Agreeing to child custody changes outside of court may affect future proceedings to modify a court-ordered parenting plan. A January 9, 2017, Tennessee child custody case before the Court of Appeals of Tennessee illustrates the complexities of this issue. The appeal arose out of the modification of a parenting plan in a post-divorce action.
The parents in the case had divorced in 2010, and a permanent parenting plan was adopted as part of the divorce decree. Under that plan, the parents were awarded equal parenting time. When the child started school in 2012, however, the parents informally modified the parenting schedule, since the parents were living in different counties. Their arrangement provided the father with parenting time every other weekend, with holidays and school breaks split equally. In 2015, the mother sought court approval of their informal arrangement by filing a petition to modify. When the trial court adopted the mother’s proposed plan, the father appealed.
In Tennessee, the modification of an existing parenting plan requires the parent who seeks the change to prove that a material change of circumstances exists that affects the child’s best interest. Unlike the process to switch the primary residential parent, the threshold to establish a material change of circumstances is very low when the court is merely changing a parenting schedule. As a result, a material change of circumstances may include but is not limited to, a failure to adhere to the parenting plan under the relevant statute.
The appeals court noted that the parents had not been following the existing parenting plan, that the father’s work schedule had changed, that the father had moved to another city in Tennessee, and that the child had been spending more time with the mother since the parties had adjusted their custody schedule in 2012. Given the low threshold, the court agreed that a material change of circumstances existed.
The appeals court next reviewed whether the modification was in the child’s best interest. In coming to its decision, the trial court did not specify which factors it considered in the fact-sensitive inquiry. However, the appeals court noted that the lower court’s ruling included findings that maintaining a stable environment and schedule that had been in place since 2012 was in the best interest of the child, that the parents agreed the child would remain in the same school, that the child’s maternal grandmother was providing care, that there were no problems with the current arrangement, and that the mother had taken greater responsibility for performing parental obligations. The appeals court concluded that these findings indicated the factors and evidence weighed in favor of modifying the plan. The court affirmed the parenting plan modification and went on to affirm the rest of the trial court’s decision.
The Nashville family law attorneys at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard understand that a divorce can affect the amount of parenting time you have with your child. We strive to provide compassionate and honest legal advice as we navigate clients through the proceedings. If you have an issue concerning child support, visitation rights, adoption, or another family law matter, you can schedule an appointment with one of our divorce lawyers by calling (615) 800-7096 or contacting us online.