Facts: Father and Mother are the parents of three children. They lived in Arizona.
In 2015, Father accepted a job requiring him to be overseas for two or three years. They agreed Mother and the children would move from Arizona to Clarksville, Tennessee while Father was overseas. Shortly after moving to Tennessee, Mother told Father she wanted a divorce.
The parties were divorced by an Arizona court. The Arizona divorce court approved an agreed parenting plan with this provision:
The minor children shall be relocated to a location that is mutually agreed upon by the parties no later than July 15, 2017. The parties agree that if they cannot reach an agreement as to the location, the children shall be relocated to either Raleigh, North Carolina, Richmond/Norfolk, Virginia, or Augusta, Georgia.
Father returned to the United States in June 2017 and established his residence in Augusta, Georgia. The parties agreed Mother and the children would relocate to Augusta, Georgia, over the children’s fall break. In October, the children went to visit Father in Georgia. At the end of their fall break, Father did not return the children to Tennessee.
Mother petitioned the Tennessee court to modify the Arizona parenting plan by allowing her and the children to remain in Tennessee, which the trial court did. The trial court found that Mother and the children had lived in Tennessee for 2 ½ years—including 1 ½ years after the divorce—and the children were thriving in school. It also found that Mother had a new child and had established her home in Tennessee.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Modifying an existing parenting arrangement is a two-step process. If a Tennessee court finds there has been a material change in circumstances, it must then determine whether it is in the children’s best interest to modify the parenting plan as requested.
There are no bright-line rules for determining when a change of circumstances should be deemed material enough to warrant changing an existing custody arrangement. Factors to consider include:
- whether a change has occurred after the entry of the order to be modified;
- whether a change was not known or reasonably anticipated when the order was entered; and
- whether a change affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.
The Court found there was no material change of circumstances:
[The trial court’s findings] described the conditions that were in place before, during, and after the Final Decree was entered.
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Considering the evidence in its entirety, it appears that the only circumstance that changed between the entry of the Final Decree and the filing of Mother’s Petition was the birth of Mother’s child with [another man]. That change does not support a conclusion that there was a material change in circumstance sufficient to support modification of the Final Decree. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand this action for the court to enter an order requiring that the children be relocated to Augusta, Georgia, in accordance with the Final Decree.
Having determined there was no material change of circumstances, the trial court’s judgment was reversed.