Custody Order Entered after Adoption Petition Filed Reversed in Bristol, Tennessee: In re Autumn D.

October 31, 2022 K.O. Herston 1 Comments

Facts: Paternal Grandmother obtained temporary custody of the children after they were found to be dependent and neglected in Mother’s care.

Years later, Mother moved to be restored as the sole custodian of the children. A trial occurred on November 10, 2021, after which the juvenile court took the matter under advisement without ruling from the bench.

On December 2, 2021, the juvenile court awarded custody of the children to Mother.

Meanwhile, Paternal Grandmother and her husband and the children’s father petitioned to adopt the children on November 23, 2021, nine days before the juvenile court entered its order awarding custody of the children to Mother.

Paternal Grandmother petitioned for a common-law writ of certiorari in the circuit court because she believed the juvenile court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter the custody order on December 2.

The circuit court found that the juvenile court lost jurisdiction when the adoption petition was filed but still had the authority to enter the order awarding custody to Mother based on the proof it heard on November 10.

Paternal Grandmother appealed.

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

When a juvenile court acquires jurisdiction in a dependency and neglect matter, that jurisdiction continues until a petition for adoption is filed. Once an adoption petition is filed, the adoption court has exclusive jurisdiction over all matters about the child. Any other proceedings regarding custody of the child, and jurisdiction over all pending matters concerning the child, is transferred and assumed by the adoption court. Cases suspended by the filing of the adoption petition cannot be heard until the adoption is resolved.

Specifically, the relevant statute says:

Actions suspended by [the filing of an adoption petition], regardless of the stage of adjudication, shall not be heard until the final adjudication of the action for termination of parental rights or adoption regarding the same child, even if such adjudication or determination of paternal rights or adoption will render the custody, guardianship, or visitation action moot.

Mother argued the juvenile court had already “heard” her motion to change custody and, therefore, it was permissible for the juvenile court to enter its order awarding custody to Mother after the adoption petition was filed.

The Court found the trial court erred in concluding the order awarding custody to Mother was properly filed:

The children were in the physical custody of the petitioner, [Paternal] Grandmother, on the date the adoption petition was filed. Thus, while the juvenile court had original jurisdiction over the matters regarding the children, the juvenile court’s jurisdiction was suspended pending the Court’s orders in the adoption proceeding, and jurisdiction of all other pending matters concerning the children was transferred to and assumed by the adoption court. Moreover, until the adoption court … entered an order affecting the children’s custody, all prior court orders regarding custody or guardianship … shall remain in effect. When the adoption petition was filed, the prior order in effect in the juvenile court awarded “primary physical and legal” custody of the children to [Paternal] Grandmother. Thus, that order was to remain in effect unless and until the [adoption] court entered an order that provided otherwise. Stated another way, the statute did not afford the juvenile court the authority to enter a post-petition order that changed custody of the children.

Mother asserts that the phrase “shall not be heard” reflects the legislative intent to stop such hearings but not the normal entry of an order after the conclusion of the hearing. Thus, Mother would have us carve out an exception to the adoption court’s exclusive jurisdiction to allow another court, in this case the juvenile court, to enter orders affecting the child’s custody because the custodial hearing concluded prior to the filing of the adoption petition. To interpret the statute as Mother suggests, however, would render the exclusive jurisdiction provision [] meaningless, which we are not permitted to do.

Construing the statute as a whole in a way that does not render other provisions meaningless, we must conclude that the juvenile court shall neither conduct hearings nor enter orders that affect the custody of the child or children at issue in the adoption proceedings after an adoption petition is filed in a court of competent jurisdiction. Thus, we find Mother’s “shall not be heard” contention unpersuasive.

Upon [Paternal] Grandmother’s filing of the adoption petition, the [adoption] court gained exclusive jurisdiction over the children. Because the juvenile court’s December 2, 2021 order was entered after the adoption petition was filed, it interfered with the [adoption] court’s exclusive jurisdiction over custodial matters pertaining to the children. Therefore, the juvenile court’s December 2, 2021 order is void for want of [subject-matter] jurisdiction.

The Court reversed the trial court’s finding that the juvenile court had the authority to enter the order awarding custody to Mother.

K.O.’s Comment: This will likely be a pyrrhic victory for Paternal Grandmother, who must now prove by clear and convincing evidence that forever severing the relationship between Mother and the children is in the children’s best interest after another court found by a preponderance of the evidence that the children’s best interest was served by awarding sole custody to Mother. What are the odds of that happening? Good luck with that.

In re Autumn D. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, October 25, 2022).

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Custody Order Entered after Adoption Petition Filed Reversed in Bristol, Tennessee: In re Autumn D. was last modified: October 30th, 2022 by K.O. Herston

1 people reacted on this

  1. I love your meme. The problem I see a lot is if the parent files something in the TPR case seeking visitation or custody the TPR courts are usually very reluctant to actually decide the parent’s motion etc, until they consider the TPR itself. I’ve had judges often say, “Marble, we are set for a trial on the termination in two months. Why would I give your client visitation/custody only to come back in a few months and terminate their rights. That is not in the best interest of the child.” And I have seen a lot of TPR’s filed right after a parent files something seeking increased visitation/custody in the underlying Juvenile Case. In fact I call those “retaliatory TPR’s”. It seems to me that would go directly to the motivation of the petitioners who filed the TPR and the best interests of the child and I have made that argument several times now with no success.

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