In a recent child custody case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed a decision in which the trial court failed to find a material change in circumstances to warrant a modification of the parties’ residential schedule. In Cook v. Cook, the parties had an agreed parenting plan that was incorporated into the final divorce decree, naming the mother as the child’s primary residential parent and granting the father approximately 96 days a year of parenting time. The father subsequently filed a petition to modify the parenting plan to allow for equal parenting time. The father alleged that the modification was appropriate because his work schedule had changed significantly, both parties had remarried, and the child had begun school since the entry of the previous parenting plan. After a hearing, the trial court ruled that the father failed to show a material change in circumstances affecting the child’s best interests, and it denied the motion.
In Tennessee, trial courts have broad discretion to alter parenting plans, since such decisions are factually driven and require consideration of numerous factors. In considering whether to modify a residential parenting schedule, the court must first determine if a material change in circumstances has occurred. A material change in circumstances may include significant changes in the needs of the child over time (particularly age-related changes), significant changes in a parent’s living or working condition that significantly affect parenting, failure to adhere to the parenting plan or other factors that the court deems relevant. In Tennessee, the statute sets a very low threshold for establishing a material change in circumstances when a party seeks to modify a residential parenting schedule. The second step requires a determination of the child’s best interests, utilizing several statutory factors. If the court finds a material change in circumstances affecting the child’s best interests has occurred, the court must next determine how, if at all, to modify the residential parenting schedule.
After reviewing the evidence, the appeals court found that the case meets the very low threshold for the modification of a parenting plan. The court noted the father’s change in work schedule from overnight 12-hour shifts to daytime 8-hour shifts constituted a significant change in his working condition that affects parenting, in that the father would have evenings at home to spend time with the child. The court also found it significant that the parties had previously failed to adhere strictly to the parenting plan. In addition, the court stated that the remarriages of the parties and the child’s bond with the father’s two-year-old daughter with his new wife also constituted a change in circumstances. The court, therefore, reversed the trial court’s holding that there had been no material change in circumstances.
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