Modified Parenting Plan Reversed in Nashville, Tennessee Child-Custody Dispute: Ash v. Ash

FactsWhen the parties divorced, their parenting plan provided for equal parenting time and designated Mother as the primary residential parent.

Later, Father petitioned to modify the parenting plan because of Mother’s mental health, including suicidal threats and psychiatric hospitalizations, and other allegations of harmful acts by Mother.

The trial court entered a temporary restraining order limiting Mother to supervised visitation.

Later, the trial court modified the temporary restraining order to expand Mother’s supervised visitation time.

temporary parenting in TennesseeAfter a seven-day trial, the trial court entered a temporary parenting plan in October 2017 designating Father as the primary residential parent and sole decision-maker. Father received most of the parenting time, but Mother’s time was to remain supervised until she completed five counseling sessions and requested that the court implement the new parenting plan. Father was also awarded $19,000 in attorney’s fees.

The following month, Mother filed proof she completed her five counseling sessions. Shortly after that, the trial court lifted the requirement that Mother’s visitation is supervised.

In April 2018, the trial court reviewed the situation to see how the then-temporary parenting plan was working. After finding that the temporary parenting plan was working fine, the trial court made it permanent.

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Tennessee law provides that, when entering a permanent parenting plan, trial courts must draw no presumptions from the temporary parenting plan. A trial court cannot merely maintain the current provisions of a temporary plan to maintain the status quo. In actions to modify permanent parenting plans where a material change of circumstances is found, a trial court must conduct a best-interest analysis by examining the factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a) to determine whether the modified parenting plan is in the child’s best interest.

The Court found the trial court failed to make the requisite findings:

Mother is correct that the trial court did not conduct a best-interest analysis or make a finding that the April 2018 permanent parenting plan was in Child’s best interest at that time. The trial court’s earlier best-interest analysis with associated with the October 2017 parenting plan, which the trial court deemed as temporary. This earlier finding was not sufficient to support the adoption of the permanent parenting plan in April 2018, although the provisions were identical. We cannot assume that what was in Child’s best interest in October 2017 was still so in April 2018. The trial court should have determined whether the temporary parenting plan remained in the best interest of Child at the time it was adopted as permanent. . . . The fact that a temporary plan is “working satisfactory with a minimum of strife between the parties” does not end the court’s inquiry as to the best interest at that time. Such a finding by the trial court, while certainly relevant to Child’s best interest, does not mean that the plan is automatically in Child’s best interest. Trial courts must consider all the relevant factors in making its best-interest determination.

* * * * *

We decline to overlook the absence of a best-interest analysis or the statutorily required findings.

The trial court’s judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Ash v. Ash (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, September 6, 2019).

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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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