Joint Decision-Making Questioned in Franklin, Tennessee Divorce: Smallbone v. Smallbone

May 11, 2022 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of three children, divorced after 14 years of marriage.

Despite a history of arguments and disagreements, both parents continued to live in the marital residence with the children. By the time of trial, they no longer argued in front of the children. They communicated civilly, usually in text messages.

While the divorce was pending, they took separate trips to the beach with the children. Mother was flexible when Father needed to change his chosen dates. And they agreed on extracurricular activities and the children’s current schools.

The trial court found that while the parties had trust issues, they proved capable of cooperation.

The trial court ordered a parenting plan that provided for substantially equal parenting time, joint decision-making for all major decisions, and required both parents to live in the children’s current school district.

Father appealed.

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

Father argued it was error to require joint decision-making for the children’s major decisions.

Tennessee courts consider several factors when allocating decision-making authority, including each parent’s history of decision-making for the children and whether the parents demonstrated the ability and desire to cooperate in the children’s decision-making.

Sole decision-making is proper when a parent has engaged in extended abandonment of the child, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, the abusive use of conflict, The parents have demonstrated a chronic inability to make joint decisions, etc.

The Court found no error in requiring joint decision-making:

Father contends that the parents have not demonstrated an ability to cooperate. Mother failed to provide him with copies of the children’s health insurance cards. She objected to counseling with [Child’s therapist]. She deliberately scheduled medical appointments for the children at times when Father could not attend. He maintained that reaching a joint decision with Mother was difficult….

Even so, we cannot say that the court abused its discretion in the allocation of decision-making authority. On this record, the parents appear capable of reaching joint decisions on matters of great importance to the children. As the [trial] court noted, the parents were able to make joint decisions about major issues during the marriage. At trial, they agreed on the children’s current schools and extracurricular activities. With respect to healthcare, their disagreements have been more logistical than substantive. Mother did not oppose [Child’s] counseling; she objected to the counselor. And the [trial] court removed at least two obstacles to future cooperation. The [parenting] plan requires Father to provide health insurance for the children and both parents to facilitate [Child’s] continued counseling with [Child’s therapist].

Father also argued the trial court abused its discretion in requiring both parties to live within the children’s school district. The Court was not persuaded:

[B]oth parents agreed at trial that the children … should remain in their current schools. Father told the [trial] court that he intended to establish his new home within the school district. The [trial] court’s plan merely incorporated the parents’ agreement. Should one parent choose to move outside the school district, the plan may require modification. But the special residency provision in the plan was not an abuse of discretion.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

K.O.’s Comment: Compare this case’s residency requirement with Cummings v. Cummings. The trial court issued an injunction preventing the mother from moving out of the county to preempt any concerns about the child’s potential relocation. Finding “no basis in law for the trial court’s injunction preventing an adult citizen from living where she may choose” and noting that relocation is governed by statute and is not barred, the Court vacated the injunction as beyond the trial court’s authority.

Smallbone v. Smallbone (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, May 4, 2022).

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Joint Decision-Making Questioned in Franklin, Tennessee Divorce: Smallbone v. Smallbone was last modified: May 11th, 2022 by K.O. Herston

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