The Tennessee Supreme Court has issued an opinion clarifying the burden of proof in a parental relocation case with unequal parenting time. Aragon v. Aragon, 2017WL1021962 (Tenn., Mar. 16, 2017).
Father and Mother were divorced in Montgomery County after a four year marriage that produced one daughter. The parenting plan called for a 50/50 split on parenting time, but due to work obligations the parties agreed father became the parent spending significantly more time with the child.
Father was offered a nursing job in Arizona two years after the divorce and notified mother of his intent to relocate. Mother resisted the relocation so father filed a petition with the court to obtain permission for the move. Father stated his "reasonable purpose" for making the move was a job paying a higher wage than he could earn in Tennessee. He asserted the "best interest" of his daughter would be advanced because he had several family members in Arizona to assist with her upbringing. Father proposed a revised parenting plan that reduced mother's parenting time to roughly 25 percent.
The trial was held a few months after the petition was filed. Father admitted he did not pursue job opportunities in the Montgomery County area. He also admitted his employment history before and during nursing school had been inconsistent. Mother claimed there had been an understanding with father he would remain in Middle Tennessee after nursing school.
Father called numerous witnesses at trial, including his parents (to verify the support system in Arizona), a nursing school administrator and instructor (to verify the state of the job market and father's work ethic and devotion to his daughter) and general character witnesses. The trial court denied the father's petition and stated the basis for the ruling was that there was no proof Arizona offered better job opportunities than Tennessee. It was also troubled by the alleged deal between the parties that father would stay in Middle Tennessee after his schooling. The court concluded the reason for the move was "rational" but "not reasonable under all the circumstances." The court then designated mother the primary residential parent, reduced father's parenting time to 80 days and ordered father to pay child support.
After a trip to the Court of Appeals and remand back to the trial court, the case was appealed again and made its way to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court. The Court summarized the case law that led to the passage of Tennessee's parental relocation statute (Section 36-6-108) about 20 years ago and made the point it was considering a case with unequal parenting time where the parent wanting to relocate had the child the majority of the time. In these situations, there is a presumption in the statute the relocation should be allowed. The burden to show the proposed move did not have a "reasonable purpose" lies with the resisting party. Alternatively, the resisting party party can block the move by proving it would cause serious harm to the child or is being done by the relocating parent for a vindictive purpose. In cases involving equal parenting time, the statute does not create a presumption for or against the move.
The Court then turned to the phrase "reasonable purpose" and concluded the trial court and Court of Appeals had expanded the statutory language beyond what the General Assembly intended. The Court stated the phrase should be given its ordinary meaning and, perhaps more importantly, negated any argument that the loss of parenting time for the non-relocating parent should be a significant consideration.
The Court held father had stated a reasonable purpose for the move and mother failed to prove any grounds allowing her to block it under the statute. Since she did not carry her burden of proof on this issue, the Court did not need to address whether the move was in the best interest of the daughter. Father was designated the primary residential parent and allowed to move his daughter to Arizona.
Conclusion: The opinion's recitation of relocation cases coming out of the courts before passage of the statute emphasized the unpredicatable state of the law. These matters were largely left to the trial courts to craft their own balancing tests. The Court, after reviewing the legislative history, concluded a strict, literal interpretation of the statute should be consistently applied in order to bring more certainty to relocation cases. If both parents are good parents with the best intentions for their child, resisting the move of a parent with the majority of parenting time is a battle up a steep hill.