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Modification of Child Custody: The Evolving “Material Change in Circumstances” Standard

On Behalf of | Mar 24, 2014 | Family Law

In any Tennessee divorce proceeding where the custody of a minor child or children is at issue, the court must make a custody determination based upon the best interest of the child. With the child’s best interest as the paramount consideration, the court “shall order a custody arrangement that permits both parents to enjoy the maximum participation possible in the life of the child” consistent with ten factors set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-106(a) (1) – (10). Once a child custody determination is set forth in a permanent parenting plan entered by the court, the parties are required to comply with the plan unless and until it is modified as permitted by law. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-405.

Jennifer L. Gower

Frequently, over the passage of time and for any number of reasons, parties find that their  permanent parenting plan is no longer satisfactory and decide to seek modification of the custody arrangement or residential parenting schedule. However, before the court will consider whether the modification is in the best interest of the child, the petitioner has to demonstrate a “material change in circumstances” necessitating the modification. Pursuant to statute, a material change in circumstances may include, but is not limited to the following:

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 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.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-101.

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently addressed the creation and evolution of the material changes in circumstances standard in the case of Armbrister v. Armbrister, 414 S.W.3d 685 (Tenn. 2013). In Armbrister, the Court held that a parent does not have to prove that the change in circumstances was not anticipated at the time of the initial parenting agreement. Ultimately, Tennessee courts interpreting and applying the standard in recent years have acknowledged that changes in the legislation have resulted in a more flexible legal standard and a “very low threshold for establishing a material change in circumstances.” Id. at 703.

The issues involved in a child custody determination or modification are personal and unique to each individual situation. It is important to be aware of the evolving legal standards regarding custody determinations in Tennessee before deciding the best approach for your individual case. The family law attorneys at Batson Nolan have significant experience in handling child custody cases. For additional general information regarding child custody issues in Tennessee or to discuss your specific circumstances please feel free to email or call one of our child custody attorneys.

By Jennifer L. Gower