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Tennessee Appellate Court Vacates Juvenile Court Decision Due to Absence of Best Interest Analysis

Tennessee Appellate Court Vacates Juvenile Court Decision Due To Absence Of Best Interest Analysis

In order to modify a permanent parenting plan to change the primary residential parent (i.e. custody), Tennessee courts must apply a two-part analysis: The courts must first determine if a material change of circumstances has occurred since the prior court order and then the court applies the ‘best interest’ factors laid out under Tennessee Code Annotated 36-6-101(a)(2)(B). As to what constitutes a material change of circumstance in the context of a custody change:

If the issue before the court is a modification of the court’s prior decree pertaining to custody, the petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence a material change in circumstance. A material change of circumstance does not require a showing of a substantial risk of harm to the child. A material change of circumstance may include, but is not limited to, failures to adhere to the parenting plan or an order of custody and visitation or circumstances that make the parenting plan no longer in the best interest of the child.

The facts of the Charles W. Hendricks v. Lori A. Smith case are Charles W. Hendricks (“Father”) and Lori A. Smith (“Mother”) entered into an agreed permanent parenting plan concerning their two minor children (“the Children”). Less than two weeks after entry of the plan, the Father filed a motion for custody of the Children in the Juvenile Court for Hamilton County alleging that the parenting plan was fraudulent due to the Mother not disclosing that she worked as a licensed prostitute in Nevada. The Magistrate found a material change in circumstances and that it was in the best interest of the Children for the Father to have custody. The Mother appealed to the Juvenile Court Judge. After a trial, the Juvenile Court Judge found a material change in circumstances based on the Mother’s having worked as a prostitute and her having concealed that fact, as well as Mother’s hostility to Father and the Children’s stepmother. The Juvenile Court Judge entered a permanent parenting plan designating the Father as primary residential parent of the Children. The Mother appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals at Knoxville raising only one issue — that the Juvenile Court Judge erred in awarding custody of the Children to the Father.

The Appellate Court did find that there was a material change in the circumstances of the children because of the Mother’s deceit, the Mother’s occupation as a prostitute, and the Mother’s hostility toward Father and his wife. However, the Court found no best interest analysis from the Juvenile Court. The Court went on to state the following:

“Without such best interest findings and conclusions, this court is left to wonder on what basis the court reached its ultimate decision. In this case, the trial court failed to make any findings regarding the best interest of the child. Best interests, however, is the paramount consideration, the pole star, the alpha and omega, of any child custody determination. Without findings indicating that the trial court made a best interest analysis in refusing to allow the child to relocate with Father and subsequently awarding custody, and the majority of parenting time, to Mother, the trial court did not apply the correct legal standards to the evidence found in the record.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the Juvenile Court’s judgment and remanded this case for the Juvenile Court to enter a permanent parenting plan after considering all relevant factors and making a best interest analysis. The Court declined to render any decision regarding whether the Juvenile Court erred in finding a material change in circumstances.

There are many things that may be material to you but it may or may not rise to the level of a material change in circumstances according to the law. If you think you have experienced a material change of circumstances that has impacted your children you should seek the services of an experienced family law attorney. Contact Jim Widrig or any of the attorneys at Widrig Law PLLC to schedule a consultation. Our phone number is 615-417-7800.

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