Court Lacks Authority to Prohibit Parental Relocation in Gallatin, Tennessee: Caton v. Caton

FactsMother and Father are the divorced parents of two children. The agreed parenting plan designates Mother as the primary residential parent. Father has 156 days of parenting time.

Tennessee parental relocationOne year after the divorce, Mother petitioned to modify the parenting plan. She alleged her move to Murfreesboro — a move of fewer than 50 miles — would require a modification of the parenting schedule.

Father countered by petitioning to be named the primary residential parent, i.e., change custody, if Mother moved.

The trial court treated Mother’s modification petition as a request for permission to move and denied both petitions. The trial court prohibited Mother from relocating from Sumner County because the relocation was not in the children’s best interest.

Mother appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Tennessee’s parental-relocation statute, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108(a), applies when a parent “desires to relocate outside the state or more than 50 miles from the other parent within the state.”

The Court found the trial court lacked the authority to prohibit Mother from moving less than 50 miles:

There was no legal basis for restricting Mother’s ability to move. The permanent parenting plan did not restrict either parent from relocating. And it is undisputed that the parental-relocation statute in effect at the time did not apply to Mother’s proposed move.

Even were it applicable, the parental-relocation statute does not grant courts the authority to dictate where divorced parents must live. The statute only provides the court with a framework for protecting the noncustodial parent’s visitation rights. While the court may modify the custody arrangement, the court has no authority to prevent a parent from moving.

The court affirmatively ordered Mother not to move from Sumner County. Because the court lacked authority to do so, we reverse only that portion of the court’s order that prohibits Mother from moving out of Sumner County, Tennessee. The denial of the petitions to modify, which has not been challenged on appeal, is affirmed. Thus, the current parenting plan remains in place.

K.O.’s Comment: Curiously, the trial court made no finding of a material change and no analysis of whether, given the material change, modification of the current parenting schedule was in the children’s best interest. Instead, the trial court focused on whether the move was in the children’s best interest, an analysis mandated by the parental-relocation statute.

Had Mother appealed the denial of her petition, I believe that would have been reversed because the trial court failed to apply the correct legal standard. Unfortunately, res judicata probably precludes Mother from relitigating that issue.

Caton v. Caton (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, November 16, 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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