, and provides that its exclusive jurisdiction continues until one of these events occur:
- the case is dismissed;
- the custody determination is transferred to another court;
- a petition for adoption is filed; or
- the child reaches the age of 18.
The Court held that the juvenile court had exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction when the chancery court modified the parenting plan:
It is undisputed that none of the four events listed in Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-103(c) had occurred prior to the modification of the parenting plan by the chancery court; accordingly, the juvenile court retains exclusive jurisdiction over the dependency and neglect action. Moreover, child-support determinations are a component of dependency and neglect proceedings pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-151 . . . .
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[B]ecause courts should consider tax consequences in their child-support orders, tax exemptions for minor children are an inevitable element of child-custody decisions.
[W]hen the juvenile court assumed jurisdiction over the dependency and neglect action involving the parties’ minor child, the chancery court’s jurisdiction over all custody matters concerning that child was suspended until one of the four events listed in Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-103(c) occurred. Because none of the four events occurred, the chancery court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the petition to modify the parenting plan and, specifically, to modify child support or to allocate the tax exemption.
The trial court’s modification of the parenting plan was reversed.