Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of two children, divorced in 2016. They share equal parenting time and joint decision-making authority. Mother was designated the primary residential parent.
After Mother remarried and proposed to relocate with the children, a dispute arose as to where one of their children should attend school.
The parties agreed that Daughter should remain at her existing school but disagreed as to where Son should be enrolled. Mother thought a school near her new residence was best, and Father thought it best for the children to attend the same school.
Mother sought to modify the parenting plan to give her sole decision-making authority over the children’s educational decisions.
The trial court denied Mother’s petition.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment.
The same analysis that governs modifying a parenting plan applies to modifying decision-making authority. If the moving party shows the existence of a material change of circumstance, then the trial court must consider the factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a) to determine whether the modification is in the child’s best interest.
Regarding decision-making authority, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-407(b) requires a trial court to order sole decision-making authority to one parent when it finds that both parents are opposed to mutual decision-making or a parent’s opposition to mutual decision-making is reasonable under the circumstances. In determining who should be the sole decision-maker, the trial court must consider the criteria in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-407(c).
The Court held the trial court erred in failing to designate a sole decision-maker regarding the younger child’s educational decisions:
The parents are unable to exercise joint decision-making regarding Son’s education, and Mother has filed a petition to modify their decision-making authority. Therefore, the trial court is statutorily required to make findings pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-407(b) to determine whether the decision-making authority in the parenting plan should be modified. The evidence is clear that Mother and Father cannot agree upon which school Son should attend . . . . The record indicates both parents believe Son’s education is of great importance to his welfare. Despite this evidence, the trial court failed to designate a primary decision-maker for Son’s education or make any findings as to the issue. The absence of those findings hinders our ability to review the findings against the evidence.
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The only findings made by the trial court on this issue were that (1) Mother presented no evidence to show that one school was “superior”; (2) the request was made for the convenience of Mother; (3) and the request was not in the best interest of the children. Given that Mother did, in fact, present testimonial evidence to support her request and the trial court did not evaluate this evidence, we again conclude that the trial court’s findings are deficient. Consequently,  this issue is  remanded to the trial court to make the necessary findings of fact. We note, however, that this issue may become moot for purposes of this appeal once the trial court determines which parent is authorized to make educational decisions for the children.
The trial court’s judgment was vacated and the case remanded for additional findings.
K.O.’s Comment: This opinion suggests that the trial court must vest one parent with sole decision-making authority for their children’s educational decisions when the parents disagree as to any educational decision. To the extent the opinion suggests this, I believe it is wrong.
The mere fact of a disagreement as to a joint decision does not — and should not — require the designation of a sole decision-maker under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-407(b).
When parents have a genuine, good-faith disagreement about what is best for their child, the court should cast the tie-breaking vote. Designating a sole decision-maker should be reserved for instances where parents demonstrate a chronic inability to act in good faith, communicate effectively, or make timely decisions.
See, e.g, Smart v. Smart (joint decision-making is impossible between parents unable to communicate effectively about their children), King v. Daily (designating sole decision-maker appropriate when parents “vehemently disagree on issues” involving a child), and Neveau v. Neveau (child’s best interest is served if decisions can be made without undue delay and stress).