Facts: Child was born in 2010 to the never-married Mother and Father.
In 2012, Mother transferred custody of Child to Maternal Grandmother because of Mother’s ongoing mental health issues.
In late 2014, Father petitioned to establish paternity and obtain custody of Child. Father had enjoyed coparenting time with Child until Grandmother recently refused to respond to his requests for visitation.
Grandmother responded that she should retain custody of Child.
After a two-day trial, the trial court found that the 2012 order transferring custody to Grandmother was entered without Father’s knowledge, that Father retained his superior parental rights, and that Father should be awarded full legal custody of Child. The trial court also changed Child’s last name to that of Father.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Tennessee’s Constitution protects the fundamental right of parents to the care and custody of their children. It further requires that, when deciding initial custody disputes, parents receive a presumption of superior parental rights regarding their children’s custody in four circumstances:
- when no order exists that transfers custody from the parent;
- when the order transferring custody from the parent is accomplished by fraud or without notice to the parent;
- when the order transferring custody from the parent is invalid; and
- when the parent cedes only temporary and informal custody to a nonparent.
Nonparents do not have the same constitutionally protected interests as parents.
The Court found that Father’s superior parental rights remained intact:
[T]he evidence was undisputed that Father never voluntarily relinquished his superior parental rights by transferring custody to a nonparent. The only prior custody order in this matter was the  2012 order wherein Mother transferred temporary custody of Child to Grandmother. Grandmother admits that Father was not a party to this order and that he was provided no notice prior to its entry.
Because Father was not a party to the prior order and never voluntarily relinquished his superior parental rights, he still retains those rights. Furthermore, Father was not provided with notice regarding entry of the previous temporary custody order.
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Father never voluntarily relinquished his superior parental rights to Child. His rights were unaffected by the temporary custody order signed by Mother in 2012, of which he had no notice. Therefore, the trial court properly determined that Father maintained superior parental rights with regard to the custody dispute with Grandmother. As such, Father could not be deprived of custody absent a showing of risk of substantial harm to Child.
Finding that placing Child in Father’s custody would not result in substantial risk of harm to Child, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.