After a divorce has been finalized, a change in circumstances may cause new and unexpected disputes between the ex-spouses. An October 25, 2017 case involving a post-divorce modification of a parenting plan illustrates the issues that may arise following major lifestyle changes. The case came before the Court of Appeals of Tennessee after the trial court found a material change in circumstances existed and modified the parties’ existing parenting plan. The mother appealed insofar as the trial court did not completely adopt her proposed plan, and the father argued there was no material change in circumstances.
The parents in the case had one child during their marriage. Their original parenting plan designated the mother as the primary residential parent but gave each parent equal parenting time and joint decision-making in the areas of education, non-emergency health care, religion, and extracurricular activities. The mother subsequently filed a petition to modify the parenting plan shortly after the father had converted to Messianic Judaism. The mother, a practicing Christian, alleged that their conflicting social and religious views concerning the child’s upbringing had led to ongoing disagreements regarding vaccinations, education, secular holidays, and other subjects. The court awarded educational and non-emergency health care decision-making authority to the mother, as well as additional parenting time on religious and secular holidays.
In Tennessee, to modify a parenting plan, the court must first determine whether there has been a material change in circumstances since the entry of the existing parenting plan. Secondly, the court applies statutorily enumerated factors to determine whether a modification of the parenting plan is in the best interest of the child.
On appeal, the court found no error in the trial court’s finding that a material change in circumstances had occurred, based on the overall conflict between the parents since the divorce, particularly concerning the parenting and education of the child, as well as the child’s medical needs. The court noted, for example, that the mother, a registered nurse, vaccinated the child because she believes it is important to her child’s overall health and because the child’s school requires it, while the father does not believe in manmade pharmaceuticals and believes the child should be homeschooled. The appeals court, therefore, affirmed the trial court’s modification of the parenting plan.
The mother also argued that the father should not be allowed to continue to expose the child to his religion. The appeals court disagreed, explaining that Tennessee courts have consistently held that parents have a fundamental right to practice their religion, as well as an important interest in their child’s religious upbringing. Consequently, the courts strive to maintain a strict neutrality in cases involving religious disputes between divorced parents. Insofar as there was no clear and affirmative showing that the father’s religious beliefs and practices threatened the health and well-being of the child, the court found no basis to prohibit the child from her father’s religion.
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