Separation of Half-Siblings Questioned in Cookeville, Tennessee Custody Dispute: Bumbalough v. Hall

July 24, 2023 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of Child.

Father signed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity at the hospital, and everyone lived together for the first 3 ½ years of Child’s life, during some of which Father worked while Mother stayed home with Child.

When their relationship ended, they shared virtually equal time with Child.

Several months later, Mother became engaged, and her fiancé accepted a better-paying job in Texas. Mother moved to Texas with Child without telling Father, and she married her fiancé shortly thereafter.

Father promptly petitioned to establish paternity and obtain custody of Child. Parentage was established, and while the case was pending, the parties shared equal parenting time via a long-distance schedule where Child spent 42-day periods with each parent.

Six months before trial, Mother had a child with her husband. She testified that Child and his half-brother have a close, loving relationship.

The trial court found that most of the best-interest factors weighed equally for the parties or were irrelevant; however, other factors favored Father. The trial court found Mother and Father had been “equal caregivers” of Child since his birth, that Tennessee was the home state for several years, and had concerns about whether Mother would facilitate and encourage a close and continuing the relationship between Child and Father. Father was designated the primary residential parent, and Mother was awarded parenting time during school breaks and the summer.

Mother appealed.

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

Mother argued the trial court erred by separating Child from his half-sibling.

Tennessee courts have held it is generally inappropriate to separate siblings. Even though there is a presumption against separating siblings, that presumption must give way to other considerations that are in the child’s best interest. Sibling relationships are simply one factor for the court to consider in determining a child’s best interest.

The Court flatly rejected Mother’s argument that all half-siblings must be placed together:

Mother’s contention that all half-siblings must be placed together in a custody arrangement is unworkable. For example, if one of the parents were to marry three times or both parents married twice and have multiple children with each new spouse, it would be plainly unworkable for the courts to fashion a custody arrangement that allowed each child to remain with all of their half-siblings. Thus, we find no merit to Mother’s contention that the trial court erred, as a matter of law, by separating [Child] from his half-sibling.

Mother then argued the trial court “punished” her for moving to Texas. This argument fared no better:

The record does not indicate that the trial court was punishing Mother for moving to Texas. Rather, it is readily apparent that the trial court was evaluating Mother’s likelihood of reciprocity in encouraging a close parent-child relationship between Father and [Child]. The secretive manner in which Mother moved to Texas did not reflect a willingness to encourage their relationship. Neither did Mother’s testimony wherein she directly stated that her relationship with [Child] was more important than Father’s relationship with [Child]. The trial court’s logic was clear as to this factor, and there is nothing in the record to indicate that this decision was based on a desire to punish Mother. Instead, it is apparent that the finding was factually based on the court’s assessment of Mother’s unilateral actions and communications.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

K.O.’s Comment: The Grigsby opinion provides a good summary of the analysis required when separating siblings.

Source: Bumbalough v. Hall (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, July 7, 2023).

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Separation of Half-Siblings Questioned in Cookeville, Tennessee Custody Dispute: Bumbalough v. Hall was last modified: July 17th, 2023 by K.O. Herston

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