Tennessee Child Custody Laws

Tennessee Child Custody

Here are several essential things to know if you’re engaged in a child custody action in Tennessee.

What are the Types of Child Custody in Tennessee?

In 2001, Tennessee’s child custody laws changed to require the creation of parenting plans in all custody disputes. Sole custody was changed, and primary residential parent (PRP) was created. Primary residential parent refers to the parent with whom a child lives more than the other parent. The other parent is the alternative residential parent or ARP.

PRP is the parent with whom the child resides more than 50% of the time. For other legal reasons, a primary residential parent must be declared even when parents share exactly equal time with their child.

Final decision-making authority (sometimes called joint legal custody) is separate from residential time. It can be allocated by individual areas of a child’s life, such as education, schooling, or religious training. All aspects of final decision-making authority may be determined by one particular parent or by both parents jointly. Day-to-day parenting decisions are determined by the parent with whom the child resides on any given day.

A single parent’s authority is never absolute. When one parent disagrees with the other parent who has final decision-making authority, they can initiate mediation to address whether the other parent’s decision is in the best interests of the child.

If mediation is unsuccessful in resolving the issue, the disagreeing parent can challenge the decision in court. However, most judges are hesitant to overrule a parent’s decision unless it endangers the child.

When visitation could pose a danger to the child, supervised visitation may be ordered.  This is restricted visitation that requires a third party to be present during the parent and child’s time together.  That person can be a family member, friend, or a neutral third party appointed by the court.

Supervised visitation is ordered to reduce any risk of harm to the child, which may be the case if a parent has a history of domestic violence, substance abuse, child abuse, or criminal behavior.

Also, in some cases, a judge may order split custody.  That happens when one or more child resides with one parent and other children reside with the other parent.  Courts are reluctant to do this but will order it when a compelling and serious circumstance arises.

Temporary custody orders may also be put in place for the divorce proceeding but will end when Tennessee courts have approved a final settlement.  Divorcing parents may be subject to the same arrangement, or a custody trial may lead to new orders.

Read More:  How to File For Divorce in Tennessee

Determining Child Custody in Tennessee

In a Tennessee custody case, parents must attend a four-hour parenting class, attend mediation, and try to negotiate a permanent parenting plan in good faith.  The parenting plan must be recorded in detail on a specific form required by Tennessee custody law.  If parents agree, that plan will be submitted for review and approval by the judge. If the parents cannot agree, a judge will hold a trial to decide who will serve as the primary residential parent.

No later than 45 days before the trial, both parents must submit a proposed permanent parenting plan. The Tennessee judge assigned to the case can choose between the two plans or may order a different one.

Tennessee law directs judges to consider a series of factors and related concerns to determine what is in the child’s best interests. Unless there is abandonment, abuse, or other extraordinary circumstance, the parent not chosen as the primary residential parent will be awarded parenting time with the child.

In 2014, Tennessee Code Annotated Section 36-6-106 was amended to put revised factors in place.  Those factors now include the following:

  • The determination shall be made based on the best interest of the child. In taking into account the child’s best interest, the court shall order a custody arrangement that permits both parents to enjoy the maximum participation possible in the life of the child consistent with the factors outlined in the law.
  • The strength, nature, and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent, including whether one parent has performed the majority of parenting responsibilities relating to the child’s daily needs.
  • Each parent’s or caregiver’s past and potential for future performance of parenting responsibilities, including the willingness and ability of each of the parents and caregivers to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and both of the child’s parents.
  • The court will consider the likelihood of each parent and caregiver to honor and facilitate court-ordered parenting arrangements and rights. The court shall further consider any history of either parent or caregiver denying parenting time to either parent in violation of a court order.
  • Refusal to attend a court-ordered parent education seminar may be considered by the court as a lack of good faith effort in these proceedings.
  • The disposition of each parent to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, education, and other necessary care
  •  The degree to which a parent has been the primary caregiver, defined as the parent who has taken the greater responsibility for performing parental responsibilities.
  • The love, affection, and emotional ties existing between each parent and the child.
  • The emotional needs and developmental level of the child.
  • The moral, physical, mental, and emotional fitness of each parent as it relates to their ability to parent the child.
  • The child’s interaction and interrelationships with siblings, other relatives and step-relatives, mentors, and involvement with the child’s physical surroundings, school, or other significant activities.
  • The importance of continuity in the child’s life and the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment.
  • Evidence of physical or emotional abuse to the child, the other parent, or to any other person. The court shall, where appropriate, refer any abuse issues to juvenile court for further proceedings.
  • The character and behavior of any other person who resides in or frequents the home of a parent and such person’s interactions with the child
  • The child’s preference of the child if 12 years of age or older. The preference of older children should usually be given greater weight than those of younger children. The court may hear the preference of a younger child upon request.
  • Each parent’s employment schedule.
  • Any other factors deemed relevant by the court.

Read More:  The Ultimate Divorce Checklist: The Information You Need to Prepare for Divorce

Can an abusive parent get custody in Tennessee?

Possibly, but not likely.  Tennessee courts make a presumption that a parent of this nature will not provide a safe environment for a child.  However, sometimes a parent may have their parental rights terminated, and the abusive parent has fully and satisfactorily completed a regimented treatment or counseling program. When this happens, an abusive parent can become rehabilitated through adequate counseling and treatment with a mental health professional, which must be documented.

What happens if the parents are not married?

