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Child's Preference Not A Deciding Factor in Tennessee Custody Decisions

October 11, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In the case titled Carter v. Carter, No. M2013-00193-COA-R3-CV Slip Copy, 2013 WL 5568360 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 7, 2013) Knoxville divorce attorneys learn how much bearing a minor child's preference has on the court in regards to modification of a parenting plan and when it is appropriate to disqualify an attorney from representation in a matter.

Facts

The parties divorced in 2006. Mother was named the primary residential parent ("PRP"), with Father awarded 85 days of parenting time per year. In July 2009 Mother filed a petition to modify child support, and then filed a notice of appeal of the trial court's findings on the matter in February 2012. However, just prior to filing the notice of appeal, she filed a motion to modify parenting time alleging a material change in circumstances.

In her petition to modify the parenting plan, Mother alleged that the parenting schedule (which gave Father Tuesdays and every other weekend) "inappropriately interfere[d] with the school, extracurricular and social activities in which the minor child of the parties engage[d] and/or wishe[d] to engage in at [that] time."

The attorney that filed Mother's petition to modify was her new husband. Father filed a motion to disqualify him as counsel for "any matter related to the modification of the parties' permanent parenting plan." The trial court agreed with Father and, subsequently, entered an order ruling that, "[Mother's attorney] shall be disqualified from representing [Mother] in any pending or new matters in this case." After the trial court disqualified Mother's counsel, a hearing was held on her petition to modify the parenting plan. The trial court ruled that Father's Tuesday night parenting time be eliminated. Mother filed a motion to alter or amend the trial court's order, but it was denied. She immediately appealed.

Analysis

On appeal, Mother averred that the trial court erred in refusing to allow the parties' 16-year-old daughter the ability to determine when and whether she would have parenting time with Father and in disqualifying her new husband as her counsel in the petition to modify and any new filings in the matter.

Trial courts have broad discretion in regards to parenting arrangements due to the unique circumstances in each case. See Eldridge v. Eldridge, 42 W.W.3d 82, 85 (Tenn. 2001); Chaffin v. Ellis, 211 S.W.3d 264, 286 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006). An abuse of discretion occurs "only when the trial court's ruling falls outside the spectrum of rulings that might reasonably result from an application of the correct legal standards to the evidence found in the record." Id. at 88.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-101(a)(2)(C) states that with respect to a change in parenting time (but not the PRP), "[a] material change of circumstance does not require a showing of a substantial risk of harm to the child." Instead, it "may include, but is not limited to, significant changes in the needs of the child over time, which may include changes relating to age; significant changes in the parent's living or working condition[s] that significantly affect parenting; failure to adhere to the parenting plan; or other circumstances making a change in the residential parenting time in the best interest of the child." Per Rose v. Lashlee, No. M2005-00361-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 2390980 at *2 n.3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2006), the threshold to prove a material change of circumstances requires showing the court that the current plan is not working for the parties.

Whether this case had a material change of circumstances warranting a modification of the parenting plan was not an issue before the appellate court. However, Mother averred that the trial court erred in disallowing the minor child to determine when and how she will spend parenting time with Father as this was not in the best interest of the child. While Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-404(14) does allow a child that is age 12 or older to express their preference regarding parenting time to the court, there is no statute or precedent that gives a minor child discretion to determine when he or she will or will not see a parent. A child's preference is one of many factors the trial court may consider. Therefore the trial court's ruling is affirmed.

The next issue before the court was to determine if the trial court erred in disqualifying Mother's husband as her counsel in the petition to modify hearing and any subsequent filings in the matter. Per Clinard v. Blackwood, 46 S.W.3d 177, 182 (Tenn. 2001), an abuse of discretion standard is used by the appellate court when reviewing a trial court's decision to disqualify an attorney.

In the trial court's order disqualifying Mother's husband as counsel, it cited Rule 3.7 of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct. This rule provides that a "lawyer shall not act as an advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness..." Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 8, RPC 3.7. Father's counsel notified the trial court that he did intend to call Mother's husband as a fact witness in the modification matter. In her appeal, Mother pointed out that her husband/counsel was never called or deposed as a witness. The appellate court found this argument to be invalid, as the rule does not require the attorney to be called as a witness; it simply requires it to be shown that he was likely to be a necessary witness.

The trial court did not simply disqualify Mother's new husband from representing her in the modification hearing. In its ruling it stated that he was also disqualified from representing her in any "new matters in the case." The appellate court found this to be an abuse of the trial court's discretion, because disqualification of counsel must be determined based on the specific matters being litigated in a case at that time, and not future matters.

Conclusion

The appellate court affirmed the trial court's ruling in regards to the modification of the parenting plan. It also affirmed the trial court's ruling disqualifying Mother's new husband from acting as her counsel in the modification proceeding. However, the appellate court reversed the trial court's ruling disqualifying Mother's husband as counsel in any "new matters in the case," as that will need to be determined as the issues arise.