Equal Parenting Time Reversed in Hendersonville, Tennessee Divorce: Rajendran v. Rajendran

September 21, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of one toddler, divorced after a four-year marriage.

The temporary parenting plan gave Father 108 days of parenting time. Mother received 257 days.

Both asked to be named the primary residential parent and for sole decision-making authority over major educational decisions. Mother sought continuation of the temporary parenting schedule, while Father sought equal parenting time.

While Mother was a stay-at-home parent during this short marriage, she worked full time as a schoolteacher by the time of trial.

The parties testified about various parenting disputes, none of which appears to this reader to be atypical or unusual among divorcing parents.

The trial court made factual findings about the statutory best-interest factors. Specifically, it found five factors inapplicable, six factors were equal, and three factors favored Mother, although some of those factors were given little weight.

The trial court designated Mother as the primary residential parent, ordered equal parenting time via alternating weeks, and ordered joint decision-making on all major decisions.

Mother appealed.

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

Parenting schedules are set according to the child’s best interests after analyzing the factors found in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a).

After reevaluating the trial court’s assessment of the statutory factors, the Court concluded that two of the six factors the trial court found to be equal actually favor Mother, thereby increasing from four to six the factors that favor Mother.

The Court repeatedly (again and again and again) emphasizes that Mother has been the primary caregiver throughout the 2 ½ years of this toddler’s life, concluding that this, along with stability and continuity, “heavily weigh[s] in Mother’s favor.”

Me reading this opinion

The Court also points to the trial court’s findings that the parties find it difficult to trust one another, how they see the world differently, and “don’t agree on the time of day.” The trial court advised the parties to “try to build a little bit of trust with the other over small issues, then you can build trust over bigger issues, and then your daughter will benefit from it.”

The Court mentions the “maximum participation” provision of the best-interest statute but says it “cannot be read as a preference for equal parenting time that significantly alters this Court’s prior decisions on this issue,” referring to one particular decision where the Court held that equal parenting time is “generally disfavored” and requires a “harmonious and cooperative relationship between the parents.”

The Court explains:

Specifically, there is continuing animosity between the parties and a marked lack of trust. . . .

*     *     *     *     *

On the whole, it appears that the parties’ continuing lack of trust and inability to cooperate are barriers to the joint parenting arrangement ordered by the trial court. Moreover, even Father’s own motion to alter or amend illustrates the problems that are inherent in the trial court’s provisions. Here, the trial court specifically ruled that the parties would keep the child enrolled in her current daycare. Father, however, sought to enroll the child in a different daycare where he lives only on the weeks of his visitation, citing the distance and travel time required for Father to take the child to the ordered daycare in Gallatin. Father’s proposed arrangement, however, would result in the child attending two different daycares on an alternating weekly basis. While this arrangement may have been more convenient for Father, the constant upheaval for such a small child is certainly not in the child’s best interest, and the trial court rightly rejected Father’s request.

The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case for entry of a parenting plan that gives Father “liberal, though not equal, visitation.” It also vacated the trial court’s decision to order joint decision-making authority over educational decisions and ordered that it be reconsidered in light of this opinion.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) I became frustrated reading this opinion. For example, when reevaluating the trial court’s assessment of factor six—the love, affection, and emotional ties between each parent and the child—it reasons this factor favors Mother because, in part, “Mother also testified without dispute that the child is sometimes distressed when returning to her care, often becoming ‘clingy’ toward Mother.”

How notable is it that something Mother claims happened in the privacy of her own home, something for which she is the only person with personal knowledge, was not disputed by others, like Father, who lack personal knowledge? Similar self-serving, uncorroborated testimony occurs in courtrooms across the state every day. Who is in a better position to assess it—the trial judge seeing the parties and their witnesses or the appellate court judges reading the paper transcript in their offices?

(2) While it appears these divorcing parents had their fair share of minor disputes, nothing jumped out to me as an aberration from the disputes that routinely occur in contested divorces with children, during which parents are understandably stressed and often not their best selves. How is it an abuse of discretion for the trial court to conclude these parents can grow into the role of coparents to benefit their daughter? If the trial court’s judgment turns out to be wrong, the parenting plan can always be modified. But I’m surprised the Court found it an abuse of discretion in the first parenting plan.

I should add that I’m not privy to the appellate record and haven’t read the transcript as the appellate court judges did. Based solely on the facts as stated in the opinion and the reasoning employed therein, I am unconvinced that the trial court’s ruling falls outside the spectrum of rulings that might reasonably result from applying the correct legal standards to the evidence, which is the appellate standard of review as stated by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Rajendran v. Rajendran (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, September 16, 2020).

Equal Parenting Time Reversed in Hendersonville, Tennessee Divorce: Rajendran v. Rajendran was last modified: September 18th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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