The mother is awarded sole custody rights until parentage can be established by executing an agreement or acknowledgment, court order, or confirming paternity using a DNA test.

After paternity is proven, fathers can assert their legal parental rights, which include custody or parenting time if the couple lives apart.

What is Tennessee’s Best Interests of the Child Standard?

All Tennessee child custody decisions are based on the child’s best interests.  What the parents want or desire is secondary to the best possible outcome for the child.

Courts will consider the child’s happiness, security, mental health, physical and emotional development, and other similar factors when employing this standard.  Parents should also create a parenting plan with this as the primary focus.

Courts use the factors above but do not use a single factor to reach a best-interest arrangement.  Each case is decided individually, and the court has broad discretion to determine what is best.

If a child is 12 years or older, a parent can request the court consider the child’s preference in a contested child custody matter. When the child is under 12, the court may hear and consider the child’s wishes.  This evidence is advisory only.  The judge will have the final say and not the child.  Also, Tennessee judges do not look favorably upon a child being manipulated, coerced, or coached by a parent.

Read More:  What to Say (and Not to Say) to Your Children in a Divorce

What to Know About Parenting Plans

Tennessee permanent parenting plans became a requirement in 2001, and since that time, they must be completed on a particular form issued by the Supreme Court of Tennessee.

Parenting plans are detailed legal documents allocate responsibilities between parents, including final decision-making authority, parenting time, where the children will live, and allocate child support by attaching child support worksheets.

Divorcing Tennessee parents must attend a four-hour parenting class and enter a parenting plan with the court to qualify for a divorce. If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan by themselves, they must go to mediation and make a good-faith effort to agree on a parenting plan before the court hears their divorce case.

Specific elements of a Tennessee parenting plan should include:

  • Physical custody details, including the number of overnight visits for each parent.
  • Legal custody and how those responsibilities are allocated between parents.
  • Holiday and school break schedules
  • Vacation and travel approval and advance notifications
  • How will a child communicate with both parents
  • How is communication between parents handled?
  • Contact with other family members and friends
  • How are tuition, medical costs, school activities, hobbies, and recreational activities expenses handled?
  • Child support payment amounts and recourse if a parent falls behind.
  • The manner of exchanging children, including when, where, and time of day
  • Transporting children for visitation and other necessary movements
  • Access to records and information
  • Children’s use of technology and online activities
  • How to address child discipline and mental health issues
  • Guidelines when a new partner is involved
  • Grooming and dress guidelines (extreme haircuts, make-up, etc.)
  • Drinking or drug use in the presence of the children

How Do I Modify a Tennessee Custody or Visitation Order?

To modify custody after a Tennessee divorce, there must first be a material change of circumstances that affects the child’s well-being. Tennessee child custody law lists certain events and circumstances that can be considered a change of circumstances. These can include a parent moving away due to a job change, health issues, a job loss, domestic or drug abuse, or other similar conditions.

Either parent can petition the court for a change.  If parents agree that a change is beneficial, then the judge will review the request and determine if it meets the child’s best interests.

Read More:  How to Prepare for a Divorce Hearing

Tennessee Child Custody FAQs

If I have child custody in Tennessee, will I receive child support?

In most situations, the primary residential parent will receive child support from the alternative residential parent unless each parent’s income does not allow for a support award.

What is a guardian ad litem?

A guardian ad litem is usually a licensed attorney appointed by the court to represent and advocate for the best interests of a child in a contested custody case.  The role performed by a GAL may be specific to the judge and the circumstances of the case.  Parents can ask that GAL be appointed, or courts can decide based on what they think is best for the child.

Do grandparents have custody rights in Tennessee?

Sometimes, only when parental rights are terminated or severely restricted by a court. Grandparents can petition the court when one or both parents are unfit, are physically abusive, or pose a substantial risk of harm to the child.

A grandparent can be awarded visitation rights under Tennessee child custody law if they have an established relationship with the grandchildren but have been denied all visitation access.

What are the custody laws for moving out of state?

When a parent wants to move out of state with a child, it is called a move-away or relocation case.

Specific and timely notice of the move must be given to the other parent well in advance so the other parent can file a court action to block the move.

If a parent plans to move more than 100 miles, they must notify the other parent 60 days prior to the move. The notice must include the following:

  • A statement of the intent to move
  • The address of the new location
  • The reasons for the relocation
  • A statement that the other parent may object to the move within 30 days

If the non-moving parent does not object, the Tennessee parent can move away with the child. If the non-moving parent does object, when the moving parent has more than roughly equal time with the child and complies with the Tennessee Relocation Statute, and if the move is not motivated by vindictiveness and is in the child’s best interest, then the court should permit it.

With equal parenting time, moving away over the other parent’s objection will cause the court to apply a series of tests and consider many factors.

Can a parent refuse visitation if child support is not paid?

No. Under Tennessee child custody law, a primary residential parent may not deny visitation for non-payment of child support. Either parent cannot restrict court-ordered visitation without a court order. Visitation, child support, and alimony are entirely different legal issues.

There are other enforcement options to collect child support, such as filing a petition for contempt, canceling state-issued licenses, or requiring the non-paying parent to perform community service.

Also, you cannot stop paying child support if the custodial parent won’t let you see your children.

Enforcement of parenting time rights begins by requesting mediation or filing a petition seeking enforcement of such rights. Persistent violations of a court-ordered right to parenting time can be grounds for a change of primary residential parent.

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