How should a court evaluate a custody arrangement when one parent seeks to move the children away from the other parent after the finalization of their divorce in Tennessee? The Tennessee Court of Appeals was faced with such a situation, and on June 8th delivered its opinion in In re Iyana R.W. No. E2010-00114-COA-R3-JV (Tenn. Ct. App. 2011).
In this case, the mother was the primary residential parent ("PRP") of a ten-year-old daughter. The mother also spent significantly more time with the daughter than the father did as he visited every other weekend. The mother eventually remarried a man in the military who was stationed in Colorado. She wished to relocate there with her daughter and sent a letter to the child's father notifying him of her plan to move. She also filed a Plan to Modify Visitation with the court. The father then filed a Petition to Change Custody because he opposed the move.
The trial court ultimately granted the father's Petition and he became the child's PRP. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding that the trial court did not apply the correct standard for determining whether the mother should be allowed to relocate with her daughter. The Court relied on Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108(d), which applies when a parent who is spending more time with the child than the other parent wishes to relocate. The statute states that the parent spending more time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds one of three exceptions apply: first, the relocation does not have a reasonable purpose; second, the relocation would pose a specific threat of harm to the child; third, the motive for relocating is vindictive, meaning that the reason one parent wants to move is to interfere with the visitation rights of the other parent.
The parent opposing relocation can petition the court to prevent the child's relocation. However, it will be up to that parent to prove that one of the three exceptions applies. If one of those exceptions applies, only then is the court to consider whether relocating is in the best interests of the child.
In Iyana R.W., the trial court erred in not applying the statutory requirements. Instead, the trial court simply considered whether the move would constitute "a substantial and material change in circumstances." The Court of Appeals determined that because the purpose of the move was reasonable - so the mother could live with her new husband - and because there was no evidence that the other exceptions applied, the mother and child should be allowed to move.
In such a case, it is important for all the parties involved to know the legal standards under which a court will evaluate relocation of a minor child and what each parent will be responsible to prove.