When does a Material Change in Circumstances Warrant a Modification of a Parenting Plan?
The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s order on a modification of a parenting plan. The trial court wrongly granted the mother’s petition to change the parenting plan, giving her primary residential custody and the majority of days with the children. The trial court found that based on the material changes of circumstance, and the geographical distance between the parties, it was in the children’s best interest to primarily reside with the mother and have visitation with the father. This new parenting plan would replace the one where each parent had joint decision making and equal parenting time. The Court of Appeals found that the changes of circumstance were not significant enough to warrant this modification, reversing the trial court’s order and remanding it back to the trial court for an order to be entered in accordance with the Final Decree, which had been agreed to and entered in Arizona.
When asking the court to change a primary residential parent or to modify a parenting plan already approved by the court, the court follows the guidelines set forth in T.C.A. sec. 36-6-101. First the court must determine if there has been a material change in circumstances to warrant modification of the plan already in place. If the court finds there is a material change, it must then determine what changes are in the best interest of the child.
In February of 2015, Father accepted a job in Kuwait for a time period of two to three years. The parties agreed that during the time Father was in Kuwait the Mother and Children would reside in Clarksville, TN. After moving to Tennessee the Mother informed the Father that she wanted a divorce, and in October 2016, a final decree with an agreed parenting plan was entered by the court. According to the Agreed Parenting Plan, the mother and children would relocate to an agreed-upon co-location once the father returned to the United States, and the parents would exercise a joint 50/50 decision making and parenting time schedule.
Once the Father returned to the United States, the Mother filed to modify the Agreed Parenting Plan. The trial court found that the Mother and children had become established members of their schools and community and had developed a strong support system in Tennessee after the original plan had been entered. The Mother had a stable job, a new relationship, and even had another child since the original Parenting Plan had been entered. Observing these factors, the trial court determined that the Mother should be deemed Primary Residential Parent, and allowed to remain in Tennessee, while the Father should be given visitation time with the children.
On review, the Court of Appeals determined that the circumstances considered by the trial court were the same that they were at the time the final decree was entered: the Mother and children were already residing in that same community in Tennessee and the Mother had already begun her current relationship. Therefore, there were no material changes in circumstance to warrant a change to the parenting plan. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered that the original Agreed Parenting Plan be enforced.
You can read the full opinion here.