Custody is an outdated word in Tennessee divorce cases, but is convenient short-hand for the modern term “primary residential parent.” In a divorce case, one parent may be designated the PRP and oftentimes that parent gets the final word on many child-rearing decisions like education, healthcare and after school activities. If the parents cannot agree on who will be the PRP, the court will decide it for them. You will need an experienced divorce or "child custody" lawyer to fight this battle for you given the stakes involved. Even if you do not want to be the PRP, a divorce lawyer can help you get a parenting plan that sets a reasonable visitation schedule and allows you to remain involved in your children’s lives.
Under Tennessee law, any divorce decree granting a divorce where minor children are involved must include a permanent parenting plan (PPP). The PPP should take into account the child's changing needs as he/she grows, delegate the responsibilities of each parent, minimize the child's exposure to parental conflict and set a dispute resolution process the parties must complete before future, non-emergency, child custody issues are brought before the court. The PPP must also set a residential schedule for the child and, even if parenting time is split 50/50, one parent may have to be designated the PRP. An experienced child custody attorney will likely have seen many parenting situations similar to yours and can offer sound guidance on a PPP that works for you and your child and will be accepted by the court.
If the parties cannot reach an agreement on the PPP, the court will conduct a comparative analysis of the parents in establishing a residential schedule. The overriding goal of the court is to further the best interest of the child. Another important, but secondary, goal is maximizing the parents' participation in their child's life. The Tennessee Code sets out fourteen factors for the court to consider when making the analysis. The statute also authorizes the court to consider any other factor it deems relevant. One factor that is often given considerable weight by the courts is the love, affection and emotional ties that exist between the child and the parent. Continuity and stability are also important. The child's preference is usually not a factor unless the child is at least 12 years old.
There may also be factors the court is required to consider in limiting parenting time or setting conditions for parenting time. A past history of neglecting parenting duties, substance abuse, abuse of the child or criminal convictions are just some of these factors. The court may also take special precautions with the PPP if a parent is closely associated with someone who might pose a risk of harm to the child. Your child custody lawyer can help ensure steps are taken to protect your child if there is cause for concern when your ex-spouse exercises parenting time.
It is not unusual for a PPP to become unworkable as time goes on. Many life changes are unpredicatable and cannot be accounted for in the PPP. Examples would include special academic needs of the child, a parent becoming disabled or changing employment demands on a parent. If the parents cannot agree to a new PPP, a petition for modification must be filed with the court. Special procedures must also be followed if a parent wants to re-locate to a distant area. There are plenty of minefields for the unwary which makes it important to get the help of a child custody lawyer to guide you through these matters. Your lawyer will be able to explain the process and advise you on the applicable law.
Child custody and visitation issues may not be limited to parents. Tennessee law also establishes visitation rights for grandparents in specific circumstances. One common circumstance is when a parent dies and that parent's parents want to maintain a relationship with the child but are being obstructed by the surviving parent. If the court determines there will be "substantial harm" to the child without grandparent visitation and visitation would serve the best interests of the child, a grandparent visitation schedule can be ordered.